Knowledge - 21 July 2021 | By TermsHub
Updated at: 29 November 2021
Website Tracking: Why and How They Do It [+ Tips to Stop Them]
Web anonymity is very hard to attain these days. This is due to a variety of factors. Unfortunately, it is mostly all about for the sake of advertising or how major internet corporations can make money out of our web-surfing habits. In this article, we will discuss the entirety of why web tracking is happening, what it is used for, and how you can protect yourself from such exploitation.
What Is Website Tracking?
In simple terms, tracking user activity by keeping tabs on the websites they visit and the behavioral patterns that the user is establishing on those sites. Most web admins, online businesses, and internet entities perform such a technique because they want to make the most out of visitors to their sites.
Frequently, websites collect data from users like you: your email address, IP address, and browsing habits. If they keep tabs on you that way, they can remember who you are and put that data for commercial use. This would be easier for them to show you the right kinds of ads based on your likes and lifestyle preferences.
Web tracking falls under 2 categories: first party and third party. The former is mainly about enhancing the user experience. For example, if they can remember who you are, you won’t have to key in your username and password every time you visit their site.
Furthermore, it also allows the site to remember the settings you prefer when browsing through their menus and sub-pages. As a result, reading, viewing, and interacting inside their halls will be much easier. It could also be a way for them to improve the functionality of their site and the application software that they’re manufacturing.
Third-party tracking, on the other hand, is about advertising some products or services to you. For example, based on your browsing and clicking habits online, web companies will show you some products on the sidebars of the pages you’re visiting or in the middle of the articles you’re reading. By doing such a targeted form of advertising, they can have a greater chance of making sales and gaining some profit from the site visitors.
Why Do Websites Track Users?
Most websites are made for commercial purposes. That is a fact. For that reason, site owners utilize user-tracking techniques to convert user activity into sales of any product or service that their website can bring.
One of the factors that website owners look into is the analytics that their sites are showing. Having high analytics means higher visibility. This leads to a more significant earning potential. To monitor their site’s performance, they have to keep track of how many users have visited them, and the best way to do that is to figure out how many IP addresses are flocking in to their online portals.
As stated above, advertising today is done in a more targeted approach. Thus, ads will only appear according to the things you like and the most interesting things. For instance, if you key in “fashion jeans” in the search bar of Google, you will be given links and ad boxes that pertain to the most popular brands of jeans.
Even if you don’t type in search words or commercial phrases, major online businesses will still connect your browsing patterns to any product that might be related to whatever field of interest you are into. Knowing such information, the products you might buy or wish to have will be visible to you.
So many ads today are crafted and projected in a very “subliminal way.” Some ads appear to be very helpful to you, like they are resources that can solve your problems. Most internet marketers today hire people that are so good at making ads that appear like they’re not ads at all. This is one of the huge advantages of targeted advertising.
Some minor reasons for web tracking happen for usability testing purposes. For example, some web and app designers can only create the best digital products to figure out how users would respond to a particular button, menu, or software component. However, if software and web designers can access such data, they will design the next best cutting-edge app technologies.
How Do Websites Track Users?
Tracking users online is a very complex field of science in itself. The following methods are the most commonly used:
IP Addressing and Email Subscription
As mentioned earlier, websites keep tabs on their visitors’ IP addresses so they will be remembered. Just like in real-world businesses where the most loyal patrons are remembered by sales personnel and front desk officers, online portals do it as well so it will be easier for them to deliver the same services that those customers are so fond of during their first few visits.
Some websites use pop-ups to urge you to subscribe to their site highly. So whenever they have newly-published content, you will be notified via email or via some auto-notifier in your browser. This technique increases their page views, which in effect, increases their advertising points and leads.
Because your IP address and email are primarily the most important information you can give away, they are the most important commodities for internet marketers. So, naturally, they will do their best to harvest them from their users.
Another method of remembering a particular user is through cookies. These are small programs that are stored in a certain computer so that the browsing and viewing preferences of a user will be remembered. This method will be more convenient for the user because the settings during the previous visit will be loaded on the screen automatically.
To further enhance user experience, another technique called browser fingerprinting is also included. In this method, your time zone, language preference, and geographical information are stored so they can be used to identify you. Again, Facebook and all social media sites are the most notable users of this.
This means that wherever you are on the planet, they can still locate you and will often show to your friends’ timelines where you are at a particular moment when you make a post or upload a photo. This is a serious privacy issue. However, it is also a means of avoiding fraud and online deception.
Installing Web Beacons
Just like their real-world counterparts, beacons in web technology serve as a tracking guide for websites. They are embedded into certain web pages so that the webmasters can track who has viewed those pages, how long they’ve been viewed, or if they’ve been copied or linked to other pages.
Web beacons could appear as buttons, photos, animated elements, or just transparent objects that are invisible to the users. They are usually employed as third-party tracking objects to monitor site analytics. For example, Google and other small-time internet companies use this technique to assess a site’s performance.
For instance, a website is declared as something that has a high bounce rate if the beacons installed on it detect that most users close the browser window after a few seconds of opening it. Conversely, Google would recommend those pages at the top of the search queries if the beacons indicate that they stay long enough to view them.
As a type of web beacon, a tracking pixel is used to implement targeted advertising. For example, whenever a user shows interest in a particular product by hovering through it or clicking on it, that same product could also appear on another website that the user may visit.
How the exact kind of ad appears to follow a user persistently is due to tracking pixels. This advertising technique is achieved by giving a unique identifier to such an ad box that remembers a certain IP address or browser cookie too.
So whenever the user of that IP visits other sites, the ad box or the pixel follows as well. Many web marketers successfully implement this marketing technique because major online companies collaborate with each other.
Today, even those that are not digital are utilizing online advertising to promote their products. In addition, most of them are partnering with giant internet companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Yahoo.
As they do so, their products will be promoted via ad boxes that those companies will show to countless people who are browsing the web every day. Those pixel boxes are programmed to keep track of users’ habits to follow them anywhere on the internet literally. This might sound very intrusive, but then most people wouldn’t care, and web businesses are taking advantage of it.
Website Tracking and Global Privacy Regulations
Because web tracking appears invasive and intrusive from the perspective of web users, legal issues are highly involved in its implementation. Some people view web tracking to be illegal and would prefer it that way. However, governments all over the world have their ways of legalizing it. To make web tracking legal, the law issues provisions and mandates to web businesses.
The Importance of Privacy Policies
Privacy policies are required by any government regardless of where you are, and it is one of the most crucial elements that any commercial website must comply with. Doing otherwise would be a massive mistake on your part if you are someone who hopes to make money out of advertising in your blog.
To regulate web tracking usage, some geographical areas are implementing their own rules regarding it. For instance, the European Union has the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). Web experts declare it as the strictest online privacy and security on the planet.
GDPR imposes obligations and technicalities that you need to adhere to if you wish to gain viewership or collect online data from your viewers. If you are a website owner residing within the European boundaries, you have to abide by its rules. Otherwise, monetizing your site or gaining popularity from it would be very painstaking, if not pointless.
GDPR is implemented based on the following 7 core principles:
- Lawfulness, fairness, and transparency – anything you publish must be following European laws. Furthermore, your data collection must always be fair and transparent to your readers.
- Purpose limitation – Your objectives for publishing your site and your content must be straightforward and must be limited only to your company’s main goals.
- Data minimization – The amount of information you will give and collect must be kept minimal as to provide only what is useful and meaningful to the users.
- Accuracy – Inaccurate information will bring you very close to being shut down or getting banned. Unfortunately, the internet is overstuffed with erroneous information already, and GDPR does its best to help neutralize that problem.
- Storage limitation – The data you will keep in your sites’ servers will be limited only to what’s truly necessary. Going beyond or overboard will get you blacklisted.
- Integrity and confidentiality – There are guidelines to what you will give away and keep in secrecy. Just because you are in possession of your users’ data doesn’t make you entitled to give it away whenever you will.
- Accountability – You will be held liable and accountable for whatever information you publish, store, and release. The information you are keeping should not be treated as some commodity that you can use at will for personal or financial gain.
Those are only the basic tenets of the GDPR. They may appear simple and easy to do, but European web publishers can attest to the difficulty of upholding the rules stated therein. Nevertheless, Europe is where the internet officially started. Regulating bodies like the GDPR are one of the most prominent authorities that keep online forces in check, so they won’t resort to abuse of power or extreme shows of force.
Another similar regulating body is the California Consumer Privacy Act of the US. It is a provision that focuses on companies within the California area with annual revenue of $25 million. Furthermore, all companies that keep digital records of more than 50,000 people and gain half of their revenue from selling data online should also conform to the CCPA guidelines.
The core idea behind CCPA is that California residents must have the right to know exactly what data from them is being kept and to whom those data are sold. In addition, the residents can also say no if they do not want their data to be passed on to other entities as well. In some cases, the residents may also request a deletion of their data to any company that keeps them.
GDPR and CCPA are among the most popular online regulating bodies in existence. Because of their popularity, other countries follow the same patterns to bring about a much safer online experience for internet users.
Though such legal provisions are implemented, privacy issues around the web are still among those “very hard to beat” problems that the law still wrestles with relentlessly. Moreover, because internet rules greatly vary from country to country, having a unified cyberspace law is, as of the moment, impossible to implement.
How to Stop Your Online Behavior from Being Tracked
Since it is clear to you already that online privacy is a severe matter, you might begin to wonder and ask if there’s a way to get around to it. At some level, there are certain methods by which you can avoid being tracked… though there are still aspects of it that you still can’t get away from.
Opt-Out or Do Not Track Feature
This is one of the most notable mandates by internet laws that web publishers must follow. It is usually presented as a checkbox that users can check or uncheck. It is a means for the user to let the site admin know that he doesn’t want to get notified by upcoming updates or modifications.
The user can also be exempted from giving his email or any contact information by choosing to opt-out. It could also be a means of choosing not to install cookies on your computer that might show some targeted ads or specific links to some online locations.
Some browsers use a Do Not Track HyperText Transfer Protocol (HTTP) header that disables a website’s user-tracking features. This prevents tracking pixels, web beacons, and cookies from being stored in the computer, making a certain computer immune to web tracking.
Configuring Your Cookie Settings
One of the most obvious ways of preventing websites from tracking your presence is by changing some of your web browser’s settings. For example, by choosing the “disable cookies” setting of your browser, your computer will prevent sites from obtaining cookie-related data from you.
Of course, there’s a downside to this. It would mean you will need to do some keying in of your usernames, passwords, and some additional settings whenever you visit your favorite sites. It would be such a hassle to perform such chores, but it can provide you with the privacy you might need.
To make it easier for you, you may choose to periodically delete cookies or assign your computer to delete them at a certain time of your choosing. There are so many free apps and utilities that are downloadable from the internet that you can use to schedule such a task.
Even if you don’t think about it, the app will do the deleting for you in a schedule you prefer. Most operating systems are already equipped with such a utility. For instance, Microsoft’s Windows has a maintenance utility that can erase unwanted files automatically. Included in these unwanted files are internet cookies.
Using Secure Browsers
The cool thing about this method is that almost all web browsers are equipped with features that can make your web surfing habits very safe and secure. In Google Chrome, for instance, there is the ever-famous “incognito window” in which you will be ushered into an online session that’s automatically forgotten by your computer once you close that window.
Using the feature, the settings you used, and the interactions you did in any of those incognito windows will not be stored or remembered in any way. Thus, you will be guaranteed a secure online session even if you forget to log out or whenever you don’t get the chance to do so when the computer you’re using shuts down unpredictably.
Thankfully, not only Google Chrome has it. The “new private window” feature in Firefox and other famous browsers is included, which works the same as Chrome’s incognito feature. In almost any web browser imaginable, it is always included by the designers that programmed them.
Using Virtual Private Networks
Using a VPN utility, a user can mask their IP address by appearing in another country. Today’s VPN apps are so easy to obtain that they can be used already in a matter of minutes. By installing them as an add-on to a web browser such as Google Chrome, the user can choose a country to connect to, and in a matter of seconds, he can appear to be virtually present in that country he chooses.
Such a method is recommended or even required by some online companies that hire employees from other countries. For instance, some clients of outsourcing companies require that the ones who must perform the services they demand should come from English-speaking countries only.
So whenever Asian employees work for those companies, they will change their VPN settings into “US-based” and nobody will ever suspect that they’re not Americans. But, of course, there are plenty of deception tactics included in the usage of VPN. Still, many online companies require it, and many netizens are enjoying such a feature.
Using TOR and Other Similar Browsers
Web browsing experts who prefer to have their IP addresses masked at all times recommend using The Onion Router browser or known as TOR. Built around the Firefox framework, it is very popular among dark web users. By opening TOR, the user uses a web browser that is a VPN system in its entirety. He can then surf the web with complete anonymity without installing a separate VPN app.
While a VPN app gives you the option of choosing a particular country to connect to, Tor doesn’t give you an actual fake location. Instead, it randomly chooses a virtual location for you every time you browse through it.
So in one session, the website you’re visiting could detect you as someone from China, while during the next moments, you could also appear to be somewhere in Australia, Antarctica, Europe, or somewhere else.
It is named “The Onion Router” due to its technique of metaphorically peeling off a layer of your digital identity each time you hop from one digital domain to another. With such a method, internet companies can’t figure out your exact location.
Aside from TOR, other similar web browsers can provide the same functionalities: Freenet, Tails, I2P, and Subgraph. In addition, they can be easily searched for in any search engine and be downloaded from their respective sites.
Whenever people use something heavily and patronize it a lot, capitalists and money-hungry individuals will always do their best to exploit such a scenario. Thus, the internet will always be a hotspot for never-ending exploitation… because it will always be an avenue for never-ending innovation. Knowing this, it is unlikely that the act of obtaining our personal information and selling them to the highest bidder will ever end.
Although some software advancements can minimize data exploitation and abuse, it can be said that total internet anonymity is still very hard to attain these days. This is because as long as we won’t stop using social media sites and free email services, the online companies that facilitate our accounts will always find ways to take advantage of our devotion to them.
We can’t blame them for doing so. We are enjoying the free services they’re giving. But, would it be too much to ask for a little something in return? Such a question is something that they might throw at us – if we demand total anonymity while using their services. The perfect solution for that would be to have a paid social media or email service. But then, would the general public patronize such a scheme?
Giving away a portion of our personal data seems to be the norm in this modern age, and it is doubtful that such a reality will change for us any time soon.