Analytics Marketing Privacy The Sky Is Falling

Google, Yahoo! and everyone is tracking you!

Big bad corporations everywhere are tracking your every activity online! Run for the hills!

You. I am talking to you.

When you receive an email which says “Forward this to everyone you know,” you forward it, right? I know it’s you. You want to. It’s a little shout-out to everyone you know that says “Hey, I’m here! I have the scoop on this … email that was just forwarded to me by my friend in Boise, Idaho.”

I finally convinced my mother to stop sending these to me, knowing that I will be cursed to 10 years bad luck because I didn’t forward it, and a woman in Tallahassee, Wisconson didn’t forward it and she was hit by a bus the next day and died and all. I live life on the edge.

Here’s one I received one of my mailing lists recently for home schoolers:

Received this from another list I’m on and thought you may be interested.

name removed

———- Forwarded message ———-
Date: Tue, Jan 6, 2009 at 9:30 AM
Subject: [XXXXXXXXX] Yahoo is Tracking Group Members

Someone put this on another listserv I’m on but it’s relevant to all yahoo groups:

Yahoo is Tracking Group Members

If you belong to ANY Yahoo Groups – be aware that Yahoo is now using “Web Beacons” to track every Yahoo Group user. It’s similar to cookies, but allows Yahoo to record every website and every group you visit, even when you’re not connected to Yahoo.

Look at their updated privacy statement regarding “relevant advertising” at:

Here’s the link for removing the web beacons…

In that section find “opt-out of interest-matched advertising” link that will let you “opt-out” of their snooping. Click it and then click the opt-out button on the next page.

*Note that Yahoo’s invasion of your privacy – and your ability to opt-out of it – is not user-specific. It is MACHINE specific. That means you will have to opt-out on every computer (and browser) you use.*

Please forward this to your other groups. You might complain, too, but I’m not sure if anyone is listening. I remember when they signed all users up to get spam and we had to opt out of that a few years ago.

I had to reply:

Thanks for this heads up, but I think I should at least clarify what exactly they are doing and what the ramifications of this is. I run a company which offers analytics for marketers and have a pretty detailed knowledge of what is possible, and what is not.

While my personal bias is for more privacy for individuals, I tend to be somewhat of a pragmatist in terms of online privacy issues, and assuming advertisers will act in the best interest of consumers is like assuming Winnie the Pooh won’t eat that honey in the jar on the table when you leave the room.

(Hold on, I need to dig in my pocket to give Disney a nickel for including Winnie the Pooh© in my blog entry.)

Feel free to forward this to all of your friends if you deem it relevant. (Insert smilie for sarcasm here.)

In the spirit of offering a balanced response:

  • I appreciate you encouraging people to review Privacy Policies of sites they use
  • We need to remain ever vigilant with companies who abuse our personal information
  • Thank you for bringing this type of practice to everyone’s attention.

However, my critique is:

  • Using “free” services (Yahoo!, Google, Gmail, Facebook, etc.) does not entitle you to privacy. Hence “invasion of privacy” is a misnomer. They are doing what is best for their investors, which is offering better advertising and more traffic for their advertisers.
  • This is nothing new. It’s been happening since the late nineties.

The first to do this was DoubleClick (acquired by Google later) who got into trouble with the government (Really?) for attempting to connect anonymous “cookies” with real world information (e.g. your name, your address, your email, etc.)

The way it works is that advertisers or vendors install some code (“JavaScript”) which is loaded from another domain on their site. This enables the advertising to tag you (with a Cookie) so they can track your activity. If another site uses the same advertiser (Yahoo! in your warning, for example), then Yahoo! knows it’s the same person on another site.

You are correct, opt-out is on a per-browser, per-computer basis, however, know that even without cookies advertisers can still track your activity with a reasonable amount of accuracy. (Using IP addresses and other info in the browser.)

And think of this:

  • 70% of searches originate from Google. They retain 18 months worth of your search history.
  • Any site that has “Ads by Google” (a.k.a AdSense) can be tracked back to you by Google. (Doesn’t mean they do!)
  • Any site that uses free analytics from Google can be tracked back to you by Google (formerly Urchin, now Google Analytics)
  • Google Toolbar tracks every page you view

In short, I would say that a large portion of the web and your browsing experience is tracked and monitored by Google.

Does this mean Google is watching you? Probably not. Does this mean they can? Yes! And if they did, it would probably affect their “Do No Evil” mantra, but there’s nothing to say that they aren’t tracking more and more, surreptitiously augmenting their advertising and targetting you more than they already do.

And now you’ve brought up Yahoo! which has very similar policies.

If you have any semblance that your online browsing is “private” in any way, then you are sadly mistaken. Every large media company has been tracking you (and everyone else’s activity) for a while now.

When you visit “ABC.COM” note you are redirected to “”. Likewise “” redirects to “”.

They do this because they can track you (with cookies) on all “” sites. And Disney (which owns that and many other media sites) tracks you across all of them.

The reason I bring this up is that I feel like these kinds of “the sky is falling” emails are somewhat naive, and in this case, targets Yahoo! which is very much like every other large company out there which is interested in targeting you with the most relevant advertising possible.

And if you have a problem with it, then don’t use sites which offer free services.

Pay a monthly fee to sites (Gasp!) which will protect your information because you are paying them a fee for their services.

I am sure with a “Google Search” (Oops! they know that now, too) you can find a for-pay non-advertising group management. Move your members over to it, and pay a monthly fee for ad-free and privacy protected discussions.

Of course, Yahoo!, Google, and the others have inertia on their side.

Otherwise, assume (rightly so), that any site that offers free content or free tools/services is tracking you and is making a buck one way or another from you whether you know it or not.

Yahoo! is a multi-billion dollar company which offers almost all of its services for free. Google Groups, Gmail, Yahoo! Groups, Yahoo! Mail, etc. are all free services and people use them with some semblance that they should retain some sort of rights to the information they put there and their browsing habits.

So, sure, start a petition, appeal to the marketing executives at Yahoo! and complain. Yay. It may work, you never know. But, I’m pretty sure their answer will be similar to mine: Your only option is to NOT use the site at all.

You can take the following precautions, which may limit the info they gather, but in the end, if they want to watch your browsing habits, they likely still can:

  • Best. Use Firefox or Mozilla-based browser and learn how to use AdBlock (in “Add-ons”). You can block advertising from sites and the issue becomes a non-issue. Individual sites can see your info, but big sites can’t see your activity elsewhere. Turn off the auto-suggestion feature in the search window, because that sends every keystroke you make (in the search box) to Google as well. Oh, and FireFox is largely funded by Google. Whoopsie!
  • Better. Use an anonymizing web site which deletes all logs. You talk to another computer on the internet, which then talks to the site you want to really see. This intermediary deletes all information and your browsing session information is deleted. Obviously, if you have to sign into a remote site (e.g. Yahoo! Groups) , then this doesn’t do anything at all, they know you because you tell them who you are.
  • Better. Turn off cookies altogether. This limits the amount of time they can track you accurately. Again, there are ways to keep tracking you later. And it makes using the web kind of suck a lot.
  • Good. Turn off 3rd party cookies. Safari does this by default, MS Internet Explorer you have to change your settings to “High Security”, and in FireFox you have to choose this option under “Privacy” in the Preferences window.

I’m hoping that this somewhat opens the eyes of everyone in terms of the state of the web.

All in all, I don’t think it’s as insidious as people think, most of the time they see that you are a part of a, say, “Homeschooling” group, and they then advertise things which are relevant to home schoolers. As someone who abhors most advertising in the first place, I’d rather have relevant ads than ads for things I really don’t ever think I’d need.

How many tampon ads do I need to endure in life?

At least once or twice, I’ve probably bought something from a relevant ad. But in general, being a good consumer is your best defense.

One thing I can congratulate Google and Overture (now Yahoo! Search Marketing) for, and that is bringing the quality and relevance of advertising up a notch.