The innocuous text files that Web surfers love to hate.
By Adam L. Penenberg
Posted Monday, Nov. 7, 2005, at 4:51 PM ET
Though cookies make navigating the Web profoundly easier, those who deploy them have done a lousy job at promoting their utility. The result is that lots of people don't trust them. Many surfers erase cookies frequently or refuse them entirely, blaming them for everything from spying, to identity theft, to slow Internet connections. A slew of security products lump them in with spyware, viruses, and other nasties and promise to snuff them out at no extra charge.
Cookies are not software. They can't be programmed, can't carry viruses, and can't unleash malware to go wilding through your hard drive. Only the Web site that sent you the cookie can read it. As soon as you leave a site, its cookie sits dormant, waiting for your return.
The exceptions are third-party cookies—also known as "tracking cookies"—placed by an entity (usually a marketing or advertising company) that's interested in tagging visitors. Often they make sure a user won't be hit with the same ad twice; others guarantee that someone who says they have an interest in sports gets different ads than someone who likes gadgets. But third-party cookies could also be used to compile a dossier of surfing habits. Say you visit a Web site with cookies served by a marketing company like DoubleClick. The cookie it dispatches will come alive every time you visit another site that does business with DoubleClick. That means it could track you over dozens of sites, logging every article you read, every ad you click on, and every gadget and gizmo you buy without your knowledge or approval.
What makes many people uneasy is the potential for DoubleClick or a similar firm to match a user's e-mail, home address, and phone number to his surfing history. How do we know the company won't use this information for purposes other than advertising and marketing? All we have is its word that it won't "attempt to know the real-world identity of the owner or user of a computer's browser." DoubleClick was pummeled six years ago when it announced its intent to create a database of consumer profiles that would include names, addresses, and online purchase histories. After public outcry and a class-action suit (which was settled in 2002), DoubleClick did an about-face and said it had made a huge mistake.
Still, the potential for marketers—which in lieu of governmental oversight regulate themselves—to abuse their position as third-party ad servers is the prime reason why all cookies have been demonized. The bad reputation of cookies has contributed to the formation of an entire industry that's based on snuffing out potential threats on consumer desktops. The more threats they find, the more valuable their product. It's funny, then, that many of the same companies that demonize cookies—McAfee, SpyWare Doctor, and STOPzilla—toss them at you when you visit their Web sites.
So, what would happen if the king of the Internet magically banned cookies tomorrow? Much of the Web would cease to exist. Ad-supported sites like Slate would either go under or start charging you to visit—without a way to gauge how many people have looked at an ad, online advertisers would pull the plug. And instead of aiding privacy, the death of cookies might very well stifle it. Many Web sites would require more frequent registration—you'd have to log in every time you visited the New York Times, since the site wouldn't remember you. And forget about shopping online.
The Web often feels like a free medium, where you can read anything you want free of charge. What keeps it cheap and convenient, though, is that it's an advertisers' medium. At the same time that ad revenue allows companies to serve content free of charge, consumers have unprecedented control over how they consume ad content, both online and offline. Just like you can TiVo shows and skip the commercials, you can block pop-up ads, filter junk e-mail, and corral cookies. Every major browser (Internet Explorer, Safari, and Mozilla Firefox) lets you customize your cookie consumption to accept them from sites you trust, reject them from parties you don't, or block them entirely.
Marketers don't fear that the government will ban or restrict cookies some day. After heavy lobbying they managed to secure an amendment to the Securely Protect Yourself Against Cyber Trespass Act that would exempt cookies from any spyware legislation that passes in the House. Instead, they are afraid that consumers will continue to delete them, which could put a major dent in advertising revenue and undermine the economics of boatloads of sites. If they want to avoid this ignominious end, the marketers who depend on cookies had better figure out a way to market the cookies themselves. A good place to start is to abolish third-party cookies. Only then can they put the focus on the miraculous text files that let you shop and read newspapers with the greatest of ease.
Wednesday, May 9, 2007
Monday, May 7, 2007
Have you tackled your spring cleaning yet? If so, don't roll down your sleeves yet. There's still work to do. Your computer needs its annual tune-up, too. And now is as good a time as any to take several easy steps that'll clear the clutter and give your aging machine a well-needed boost.
Here are several steps you can take:
1. I don't know about you, but I am a collector. My girlfriend has another name for it: obsessive-compulsive slob. I prefer the former term. Call it what you will. But when the piles build up, items become harder to find.
The same thing happens when your clutter is digital. I have tons of files, and frankly, some of them are wasting space.
To trim wasteful data from my drives, I like to run TreeSize first. This simple utility displays folder sizes that let me see immediately where the bloat is. It helps me identify files I no longer use or want, and I can then use Windows Explorer to zero in on specific files and delete the clutter.
2. Many of us have programs -- or fragments of older programs -- lying around and taking up space. Do an assessment of programs you no longer use, and then go to the Control Panel and click on Add/Remove programs. You'll be presented with an inventory of all your installed programs. You can remove them with the click of a button.
3. WinPatrol has established itself as a must-have program for about a decade. In addition to scouting for malware, it keeps tabs on internal processes that run behind the scenes as I work on my computer.
Not all processes are necessary; some needlessly hog RAM, some actually may be slowing your system down or rendering it unstable. WinPatrol identifies all running processes and lets you disable or remove those you don't need. The Plus version of WinPatrol ($29) gives you access to an extensive online database that'll give you plenty of information about who the good guys are and who the bad ones are. You may be surprised at how many excessive processes are whirring away in your computer.
4. Perhaps the greatest source of accumulated needless files lies several layers deep in your browser caches. Web pages you've visited, including images, are seemingly endlessly stored on your drives. Get rid of these space wasters with CleanCache 3.5, a comprehensive garbage sweeper from a company with the curious name of ButtUgly Software. Don't let the name give you pause, this program is terrific.
5. The more you browse the Internet, log on for e-mail, create files, edit photos and delete programs, the more fragmented your drive becomes. Fragmentation is constant. The hit that your computer takes in speed can be recognizable within a short time, as file segmentation grows unabated.
I use Diskeeper 2007, easily the most efficient defragmenter available, to keep my discs in perfect order. There are free defragmenters, but the proper alignment of file segments is so vital to efficient operation, and Diskeeper is so good at it, that I strongly recommend shelling out the $29 to purchase this program. It has been a pleasure to see how Diskeeper evolved over the last few years from a low-maintenance utility to an absolutely no-maintenance utility that you will forget you have the moment after you install it. It works that quietly, unobtrusively and efficiently. Get a free trial copy at diskeeper.com.
The alternative is Windows' System Defragmenter that you can find under Programs/Acces sories/System Tools. It's slower and must be manually run, but it'll get the job done.
6. Do you have cables scattered all around your desktop setup? You can peruse cable covers, cable turtle organizers (devices that tuck away excess cord in colorful plastic shells) and tons of related devices for a few bucks apiece at cableorganizer.com. Or simply use leftover wire twist tabs from bread bags or other household items to bundle cables together.
7. Check all your USB, parallel, serial, RCA and phone plugs. Pull them out, and plug them back in securely. (Be sure to remember where they all go.) Make sure there are no kinks or breaks in them.
8. You'd be amazed at how much dust can accumulate inside a computer. Dust can affect sensitive electrical components as well as hamper critical cooling operations of built-in fans. The solution: a good spritzing with a can of compressed air -- any brand is fine, just don't pay more than $5 a can. (How weird is it that we must pay for air?) Detach the computer power cord, open your case, and give your computer's innards a good few blasts of air. While you're at it, give your keyboard a blast, too, to get rid of those aging cookie crumbs.
Tuesday, May 1, 2007
A host of companies are doing their level best to keep tabs on how many people are visiting a given Web site, and what those users do while they are there. Some use tags installed on a user's Web browser, while others extrapolate surfing habits from a sample audience. A handful use a combination of several methods. Here's a glance at a range of approaches, with a look at what each has to say about one popular online video site, Metacafe.
Alexa Internet, owned by Amazon (AMZN)
What: Provides Web-site traffic rankings based on page views and users, and data on site "reach," the percentage of total Internet users who visit the site
How: Monitors sites visited by Web surfers who have downloaded its toolbar, which provides safety data and other information for Web sites
Strengths: Includes country-specific numbers and data on trends; information is free and publicly available
Weaknesses: Panel may be weighted in favor of those who visit affiliated sites such as Amazon; tends to favor sites popular in countries where its toolbar has taken off, such as China; excludes users who surf using Opera or AOL/Netscape (TWX); count can be skewed by technologies such as Ajax that let parts of a page change without reloading
What It Says About Metacafe: Three-month average traffic rank is 148; average reach is 0.37%; site fell 15 notches in rankings over three months, and reach declined 5%.
What: Monitors surfing behavior of a panel of 2 million consumers
How: Culls panel from people who have downloaded its toolbar in exchange for information on site safety, traffic, and financial deals; randomly surveys panelists on Internet use; buys data from Internet service providers; devising an approach that uses tracking tags, which sit on a site and monitor visits from IP addresses
Strengths: Large panel; supplements toolbar data with survey data, making it less vulnerable to bias; statistically balances panel to better reflect U.S. population; snapshots free and open to the public
Weaknesses: Traffic reported for smaller sites may differ from those sites' own measurements if Compete's panel fails to include enough of the site's audience
What It Says About Metacafe: 2.5 million unique visitors in March, up 35.6% from the prior month; rank is 602, up 263 notches
What: Tracks the behavior of more than 2 million people
How: Panel made up of people who have downloaded its monitoring software in exchange for security software and the chance to win prizes
Strengths: Lage panel; statistically balances panel to reflect U.S. population; can provide detailed demographic analysis on user behavior
Weaknesses: Traffic reported on smaller sites may suffer if the panel does not reflect enough of that site's members
What It Says About Metacafe: 5.6 million unique visitors March, 2007, up 40% over the previous month. Site rank by unique visitors: 171.
Google Analytics (GOOG)
What: Measures traffic of participating Web sites
Strengths: Tracks number of hits, unique visitors; can tell where users are and whether they performed certain tasks, such as clicking on an ad; free to site publishers, though data not publicly available
Weaknesses: It does not provide detailed demographic data such as gender, age, or income; unique visitor numbers can be inflated if a large number of people delete tracking tags on their machines by erasing cookies
What It Says About Metacafe: Not available
What: Measures Web traffic for general public
How: Uses a census-based approach, using data culled from 25 million Web users worldwide, including 10 million in the U.S.; obtains data by purchasing anonymous information on IP addresses from a variety of ISPs
Strengths: Very large panel, closer to a census
Weaknesses: Doesn't release source of IP addresses; critics say users of certain ISPs may be biased towards or against certain sites
What It Says About Metacafe: Not available
What: Monitors Web traffic and site usage for paid subscribers
Strengths: Like Google Analytics, deduces geographic location of users, what sites they are coming from, and what users do once on a page
Weaknesses: Cookies don't provide the detailed demographic analysis that panels produce
What It Says About Metacafe: Between 10 million and 15 million visitors per month, according to Allyson Campa, Metacafe's vice-president for marketing
What: Tracks computer behavior of a panel numbering roughly 550,000 people, about 400,000 of whom are in the U.S.
How: Panelists selected via random telephone surveys
Strengths: Software sits on panel members' desktops, tracking everything they do when on the computer, including the sites they visit, how much time they spend on particular pages, and what they are doing while on those pages; NetRatings collects detailed demographic data on all its panelists; plans to include data from tracking tags and cookies into measurements
Weaknesses: Panel is small, compared to some others; audience of smaller sites may not be reflected in its composition
What It Says About Metacafe: Roughly 3 million unique visitors in June, the last month for which the information was publicly released
What: Tracks Web surfing habits for general public
Strengths: Relies on variety of methods; provides detailed demographics including income, gender, age, and ethnicity; lets Web sites install tracking tags enabling it to better record the traffic to smaller, less statistically significant sites
Weaknesses: Data on U.S. Internet users only; launched in September, site is relatively new
What It Says About Metacafe: 2 million unique visitors a month
Internal Server Logs
What: Used by individual companies to track traffic to own sites
How: Registers IP addresses that visit the site, how long each computer spent, and whether any actions were performed on the site, such as clicking on an ad
Strengths: Server logs can elucidate where people are coming from when they visit the site, where they go when they leave, who is linking to the site, who has bookmarked the site, and which search engines have found the site. They also will mark each and every IP visit
Weaknesses: Don't provide demographic data about visitors; numbers are often not trusted because they come from the companies themselves
What It Says About Metacafe: More than 10 million unique visitors per month, according to Metacafe's own logs