Thursday, December 4, 2014

Lightbeam: Shines a Light on Creepy Ads

Have you ever had a creepy ad experience? Have you gone online to search for lodging in Lake Tahoe, and then two minutes later received an email from Groupon for a "Tahoe weekend getaway"? Sure, many companies advertise online, but Groupon ads seem extremely targeted. So, I was curious: "how much is Groupon tracking me?"

Lightbeam Shows Third-Party Tracking

One way that websites target ads is by tracking a user's online behavior. When a user visits a website, the web page may execute tracking scripts and store cookies, which allow third-party ad networks to track that user. These ad networks can then collect information whenever the user visits another website that partners with them. (More info here.)

To investigate the extent of Groupon's tracking, I installed the Lightbeam add-on to my Firefox browser. This add-on, released by Mozilla about a year ago, shows all the third-party cookies and connections made by websites, in an interactive visualization. After browsing to a few websites (Yahoo, Google, Groupon), I could see that Groupon contacted by far the largest number of third-party domains for ad tracking, 17 in all, 8 of which also created a cookie.

Groupon (the green "G") made the most third-party connections, as shown in Lightbeam.

Third-party Domains

What are these third-party domains that Groupon connected with?

  • Google Tag Manager: "Tags are tiny bits of website code that let you measure traffic and visitor behavior."
  • Criteo: "Personalized retargeting company."
  • Facebook
  • "The most mature ad optimization and bid management system in the business."
  • Rubicon Project: "Leading the automation of advertising."
  • Doubleclick: Internet ad serving, subsidiary of Google.
  • PubMatic: "Programmatic advertising."
  • Yahoo
  • Channel Intelligence (Google): "Optimize your data and sell more products."
  • Nanigans: "The industry-leading advertising automation platform."
  • Atwola: "Atwola is a cookie that is used to track user browsing history." 

Curious about ad tracking in websites you visit? Check out the Lightbeam Firefox add-on