Strong opinions, weakly held

Browser support for clickthrough tracking

It’s time for another episode of Rate the Privacy Threat. In our most recent installment, we looked at the click tracking in iTunes (new downloads now include a privacy warning before enabling the feature). Today’s issue is a new Mozilla Firefox feature that will allow sites to specify a “pingback” URL that will be hit after the user clicks on an outbound link from the site.

To understand what this feature will do and why Web site creators are asking for it, it’s necessary to look at how sites currently track how many people follow outbound links. Many sites (including some weblogs) like to keep track of which links people are clicking on. The way this is implemented currently is that they direct all links to a script that acts as a “clickthrough tracker.” The actual URL to follow is passed as a parameter to the script, which logs the clickthrough and then sends the user on their way. As the blog entry describing the Firefox feature points out, there are some problems with this approach. Number one on the list is that you have to wait for the clickthrough script to process your request before you get to see the content you really wanted to see. If that script is bogging down, you can wait to see your content even if the link’s destination is on your LAN. The second problem is that if you don’t want your clickthrough tracked, you have to copy the link location, cut the URL out of it, and then paste it into your browser.

The Firefox approach is to add an attribute to the a tag named ping. After you click on a link, Firefox will load the new page, and then send the link URL to the ping URL that’s specified. From a performance standpoint, this is a win because you don’t have to wait for the ping before you can see the content you were looking for in the first place. There’s also a privacy advantage. Routing around today’s clickthrough processor is a painful process that requires manual intervention. It sure seems to me like it would be easy to write a Firefox extension that would turn pings off, assuming the Firefox people don’t include such a setting in the browser when it’s released.

Clickthrough tracking is here to stay. Standardizing it and putting it under the control of the user seems like a win to me.

1 Comment

  1. I am wholeheartedly in agreement with you, but I predict that there will still be an outcry over this, for reasons that are less logical than fearful.

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