Ghostery Reveals More than the Invisible Web

Like many of you, I have many roles when it comes to websites. I worry about privacy and performance. Another part of me likes to see what other sites are doing. For example, what services are other websites using? It’s not often that you find a free browser tool that covers privacy and competitive intelligence.

The online tool I’m talking about is called Ghostery from Evidon and is a free browser extension for Google Chrome, Internet Explorer, Apple Safari and Firefox. One reason people may know of it is because it reveals web bugs that are used by advertising companies. It scans web pages to discover what the company calls the “invisible web” by looking at “tags”, “web beacons”, “pixels” and other objects. Sometimes, what it finds is most interesting and not what you would expect even when it’s your own site.

What Ghostery Reveals

Once you install the browser add-on, it presents a dropdown list of objects it found on any web page. There are some settings that control where the list appears and duration. Before Ghostery, to see what a site was using, I might use the browser’s view source command and read through the code. There are several problems with this:

  1. It takes time to read the source.
  2. The script names don’t necessarily match up with the vendor’s name.
  3. Not all scripts can be found on the page. As example, items that are contained in Google Tag Manager aren’t seen using view-source.

As the screen shot below shows, this site has 4 objects and they are pretty well known services. In this example, the list is short mostly because I’ve not added any advertisers yet. The two that might be new to readers are AddThis, which controls the share buttons on the bottom of posts and Torbit. I use Torbit to gather real user performance metrics.

Ghostery list of trackers

The story is different if I go to one of my other sites where I do have advertising. In this case, I have Google Adsense on the site. Notice how that Google relationship pulled in 3 more items from DoubleClick and Quantcast. This happens often because I opted to have Google serve ads from other ad networks on that site.

Ghostery spotting more ad networks

What’s Your Competition Doing?

As much as I appreciate seeing what’s going on with my websites, I enjoy learning what others are doing. Here’s an example, I spotted on another site this morning. In the picture below, I’ve circled entries for Optimizely and Crazy Egg. This combination suggests to me that this site is doing testing and heat map analysis on the page I’m viewing.

My reasoning is people tend to put Optimizely code site-wide, but use Crazy Egg on specific pages. As an Optimizely user, I know the service has Crazy Egg integration. If I need to dig deeper, I might clear my browser cookies or use a different browser to see if I can see some test variations.

Ghsotery example showing testing services

In the case above, I knew these testing services because I use them. And while there are a number of web testing services, Ghostery doesn’t pick up everything. As example, it doesn’t see which is another excellent testing service.

Finding New Services and Vendors

I also like to use Ghostery to find new tools. Quite often, I’ll be on a site and see a name I don’t recognize. If the name seems intriguing, I’ll click the more info link.

Ghostery More Info link

It also helped that I found this resource on a website where I doubt the owner would do something stupid.

When I click the link, Ghostery provides a small profile about the service including a section called “In Their Own Words”. From the short blurb, I can tell that the service is for web publishers and “reveals actionable insights”. If I want more info, there is a link to the site.

Ghostery Profile page

Other times, I’m in the market for a service and will use Ghostery’s blocking options section to sort through the vendor list. In the example below, I clicked the Widgets section, which provided an alphabetical listing. As I scrolled down, I noticed something called Browser Update and clicked through to find more.

Example of Ghostery drilldown

The bottom line is that Ghostery provides a lot of value for both users who are concerned about their privacy and webmasters. It also shows that just because something has a tracker doesn’t mean it’s bad. A good example is the Browser Update service that alerts users that their browser is outdated and exposes them to security issues.