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The Trouble with Trackers

5-6 min read
A brief introduction to third-party tracking on the web.
The Trouble with Trackers

The following is an extract from an email I recently sent to a client on the topic of embedding Facebook and Twtter timeline feeds on the home page of a website. In lieu of a full post, I thought I'd just 'put this here' for future reference...


A few more thoughts and links regarding embedded Facebook, Like buttons, and Twitter streams.

Here are a list of ad blockers, anti-trackers, and a great Facebook container plugin from Mozilla. I use Privacy Badger and the Facebook container.

I’d love to give you a tour of how these work and the problem they try to solve – suffice to say for now that if you’re logged into Facebook, and you don’t ‘log out’ after every session, then you’re still logged in. This means that when you visit a page with a Like button, or an embedded Facebook timeline, you’ll noticed that it appears to be ‘your’ like button (because it is, because the embed code can tell you’re still logged into Facebook and clicking on a link will go strait to your own timeline).

This is referred to as a third-party tracker. As a third-party tracker Facebook collects data about your visitors, and their visit to the website – even if they just load the page and do nothing, because they’re still logged into Facebook – and the embedded feed detects this. I don’t think this is a good, transparent, or fair practice (nor do a lot of others – hence the links above). Technically, your Google Analytics account is also a third-party tracker, but in this case it's referred to in your privacy policy, and generally speaking the data collected is anonymous.

Here’s a good overview of tracking…

Although there is now a lot of content on the home page, we try hard to keep the page loading times as short as possible – we hand roll all of our ‘widgets’, ‘menus’, and ‘panels’ (the slider feature panel the only exception). We’re not as good yet as we could be in terms of serving fast low-bandwidth content, but we try. Not everyone in the Greater Mekong Subregion (GMS) has a 4G connection, nor can they afford the data plans that might seem cheap to you and I. You may (or may not) have also noticed that our ‘Share’ buttons – for Facebook , Linked In, Twitter, Mail at the top of every post are not blocked by any of the ad blockers above. This is because we don’t use Facebook or Twitter’s source code (tracking code), and instead use a standard pop up window that opens a page in a window to a well-known share URL for each site. This also decreases page loading time by reducing data use. Privacy Badger and others will not complain about these pages because they’re not tracking visitors.

We have zero data on the conversion rate for visitors who ‘click’ on an embedded timeline, but there is a general view among inbound marketing experts that the conversion rate is very low, and that you might have better results by creating a more appealing ‘ad’-style panel that invites them to visit your Facebook or Twitter pages. At least then the visitor is in control of their data and their choice to visit these pages (visiting now as a ‘first-party’ service).

If you embed Facebook and Twitter streams, you should also in theory update your privacy policy.

If you wanted to test this we’d setup the embedded feeds and then work out how to track the number of users that click on anything in the feed, or somehow track via your Facebook account, vs. tracking the number of visitors that click on a custom ad-panel – which is easy, because we control this and we can add an event log to Google Analytics or a tag to Google Tag Manager.

If you’d still like to embed these feeds, then feel free to let me know, and we’ll do it. It’s not difficult. If you can find any other sources of data or professional opinions regarding the effectiveness of embedded feeds then please do pass them along as I’d be grateful for the information.