20 Home Pages, 500 Trackers Loaded: Media Succumbs to Monitoring Frenzy

A terrific (and honest) assessment by Frederic Fallout on the business mentality of old school media thinking and new school technology, not being maximized. Great article, Frederic.


by Frederic Filloux 

News sites use trackers more indiscriminately than ever. A random sample of twenty digital properties yields stunning results. Last week, we looked at how long web sites take to load, today, we see how messy their user data collection is. 

When landing on Politico’s home page, your browser loads about 100 pieces of code known as Trackers - behind your back. These trackers are used mostly for advertising: detecting/building user profiles, serving targeted ads, picking up the brand with the best fit on a realtime bidding platform. Other trackers are beacons aimed, for instance, at following the reader from one site to another (the kind you gleefully thank when the North Face jacket you once looked at ends up pursuing you for months). Another kind of tracker is quite indispensable, it involves analytics, counting users, sessions, time spent, etc. With the advent of the social web came all sorts of trackers, users' connectors to social or affiliation programs. For good measure, some sites also insert chunks of code aimed at organizing A/B Testing -- submitting configuration A to a segment of the audience and configuration B to the other to see what works best. (Weirdly enough, A/B trackers are by far the least deployed, accounting for 1% of the total.)

In fairness, Politico is often a fast site and doesn't always load its full stack of trackers. Most likely, the loading process times out (as show before, when I wanted to make a screenshot of the page, it was stuck to "only" 89 trackers.

Politico might the most trackers-saturated site of our random sample, but others are not far off. The Daily Mail is one of the most popular news sites in the world with 26m uniques visitors per month at home and 67m UVs in the US, according to Comscore. A single click on its Mail Online flagship sends a whopping 672 requests, but it manages to run them at blazing speed (19 sec loading time) for a feather weight of 3 Mb, including 2.7 Mb for 578 super-optimized pictures that don't exceed 120 Kb each.

The Mail Online wins many digital speed/weight records. It is one of the most optimized web sites in the world (see our last week story on the obesity plaguing the news industry). But when it comes to monitoring users, The Mail Online also scores high with 79 trackers loaded in one stroke (see below), of which I was able to detail only 63 in my main table:

A broader analysis conducted last week on a random selection of large news sites shows a surprising high reliance on trackers of all types: On average, their home pages load about 30 trackers (article pages usually do less). Here is the ranking:

In total, the 20 sites sample collected 516 trackers. They come from about 100 vendors displayed on this column’s header chart of (As I'm sure I'll find its way into various presentations in the coming months, the original Keynote file is available upon request -- always happy to help.) To measure this, I simply loaded the Ghostery browser extension on my Chrome and Firefox browsers (I wanted to detect discrepancies -- none found). Finally, I got a table that looked like this:

The table above is available as a Google Docs Spreadsheet here and in PDF format here.

About 60% of this trackers are ad-related. The crowd is obviously dominated by the two players commanding 60% of the global digital advertising: Google (53 trackers spotted) and Facebook (33). Then comes a cohort of players, some serious, others more questionable.

The strangest thing is this: When you look at each of their mission statements, you see a huge overlap in functionalities. Here is a sample hardcore sales pitch, also often found on the same news site:

"Our unifying DMP (Data Management Platform) helps marketers and publishers drive more revenue, efficiency and engagement through the power of audience data. Working as trusted partners, we help our customers transform the way they do business. Providing an unmatched level of industry knowledge and technical service to help them master the complexities of Big Data and gain the impact they need." (Lotame)


“We bring web publishers and advertisers together via a single buying and selling solution tuned to enable publishers to maximize ad revenue and advertisers to buy quality impressions.” (Sonobi)


"Crimtan is a technology-rich Digital Advertising Services provider. Our proprietary Data Engine and state-of-the-art technical capability enables Crimtan to offer a wide range of ROI focused products to publishers and advertisers. Crimtan provides advertisers with precise audience targeting, optimisation and reporting. Publishers benefit from enhanced visitor insight and increased revenue."


"We are a global media valuation platform that enables digital buyers and sellers to assess the value of every ad opportunity across channels and screens, and make informed decisions that maximize ROI. Through constant technological innovation, key partnerships, and strong client relationships, we’re driving the industry toward realizing the full potential of online advertising." (Integral Ad Science)


"MediaMath is a digital marketing technology company dedicated to reengineering modern marketing to offer transformative results based on tangible goals. Its math-driven Marketing Operating System, TerminalOne™, brings together digital media and data into a powerful and flexible solution that simplifies planning, execution, optimization and analysis of both direct response and branding campaigns."

Found on a French site (believe it or not):

"Melt is a Brazilian company established with the aim of revolutionizing the Hispanic market buying online media. With this, we launched a self-service tool that helps agencies, medium and large advertisers to optimize the most of their investments in digital advertising." 

Some are bands of brands that work together (sometimes on the same site), or have been acquired; examples:

Neustar PlatformOne (formerly Aggregate Knowledge) operates: Aggregate Knowledge
Conversant (formerly ValueClick Media) operates: ValueClick Media, ValueClick Notice

On another major French news site, I even found a beacon/widget supplier whose own site is so poorly implemented that it triggers a security warning hinting at a phishing risk (I still wonder what could be the client’s commercial benefit....)

That's the smell of silicon snake oil. Evidence shows that vendors are better off than their customers at defining what's needed...

This kludge of trackers reflects more desperate moves than thoughtful strategies. Traditional publishers tend to stuff their sites with all they can think of: in the ranking above, you'll notice that native media companies (Vox, Vice, etc. or even Buzzfeed with only 11 trackers) are much more selective in their choices of tracking systems than old media (Politico might be a fantastic editorial pure player, but when it comes to analytics it behaves like an old-media.)

Evidently, many trackers are useful and sometimes indispensable to optimize advertising yields, connect to Data Management Platforms, refine users profiles, etc.

Still, none of these stacks of code are innocuous. Consider Chartbeat, the most powerful audience measurement tool. Its single tracker consists of no less than 29,000 characters of code.

And Chartbeat might be the best implemented code (It is probably one of the ten or twelve trackers to keep for a news site), but in order to perform the increasingly granular analytics asked by publishers, there is no other choices than relying on convoluted and opaque coding.

The web ecosystem is messier than ever. A clever crowd of vendors has taken advantage of the FOMO syndrome (Fear Of Missing Out) that stems from technological uncertainty. In the 70's, the short-sleeved, pocket-protector-bearing IT man that shielded his butt by recommending IBM hardware and service. Today, it's the myriad of young people in sales and marketing departments, fearing above all to act differently from their peers, who feed the beast. While higher in the chain of command very few understand what's going on, it's open bar for the opportunist, not for the customer.

-- frederic.filloux@mondaynote.com

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