Tags: tracking

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Thursday, September 24th, 2020

Performance and people

I was helping a client with a bit of a performance audit this week. I really, really enjoy this work. It’s such a nice opportunity to get my hands in the soil of a website, so to speak, and suggest changes that will have a measurable effect on the user’s experience.

Not only is web performance a user experience issue, it may well be the user experience issue. Page speed has a proven demonstrable direct effect on user experience (and revenue and customer satisfaction and whatever other metrics you’re using).

It struck me that there’s a continuum of performance challenges. On one end of the continuum, you’ve got technical issues. These can be solved with technical solutions. On the other end of the continuum, you’ve got human issues. These can be solved with discussions, agreement, empathy, and conversations (often dreaded or awkward).

I think that, as developers, we tend to gravitate towards the technical issues. That’s our safe space. But I suspect that bigger gains can be reaped by tackling the uncomfortable human issues.

This week, for example, I uncovered three performance issues. One was definitely technical. One was definitely human. One was halfway between.

The technical issue was with web fonts. It’s a lot of fun to dive into this aspect of web performance because quite often there’s some low-hanging fruit: a relatively simple technical fix that will boost the performance (or perceived performance) of a website. That might be through resource hints (using link rel=“preload” in the HTML) or adjusting the font loading (using font-display in the CSS) or even nerdier stuff like subsetting.

In this case, the issue was with the file format of the font itself. By switching to woff2, there were significant file size savings. And the great thing is that @font-face rules allow you to specify multiple file formats so you can still support older browsers that can’t handle woff2. A win all ‘round!

The performance issue that was right in the middle of the technical/human continuum was with images. At first glance it looked like a similar issue to the fonts. Some images were being served in the wrong formats. When I say “wrong”, I guess I mean inappropriate. A photographic image, for example, is probably going to best served as a JPG rather than a PNG.

But unlike the fonts, the images weren’t in the direct control of the developers. These images were coming from a Content Management System. And while there’s a certain amount of processing you can do on the server, a human still makes the decision about what file format they’re uploading.

I’ve seen this happen at Clearleft. We launched an event site with lean performant code, but then someone uploaded an image that’s megabytes in size. The solution in that case wasn’t technical. We realised there was a knowledge gap around image file formats—which, let’s face it, is kind of a techy topic that most normal people shouldn’t be expected to know.

But it was extremely gratifying to see that people were genuinely interested in knowing a bit more about choosing the right format for the right image. I was able to provide a few rules of thumb and point to free software for converting images. It empowered those people to feel more confident using the Content Management System.

It was a similar situation with the client site I was looking at this week. Nobody is uploading oversized images in order to deliberately make the site slower. They probably don’t realise the difference that image formats can make. By having a discussion and giving them some pointers, they’ll have more knowledge and the site will be faster. Another win all ‘round!

At the other end of continuum was an issue that wasn’t technical. From a technical point of view, there was just one teeny weeny little script. But that little script is Google Tag Manager which then calls many, many other scripts that are not so teeny weeny. Third party scripts …the bane of web performance!

In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that third-party JavaScript is even possible. I mean, putting arbitrary code—that can then inject even more arbitrary code—onto your website? That seems like a security nightmare!

Remember when I did a countdown of the top four web performance challenges? At the number one spot is other people’s JavaScript.

Now one technical solution would be to remove the Google Tag Manager script. But that’s probably not very practical—you’ll probably just piss off some other department. That said, if you can’t find out which department was responsible for adding the Google Tag Manager script in the first place, it might we well be an option to remove it and then wait and see who complains. If no one notices it’s gone, job done!

More realistically, there’s someone who’s added that Google Tag Manager script for their own valid reasons. You’ll need to talk to them and understand their needs.

Again, as with images uploaded in a Content Management System, they may not be aware of the performance problems caused by third-party scripts. You could try throwing numbers at them, but I think you get better results by telling the story of performance.

Use tools like Request Map Generator to help them visualise the impact that third-party scripts are having. Talk to them. More importantly, listen to them. Find out why those scripts are being requested. What are the outcomes they’re working towards? Can you offer an alternative way of providing the data they need?

I think many of us developers are intimidated or apprehensive about approaching people to have those conversations. But it’s necessary. And in its own way, it can be as rewarding as tinkering with code. If the end result is a faster website, then the work is definitely worth doing—whether it’s technical work or people work.

Personally, I just really enjoy working on anything that will end up improving a website’s performance, and by extension, the user experience. If you fancy working with me on your site, you should get in touch with Clearleft.

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2020

Blacklight – The Markup

This is an excellent new tool for showing exactly what kind of tracking a site is doing:

Who is peeking over your shoulder while you work, watch videos, learn, explore, and shop on the internet? Enter the address of any website, and Blacklight will scan it and reveal the specific user-tracking technologies on the site—and who’s getting your data. You may be surprised at what you learn.

Best of all, you can inspect the raw data and analyse the methodology.

There are some accompanying explainers:

Monday, September 7th, 2020

Daring Fireball: Online Privacy Should Be Modeled on Real-World Privacy

Just because there is now a multi-billion-dollar industry based on the abject betrayal of our privacy doesn’t mean the sociopaths who built it have any right whatsoever to continue getting away with it. They talk in circles but their argument boils down to entitlement: they think our privacy is theirs for the taking because they’ve been getting away with taking it without our knowledge, and it is valuable.

Thursday, August 13th, 2020

BetrayURL

Back in February, I wrote about an excellent proposal by Jake for how browsers could display URLs in a safer way. Crucially, this involved highlighting the important part of the URL, but didn’t involve hiding any part. It’s a really elegant solution.

Turns out it was a Trojan horse. Chrome are now running an experiment where they will do the exact opposite: they will hide parts of the URL instead of highlighting the important part.

You can change this behaviour if you’re in the less than 1% of people who ever change default settings in browsers.

I’m really disappointed to see that Jake’s proposal isn’t going to be implemented. It was a much, much better solution.

No doubt I will hear rejoinders that the “solution” that Chrome is experimenting with is pretty similar to what Jake proposed. Nothing could be further from the truth. Jake’s solution empowered users with knowledge without taking anything away. What Chrome will be doing is the opposite of that, infantalising users and making decisions for them “for their own good.”

Seeing a complete URL is going to become a power-user feature, like View Source or user style sheets.

I’m really sad about that because, as Jake’s proposal demonstrates, it doesn’t have to be that way.

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

Measuring Performance behind consent popups – Simon Hearne

  • Opted out experiences are ~35% faster
  • Opting in downloads 2.5MB of additional JavaScript
  • Opted in repeat views are twice as slow as opted out

Monday, April 6th, 2020

The beauty of modern mobile websites · Pushing Pixels

Two observations of websites on mobile devices today:

  1. They are beautifully designed, with great typography, clear branding, all optimized for readability.
  2. I had to install Firefox, Adblock Plus and uBlock Origin, as well as manually select and remove additional elements such as subscription overlays.

Both observations are the result of conscious design decisions.

Wednesday, February 26th, 2020

The Markup

A new online publication from Julia Angwin:

Big Tech Is Watching You. We’re Watching Big Tech.

…and they’re not going to track you.

Friday, January 17th, 2020

The last tracker was just removed from Basecamp.com - Signal v. Noise

Can you believe we used to willingly tell Google about every single visitor to basecamp.com by way of Google Analytics? Letting them collect every last byte of information possible through the spying eye of their tracking pixel. Ugh.

👏

In this new world, it feels like an obligation to make sure we’re not aiding and abetting those who seek to exploit our data. Those who hoard every little clue in order to piece of together a puzzle that’ll ultimately reveal all our weakest points and moments, then sell that picture to the highest bidder.

Sunday, December 22nd, 2019

The modern web is becoming an unusable, user-hostile wasteland

If you add another advertisement to your pages, you generate more revenue. If you track your users better, now you can deliver tailored ads and your conversion rates are higher. If you restrict users from leaving your walled garden ecosystem, now you get all the juice from whatever attention they have.

The question is: At which point do we reach the breaking point?

And I think the answer is: We are very close.

Facebook. Twitter. Medium. All desparate to withhold content they didn’t even create until you cough up your personal details.

Saturday, December 14th, 2019

Thursday, November 21st, 2019

Surveillance giants: How the business model of Google and Facebook threatens human rights | Amnesty International

Amnesty International have released a PDF report on the out-of-control surveillance perpetrated by Google and Facebook:

Google and Facebook’s platforms come at a systemic cost. The companies’ surveillance-based business model forces people to make a Faustian bargain, whereby they are only able to enjoy their human rights online by submitting to a system predicated on human rights abuse. Firstly, an assault on the right to privacy on an unprecedented scale, and then a series of knock-on effects that pose a serious risk to a range of other rights, from freedom of expression and opinion, to freedom of thought and the right to non-discrimination.

However…

This page on the Amnesty International website has six tracking scripts. Also, consent to accept tracking cookies is assumed (check dev tools). It looks like you can reject marketing cookies, but I tried that without any success.

The stone PDF has been thrown from a very badly-performing glass house.

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

The Web We’ve Made

Let us not overlook the fact that a semantic HTML web site is inherently accessible by default. When we bend the web to our will, we break that. So we have a responsibility to correct it. Sure the new technologies are neat, but the end result is usually garbage. This all requires some next-level narcissism that our goals and priorities as developers are far more important than that of the audience we’re theoretically building software to serve.

Saturday, November 16th, 2019

The new dot com bubble is here: it’s called online advertising - The Correspondent

The benchmarks that advertising companies use — intended to measure the number of clicks, sales and downloads that occur after an ad is viewed — are fundamentally misleading. None of these benchmarks distinguish between the selection effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that are happening anyway) and the advertising effect (clicks, purchases and downloads that would not have happened without ads).

It gets worse: the brightest minds of this generation are creating algorithms which only increase the effects of selection.

A terrificly well-written piece on the emperor’s new clothes worn by online advertising. Equal parts economic rigour and Gladwellian anecdata, it’s a joy to read! Kudos to Alana Gillespie for the great translation work (the original article was written in Dutch).

We currently assume that advertising companies always benefit from more data. … But the majority of advertising companies feed their complex algorithms silos full of data even though the practice never delivers the desired result. In the worst case, all that invasion of privacy can even lead to targeting the wrong group of people.

This insight is conspicuously absent from the debate about online privacy. At the moment, we don’t even know whether all this privacy violation works as advertised.

The interaction design of this article is great too—annotations, charts, and more!

Tuesday, November 12th, 2019

Third party

The web turned 30 this year. When I was back at CERN to mark this anniversary, there was a lot of introspection and questioning the direction that the web has taken. Everyone I know that uses the web is in agreement that tracking and surveillance are out of control. It seems only right to question whether the web has lost its way.

But here’s the thing: the technologies that enable tracking and surveillance didn’t exist in the early years of the web—JavaScript and cookies.

Without cookies, the web was stateless. This was by design. Now, I totally understand why cookies—or something like cookies—were needed. Without some way of keeping track of state, there’s no good way for a website to “remember” what’s in your shopping cart, or whether you’ve authenticated yourself.

But why would cookies ever need to work across domains? Authentication, shopping carts and all that good stuff can happen on the same domain. Third-party cookies, on the other hand, seem custom made for tracking and frankly, not much else.

Browsers allow you to disable third-party cookies, though it’s not yet the default. If enough people do it—and complain about the sites that stop working when third-party cookies are disabled—then maybe it can become the default.

Firefox is taking steps in this direction, automatically disabling some third-party cookies—the ones that known trackers. Safari is also taking steps to prevent cross-site tracking. It’s not too late to change the tide of third-party cookies.

Then there’s third-party JavaScript.

In retrospect, it seems unbelievable that third-party JavaScript is even possible. I mean, putting arbitrary code—that can then inject even more arbitrary code—onto your website? That seems like a security nightmare!

I imagine if JavaScript were being specced today, it would almost certainly be restricted to the same origin by default. But I guess the precedent had been set with images and style sheets: they could be embedded regardless of whether their domain names matched yours. Still, this is executable code we’re talking about here: that’s quite a footgun that the web has given site owners. And boy, oh boy, has it been used by the worst people to do the most damage.

Again, as with cookies, if we were to imagine what the web would be like if JavaScript was restricted by a same-domain policy, there are certainly things that would be trickier to do.

  • Embedding video, audio, and maps would get a lot finickier.
  • Analytics would need to be self-hosted. I don’t think that would bother any site owners. An analytics platform like Google Analytics that tracks people across domains is doing it for its own benefit rather than that of site owners.
  • Advertising wouldn’t be creepy and annoying. Instead of what’s so euphemistically called “personalisation”, advertisers would have to rely on serving relevant ads based on the content of the site rather than an invasive psychological profile of the user. (I honestly think that advertisers would benefit from this kind of targetting.)

It’s harder to imagine putting the genie back in the bottle when it comes to third-party JavaScript than it is with third-party cookies. All the same, I wish that browsers made it easier to experiment with it. Just as I can choose to accept all cookies, reject all cookies, or only accept same-origin cookies, I wish I could accept all JavaScript, reject all JavaScript, or only accept same-origin JavaScript.

As it is, browsers are making it harder and harder to exercise any control over JavaScript at all. So we reach for third-party tools. We don’t call them JavaScript managers though. We call them ad blockers. But honestly, most of the ad-blocker users I know—myself included—are not bothered by the advertising; we’re bothered by the tracking. We should really call them surveillance blockers.

If third-party JavaScript weren’t the norm, not only would it make the web more secure, it would make it way more performant. Read the chapter on third parties in this year’s newly-released Web Almanac. The figures are staggering.

93% of pages include at least one third-party resource, 76% of pages issue a request to an analytics domain, the median page requests content from at least 9 unique third-party domains that represent 35% of their total network activity, and the most active 10% of pages issue a whopping 175 third-party requests or more.

I don’t think all the web’s performance ills are due to third-party scripts; developers are doing a bang-up job of making their sites big and bloated with their own self-hosted frameworks and code. But as long as third-party JavaScript is allowed onto a site, there’s a limit to how much good developers can do to improve the performance of their sites.

I go to performance-related conferences and you know who I’ve never seen at those events? The people who write the JavaScript for third-party tracking scripts. Those developers are wielding an outsized influence on the health of the web.

I’m very happy to see the work being done by Mozilla and Apple to normalise the idea of rejecting third-party cookies. I’d love to see the rejection of third-party JavaScript normalised in the same way. I know that it would make my life as a developer harder. But that’s of lesser importance. It would be better for the web.

Monday, November 11th, 2019

8 Unbelievable Things You Never Knew About Tracking

The slides from Laura’s excellent talk at FF Conf on Friday.

Friday, October 25th, 2019

Latest Firefox Brings Privacy Protections Front and Center Letting You Track the Trackers - The Mozilla Blog

I really like this latest addition in Firefox to show how many tracking scripts are being blocked. I think it’s always good to make the invisible visible (one of the reasons why I like RequestMap so much).

Tuesday, September 3rd, 2019

Today’s Firefox Blocks Third-Party Tracking Cookies and Cryptomining by Default - The Mozilla Blog

If you haven’t done so already, you should really switch to Firefox.

Then encourage your friends and family to switch to Firefox too.

Thursday, August 8th, 2019

Lazy load embedded YouTube videos - DEV Community 👩‍💻👨‍💻

This is a clever use of the srcdoc attribute on iframes.

Monday, July 15th, 2019

Superhuman’s Superficial Privacy Fixes Do Not Prevent It From Spying on You » Mike Industries

Mike follows up on the changes made by email startup Superhuman after his initial post:

I will say this: if you were skeptical of Superhuman’s commitment to privacy and safety after reading the last article, you should probably be even more skeptical after these changes. The company’s efforts demonstrate a desire to tamp down liability and damage to their brand, but they do not show an understanding of the core problem: you should not build software that surreptitiously collects data on people in a way that would surprise and frighten them.

Wednesday, July 3rd, 2019

Superhuman is Spying on You » Mike Industries

A really excellent analysis by Mike of a dark pattern in the Superhuman email app.

That’s right. A running log of every single time you have opened my email, including your location when you opened it. Before we continue, ask yourself if you expect this information to be collected on you and relayed back to your parent, your child, your spouse, your co-worker, a salesperson, an ex, a random stranger, or a stalker every time you read an email.

Exactly! This violates the principle of least surprise. Also, it’s just plain wrong.

Amazingly though, Mike has been getting pushback from guys on Twitter (and it’s always guys) who don’t think this is a big deal.

Anyway, read the whole thing—it’s fair, balanced, and really well written.