Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Adventures in Ghostery

Ghosty of Ghostery
Be instantly notified of all* tools tracking you as you surf the web, with the option to easily block that tracking activity.

As a result of my last digital analytics post where I wrote about Spying on Spies using various "Inspection Tools for Measure", I was reintroduced to a tool that I had yet to try called Ghostery

I heard it mentioned in the same sentence as Do Not Track, because like Do Not Track, Ghostery allows you to hide yourself from the plethora of tracking tools recording your every move. However, Ghostery provides customizability not available in any other tool, allowing you to block up to 1351 different trackers, and the list will keep growing if you opt-in to automatic updates.

Before you read another word of this post, I exhort you to download Ghostery now so you can follow along and see how it empowers users in an incredibly intuitive fashion. Sure, you can uninstall it in two seconds when we are done, but if you are interested in Digital Analytics in any form, I'll wager that you keep it.

Do you need another second to get it installed in the browser of your choice? No? Good; let us proceed.

I started off reviewing the top 13 most popular sites from a list of 50 from (which happens to have 8 tracking tools in place per Ghostery). I also looked at a handful others from the list that interested me. I'll share what I observed, and encourage you to share any additional insights in the comments below.

1. - There is no visible tracking per Ghostery, though they likely have all kinds of server-side tracking. This is likely the most amped up implementation and reporting that Google Analytics has ever seen.

Five Trackers Identified on by Ghostery
2. - I saw six ad-related tracking tools pop up in my Ghostery window when I went to Facebook. As I navigated around the number of trackers jumped between two and eight. This appears to be due to the tracking in place on the ads that are being served at any given time. You'll see this on sites that are ad-heavy. 

The one tracker that wasn't identified on was Omniture*. I know from my time at Adobe (formerly Omniture) that Facebook uses SiteCatalyst, but it is a server-side implementation, therefore it is undetectable to Ghostery. 

*This is an example of where the all in the sub-title really means all trackers based on "third-party page elements." 

Trackers with "Facebook" in Their Name

Trackers with "Google" in Their Name
With services like Facebook and Google we all know that the easiest way to avoid being tracked is to simply not use them. Were we to block all tracking on them, we'd likely cripple the functionality of even staying logged in. 

And we also know that these are two massive online organizations that are tracking us even on the far reaches of the web due to the various integrations like Facebook Connect and Google Widgets. You can see in the following two screen shots from the Ghostery wizard, that Facebook and Google maintain their fair share of trackers, and this doesn't even show ones that Google also owns like DoubleClick:

3. - I saw an ad-related tracker pop up on the homepage, but it was gone when I started watching a video. Likely more server-side tracking.

4. - ScoreCard Research Beacon, and ValueClick Mediaplex.

5. - Nothing detected.

6. - Nothing detected. See screen shot below.

7. (Windows) - Here is our first detectable Omniture user! I expected to see this across Microsoft's domains, but was the only other one I found. and show WebTrends as their core analytics tool. Perhaps Adobe lost some business. 

8. - MarkMonitor is in use. I don't know what this is, and whenever that is the case you can easily click on the Ghostery icon in the top right of your browser, and then click "more info" to the right of any tool identified. This gives you a little bio page of each tool, like this one for MarkMonitor: Shows No Trackers
I will stop there on the list of top websites, as you get the gist of how it works. The one last thing I'd like to highlight, is how you can easily block trackers, whitelist sites, and see what you have blocked. If you see the image below from (No. 50 on the most popular sites list), you can see that I opted to block DoubleClick, Facebook Social Plugins, and ScoreCard Research Beacon using Ghostery.

Blocking Trackers using Ghostery While on
39 Tracking Tools on One Page!

Now that I am blocking some trackers, when I load a page to help me with my grammar that has 39 trackers in place, as illustrated in the screen shot to the left, I can see a line drawn through all the tracking mechanisms on that page that I have previously opted to block.

This is super easy to use, and very insightful and powerful. As I was continuing my adventure in Ghostery, I stumbled upon a conspiracy theory website, and thought it was incredibly ironic that there were 41 trackers active on that page! That was the highest I have seen yet. So a site that is cracking down on "big brother" monitoring our every move is hard at work monitoring our every move on their website. Go figure.

Now I am not professing that these 'trackers' are bad or good. We know that a lot of the customizable experiences online, and ads targeted to us that are at least somewhat relevant to our interests are thanks to tools like those listed to the left. But you can see clearly that there is rarely true privacy online. You can accept that and move on, or you can accept it, and empower yourself with a tool like Ghostery to manage it as you see fit.


Please share your experiences using Ghostery in the comments, especially if you can beat 41 trackers on one site. Also feel free to contact me via Twitter if you'd like to stay in touch. I am @yorudan.


  1. I love this post! I will definitely be downloading Ghostery. I am torn in regards to google though. I like that Google uses my search history, activity, etc to show me results more tailored to my likes. Blocking them completely does kind of defeat the purpose of logging in. I love Chrome, search, Google Plus, Google Docs, and their prediction. So how do you find a balance between convenience and privacy? :)

  2. I really enjoyed reading this blog. I am going to use this tool more often.

  3. As you mentioned, Ghostery does not block server side tracking devices, which means that a user may get a sense of false "security" against third party tracking.
    In addition, a lot of users are under the impression cookies are evil and should be destroyed. Any shopping experience prove this is not necessarily the case.
    Finally, without cookies, advertisement return on investment cannot be measured. Without ROI, no ads. Without ads, most websites without commerce model die. Goodbye Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, etc.

  4. very interesting. Great post, thanks for the research!

  5. Regarding to the Omniture on Facebook, which is only on "Facebook pages" if the owner companies have implemented SiteCatalyst tag onto their pages to track the performance, as far as I know. Let's see the report suite names of the SiteCatalyst tags have each different IDs.