Web bugs, and why I hate 'em

The History
The Rant, itself
Countering web-bugs


The History

As I pointed out on Monday: UserLand is now Tracking hits and referers for everyone using Radio who adds a simple macro to their site. And it's slowed down every one of those sites, since they all have to wait for the web-bug at http://referers.userland.com/staticSiteStats/count.gif to load. It may be a fast, single-pixel gif, but I'm probably going to map referers.userland.com out using my hosts file, since it's taking 5 to 10 seconds to deliver the gif this morning. Note that this isn't a Userland specific gripe. I have the same problem with the server at http://counter29.bravenet.com/ that the Instapundit uses. It makes the page significantly slower to load. Telling my computer that that host is really a machine here which returns a 404 in no time flat makes the Instapundit page load in a couple seconds instead of twenty or so. I also removed the Amazon pay-page web-bug from the template to speed things up here for you. Sorry I inflicted it on you in the first place.

This page is an attempt to flesh out that argument and generally vent some steam.

In the spirit of full-disclosure, until that Monday, I was using a web-bug of sorts, too. I had a Amazon Paybox thingie on every page of Dave's Picks. It's gone now. As I say in the new donations page: I had this Amazon paybox on every page of my site. I've pulled it to this single page. Why? A few reasons. First, it wasn't generating much for me. I think the total's still under a dollar. Second, it made every page on Dave's Picks slower to load. Third, it gave amazon information about every page-view that happened on my site.


The Rant

Now for the long version.

They make pages slower

First, web bugs make pages slower to load. Even if the bug lives on a fast server, it's still another HTTP request that needs to be made. No matter how fast they are, they're not instantaneous. As a reader, I don't appreciate having to wait for an image to load before I can read a page, just so someone out there can have information about my reading habits.

Privacy Concerns

Second, web bugs give information to someone else about the web pages that contain them. Usually that's why people put them on the page. But in some cases, idiots like me don't think things through and add something like that Amazon Paybox to every page, feeding them a lot of extra information. While I don't have a privacy policy for Dave's Picks, my gut-feeling is that I shouldn't be feeding (intentionally or otherwise) information about who's looking at what on my pages to any third party. I don't really want others to know about everything I read myself, and I really ought to extend the same courtesy to y'all.

Feeding the rich

Finally, at least on my site, I can track things just fine by parsing my referer logs. There's no reason for me to use a web bug except to give away information about your reading habits. While I'm not claiming that information is terribly valuable, when aggregated across a lot of sites, it becomes valuable. A. C. Neilsen (and a number of others) is making money off that sort of information. I don't see any reason why I should help enrich someone else without getting some sort of kickback, especially since they already seem to have plenty of money.


Countering web-bugs

There are a few ways to counter (or avoid) web-bugs. The simplest is to just turn off images in your browser. Of course that's a little indiscriminate, and many pages won't be very interesting with no images. Some browsers let you filter out images by size. But web-bugs are using a single-pixel gif lately, which other sites use for layout, so it's hard to filter them without getting back to the problem of sites looking bad. You can edit the hosts file on your computer to avoid them. There's a description of that technique at Using the Hosts File by Gorilla Design Studio and it's a pretty useful trick. It hasn't been updated since May 2001, but the technology hasn't changed.  


Please send me your comments. I'll include them here and add my own commentary.

Copyright 2009, Dave Polaschek. Last updated on Mon, 15 Feb 2010 14:09:02.