Get Pixel Tracking Transparency with Ghostery

Thanks to a series of articles in the WSJ, publishers around the country are taking a hard look at their privacy practices and trying to get a handle on who collects data on their site.  You would think this would be a simple task, after all, the publisher owns the site and controls everything on it, right?

Well, not exactly.  In fact, thanks to the off-site redirects inherent to 3rd party adserving, publishers often have no idea when an advertiser or marketer attempts to redirect the user within a 3rd party ad tag.  Due to the number of players involved, it’s actually quite difficult to assess which tags are attempting to cookie the user for audience aggregation.  If publishers can’t audit their site, how can they enforce their privacy policy and contractual agreements with marketers?

Thankfully, the people at Better Advertising have developed a rather brilliant browser extension called Ghostery to make pixel tracking more transparent.  Ghostery runs on your browser and sifts through all the code and ad calls to quickly identify which 3rd parties are tracking data on your site. This particular example is from – as you can see, the tool quickly pulls up a list of the various companies with pixels running on the site or somehow spawning to the browser.

From there, you can take a deeper dive on any particular tracker you want, view a brief summary of what the company does, how to access its privacy policy, and even other sites where that company was seen.  I have to say, Ghostery is a quantum leap ahead of other tools for identifying which ads are spawning pixels or running piggyback cookie requests.

Ghostery was actually developed more for Consumers to give them a way to see who is tracking their behavior online and actually block it, but I see huge potential for industry folks as well to audit their site.  Do you know what is running on your site?

P.S. – the Ghostery Blog isn’t half bad, either…


  1. Dear Ad Ops Insider,

    It seems some the publishers voluntarily allow 3rd parties to pixel their sites outside of an ad–just a pixel on the page. What do they get in return for this? Do the 3rd party pixelers pay the publishers for the right to do that?

  2. Hi Steve,

    Yes, some publishers will just host 3rd party pixels – what they get in return is usually some kind of functionality. You might find the Data Leakage series on this blog helpful:

    But to quickly answer your question, the 3rd parties are typically providing a user experience, cash, or both. For example, a service like Disqus might provide a valuable comment management system for the publisher, and also allow them to get paid for hosting links that drive to other sites in the Disqus network. To figure out what links to show to what users though, Disqus needs to pixel the users it sees and determine if it has seen those users on any particular type of content. Companies like Outbrain or Taboola work in a similar fashion, providing a related article widget to publishers that hopefully increases user engagement with that publisher as well as creates a revenue stream by directing traffic to other publishers willing to pay for traffic.

    Then you have services that are really just providing a user experience, and don’t pay the publisher at all; Quantcast and AddThis would be examples here. Quantcast provides detailed analytics to publishers that host their code, which also helps Quantcast sell their measurement and audience analytics platform to advertisers. AddThis provides social linking and sharing capabilities, allowing publishers to host one small bit of code for virtually every social network vs. having to track down code for each and host all that themselves.

    Some might argue this isn’t always a fair trade, and that many publishers don’t realize how much of their data they expose to these companies when they host that code. I think that can sometimes hold water, since a lot of times editorial folks might make the decision to host these services for usability reasons and not consider the data impact. At the end of the day though, the publisher has to decide for themselves if it’s a fair exchange or not. It’s not like any of these companies keep their business model a secret.

    Hope that helps –


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