Tags: tracking

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Heisenberg

I wrote about Google Analytics yesterday. As usual, I syndicated the post to Ev’s blog, and I got an interesting response over there. Kelly Burgett set me straight on some of the finer details of how goals work, and finished with this thought:

You mention “delivering a performant, accessible, responsive, scalable website isn’t enough” as if it should be, and I have to disagree. It’s not enough for a business to simply have a great website if you are unable to understand performance of channel marketing, track user demographics and behavior on-site, and optimize your site/brand based on that data. I’ve seen a lot of ugly sites who have done exceptionally well in terms of ROI, simply because they are getting the data they need from the site in order make better business decisions. If your site cannot do that (ie. through data collection, often third party scripts), then your beautifully-designed site can only take you so far.

That makes an excellent case for having analytics. But that’s not necessarily the same as having Google analytics, or even JavaScript-driven analytics at all.

By far the most useful information you get from analytics is around where people have come from, where did they go next, and what kind of device are they using. None of that information requires JavaScript. It’s all available from your server logs.

I don’t want to come across all old-man-yell-at-cloud here, but I’m trying to remember at what point self-hosted software for analysing your log traffic became not good enough.

Here’s the thing: logging on the server has no effect on the user experience. It’s basically free, in terms of performance. Logging via JavaScript, by its very nature, has some cost. Even if its negligible, that’s one more request, and that’s one more bit of processing for the CPU.

All of the data that you can only get via JavaScript (in-page actions, heat maps, etc.) are, in my experience, better handled by dedicated software. To me, that kind of more precise data feels different to analytics in the sense of funnels, conversions, goals and all that stuff.

So in order to get more fine-grained data to analyse, our analytics software has now doubled down on a technology—JavaScript—that has an impact on the end user, where previously the act of observation could be done at a distance.

There are also blind spots that come with JavaScript-based tracking. According to Google Analytics, 0% of your customers don’t have JavaScript. That’s not necessarily true, but there’s literally no way for Google Analytics—which relies on JavaScript—to even do its job in the absence of JavaScript. That can lead to a dangerous situation where you might be led to think that 100% of your potential customers are getting by, when actually a proportion might be struggling, but you’ll never find out about it.

Related: according to Google Analytics, 0% of your customers are using ad-blockers that block requests to Google’s servers. Again, that’s not necessarily a true fact.

So I completely agree than analytics are a good thing to have for your business. But it does not follow that Google Analytics is a good thing for your business. Other options are available.

I feel like the assumption that “analytics = Google Analytics” is like the slippery slope in reverse. If we’re all agreed that analytics are important, then aren’t we also all agreed that JavaScript-based tracking is important?

In a word, no.

This is reminds me of the arguments made in favour of intrusive, bloated advertising scripts. All of the arguments focus on the need for advertising—to stay in business, to pay the writers—which are all great reasons for advertising, but have nothing to do with JavaScript, which is at the root of the problem. Everyone I know who uses an ad-blocker—including me—doesn’t use it to stop seeing adverts, but to stop the performance of the page being degraded (and to avoid being tracked across domains).

So let’s not confuse the means with the ends. If you need to have advertising, that doesn’t mean you need to have horribly bloated JavaScript-based advertising. If you need analytics, that doesn’t mean you need an analytics script on your front end.

On The Verge

Quite a few people have been linking to an article on The Verge with the inflammatory title The Mobile web sucks. In it, Nilay Patel heaps blame upon mobile browsers, Safari in particular:

But man, the web browsers on phones are terrible. They are an abomination of bad user experience, poor performance, and overall disdain for the open web that kicked off the modern tech revolution.

Les Orchard says what we’re all thinking in his detailed response The Verge’s web sucks:

Calling out browser makers for the performance of sites like his? That’s a bit much.

Nilay does acknowledge that the Verge could do better:

Now, I happen to work at a media company, and I happen to run a website that can be bloated and slow. Some of this is our fault: The Verge is ultra-complicated, we have huge images, and we serve ads from our own direct sales and a variety of programmatic networks.

But still, it sounds like the buck is being passed along. The performance issues are being treated as Somebody Else’s Problem …ad networks, trackers, etc.

The developers at Vox Media take a different, and in my opinion, more correct view. They’re declaring performance bankruptcy:

I mean, let’s cut to the chase here… our sites are friggin’ slow, okay!

But I worry about how they can possibly reconcile their desire for a faster website with a culture that accepts enormously bloated ads and trackers as the inevitable price of doing business on the web:

I’m hearing an awful lot of false dichotomies here: either you can have a performant website or you have a business model based on advertising. Here’s another false dichotomy:

If the message coming down from above is that performance concerns and business concerns are fundamentally at odds, then I just don’t know how the developers are ever going to create a culture of performance (which is a real shame, because they sound like a great bunch). It’s a particularly bizarre false dichotomy to be foisting when you consider that all the evidence points to performance as being a key differentiator when it comes to making moolah.

It’s funny, but I take almost the opposite view that Nilay puts forth in his original article. Instead of thinking “Oh, why won’t these awful browsers improve to be better at delivering our websites?”, I tend to think “Oh, why won’t these awful websites improve to be better at taking advantage of our browsers?” After all, it doesn’t seem like that long ago that web browsers on mobile really were awful; incapable of rendering the “real” web, instead only able to deal with WAP.

As Maciej says in his magnificent presentation Web Design: The First 100 Years:

As soon as a system shows signs of performance, developers will add enough abstraction to make it borderline unusable. Software forever remains at the limits of what people will put up with. Developers and designers together create overweight systems in hopes that the hardware will catch up in time and cover their mistakes.

We complained for years that browsers couldn’t do layout and javascript consistently. As soon as that got fixed, we got busy writing libraries that reimplemented the browser within itself, only slower.

I fear that if Nilay got his wish and mobile browsers made a quantum leap in performance tomorrow, the result would be even more bloated JavaScript for even more ads and trackers on websites like The Verge.

If anything, browser makers might have to take more drastic steps to route around the damage of bloated websites with invasive tracking.

We’ve been here before. When JavaScript first landed in web browsers, it was quickly adopted for three primary use cases:

  1. swapping out images when the user moused over a link,
  2. doing really bad client-side form validation, and
  3. spawning pop-up windows.

The first use case was so popular, it was moved from a procedural language (JavaScript) to a declarative language (CSS). The second use case is still with us today. The third use case was solved by browsers. They added a preference to block unwanted pop-ups.

Tracking and advertising scripts are today’s equivalent of pop-up windows. There are already plenty of tools out there to route around their damage: Ghostery, Adblock Plus, etc., along with tools like Instapaper, Readability, and Pocket.

I’m sure that business owners felt the same way about pop-up ads back in the late ’90s. Just the price of doing business. Shrug shoulders. Just the way things are. Nothing we can do to change that.

For such a young, supposedly-innovative industry, I’m often amazed at what people choose to treat as immovable, unchangeable, carved-in-stone issues. Bloated, invasive ad tracking isn’t a law of nature. It’s a choice. We can choose to change.

Every bloated advertising and tracking script on a website was added by a person. What if that person refused? I guess that person would be fired and another person would be told to add the script. What if that person refused? What if we had a web developer picket line that we collectively refused to cross?

That’s an unrealistic, drastic suggestion. But the way that the web is being destroyed by our collective culpability calls for drastic measures.

By the way, the pop-up ad was first created by Ethan Zuckerman. He has since apologised. What will you be apologising for in decades to come?

Tracking

Ajax was a really big deal six, seven, eight years ago. My second book was all about Ajax. I spoke about Ajax at conferences and gave workshops all about using Ajax and progressive enhancement.

During those workshops, I would often point out that Ajax had the potential to be abused terribly. Until the advent of Ajax, it was very clear to a user when data was being submitted to a server: you’d have to click a link or submit a form. As soon as you introduce asynchronous communication, it’s possible for the server to get information from the client even without a full-page refresh.

Imagine, for example, that you’re typing a message into a textarea. You might begin by typing, “Why, you stuck up, half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf…” before calming down and thinking better of it. Before Ajax, there was no way that what you had typed could ever reach the server. But now, it’s entirely possible to send data via Ajax with every key press.

It was just a thought experiment. I wasn’t actually that worried that anyone would ever do something quite so creepy.

Then I came across this article by Jennifer Golbeck in Slate all about Facebook tracking what’s entered—but then erased—within its status update form:

Unfortunately, the code that powers Facebook still knows what you typed—even if you decide not to publish it. It turns out that the things you explicitly choose not to share aren’t entirely private.

Initially I thought there must have been some mistake. I erronously called out Jen Golbeck when I found the PDF of a paper called The Post that Wasn’t: Exploring Self-Censorship on Facebook. The methodology behind the sample group used for that paper was much more old-fashioned than using Ajax:

First, participants took part in a weeklong diary study during which they used SMS messaging to report all instances of unshared content on Facebook (i.e., content intentionally self-censored). Participants also filled out nightly surveys to further describe unshared content and any shared content they decided to post on Facebook. Next, qualified participants took part in in-lab interviews.

But the Slate article was referencing a different paper that does indeed use Ajax to track instances of deleted text:

This research was conducted at Facebook by Facebook researchers. We collected self-censorship data from a random sample of approximately 5 million English-speaking Facebook users who lived in the U.S. or U.K. over the course of 17 days (July 6-22, 2012).

So what I initially thought was a case of alarmism—conflating something as simple as simple as a client-side character count with actual server-side monitoring—turned out to be a pretty accurate reading of the situation. I originally intended to write a scoffing post about Slate’s linkbaiting alarmism (and call it “The shocking truth behind the latest Facebook revelation”), but it turns out that my scoffing was misplaced.

That said, the article has been updated to reflect that the Ajax requests are only sending information about deleted characters—not the actual content. Still, as we learned very clearly from the NSA revelations, there’s not much practical difference between logging data and logging metadata.

The nerds among us may start firing up our developer tools to keep track of unexpected Ajax requests to the server. But what about everyone else?

This isn’t the first time that the power of JavaScript has been abused. Every browser now ships with an option to block pop-up windows. That’s because the ability to spawn new windows was so horribly misused. Maybe we’re going to see similar preference options to avoid firing Ajax requests on keypress.

It would be depressingly reductionist to conclude that any technology that can be abused will be abused. But as long as there are web developers out there who are willing to spawn pop-up windows or force persistent cookies or use Ajax to track deleted content, the depressingly reductionist conclusion looks like self-fulfilling prophecy.