Ad trackers bring up consumer privacy concerns

Privacy written in tiles
Many consumers are not aware of how their privacy is being invaded by ad trackers on e-commerce sites.

As Data Privacy Day is approaching on Jan. 28, Ghostery, a free browser extension that helps users protect their privacy, found that the sites of top online retailers are chock-full of trackers that are secretly collecting a ton of consumer data without the knowledge or consent of visitors.

Recently, Ghostery that analyzed the number of ad trackers present the 50 most popular e-commerce sites. The study examined five verticals: women's clothing, men's clothing, consumer electronics, jewelry, and toys and games. 

The study found that women's clothing sites have the most trackers, with an average of 24 ad trackers in the typical online shopping cart. The site with the top number of trackers on its homepage was Talbots, with more than 66 trackers on average. 

Second for categories was men's clothing, hosting an average of 23 trackers in the shopping cart. The brand with the most trackers on average was Brooks Brothers, 64. 

In other categories, Fossil topped for jewelry, with an average of 48 trackers, and Newegg topped for consumer electronics, with 61.

Out of all the sites looked at, the one with the average of 86 trackers on its homepage was StarcityGames, a games and toy site, which means children may be among the visitors being tracked.

So what does it mean to have all of these ad trackers on a site? According to Jeremy Tillman, director of product at Ghostery, typically a tracker on a page means slower page load speeds, "an obvious challenge to companies where every second counts when trying to convert visitors into paying customers." 

Tillman continued: "However, e-commerce sites maintain relatively low page load times despite having large numbers of trackers, in large part because they’re not loading media-heavy ads; rather, they’re using dozens of ad trackers to retarget visitors when they leave their site as well as a cocktail of web analytics tools to analyze and optimize their conversion funnels." 

To test it out, Ghostery visited Talbots.com and after some browsing, added items into the shopping cart. Later, Ghostery abandoned the shopping cart before completing the purchase and instead went to CNN.com.  

The items Ghostery had browsed on Talbots had followed them to the next page as a banner display ad meant to entice the consumer back for a purchase.

Tillman says is an example of retargeting, where Talbots placed snippets of tracker code on its most business-critical pages, allowing it to track which products were browsed and, more importantly, which ones were added to the shopping cart. 

"While tracking like this by Talbots can be disconcerting, what’s more alarming about this practice is that not all these trackers were placed on the page by Talbots itself," he told FierceRetail. "Rather, the trackers that Talbots placed directly on their site loaded dozens of other ad-tech trackers in turn, bringing third parties to the browsing experience that weren’t invited by Talbots that now have access to sensitive user data for ad-targeting."

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In turn, this means consumers are at risk of having sensitive data exposed. 

In fact, according to another recent Ghostery study, 77.4% of all page loads contain trackers, making them privy to personal information. 

"There is a virtual guarantee that dozens of companies have detailed profiles about you that are a compendium of data that not only includes your shopping interests and browsing history but may also include your financial situation, sexual orientation, health status, political views and religious beliefs," Tillman said.

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As Ghostery demonstrates in these examples, e-commerce sites and advertisers have the upper hand, so it’s imperative to educate consumers about this practice.

"This is not to turn business away from top retailers, but because the everyday person has a right to know where their data is going and what happens when they unknowingly give their information away for free. Privacy extensions put consumers’ web browsing experience back into their own hands," he said.

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