Larry BraunerWebsite widgets are commonplace in the world of social media. They tend to make interacting, marketing and web site tracking easier and more fun. Many types of website widgets are currently used on this blog.

However, don’t you ever question how safe website widgets really are? The use of website widgets and banner ads raises online safety and privacy issues for you and your website visitors that are worthy of consideration.

Marketing Experiment Gone Wrong

Marketing Experiment Gone WrongI was experimenting with my website tracking software. I wanted to determine whether it would work on websites not belonging to me. I installed the required tracking code in a blog post on a Ning site and on my Ryze profile.

I very quickly uncovered a major obstacle. The JavaScript, a key element in the tracking code, had been stripped off by each of the social networking sites. All that remained was a link to a very tiny and invisible image hosted by my tracking service.

I decided to continue the test in order to see the outcome. I invited friends to visit the test pages and inspected the resulting traffic data. I saw the IP address, ISP, location, operating system and web browser for each person who had visited the test pages — and all it took was embedding an invisible one pixel by one pixel image on those pages.

Privacy and Security Implications

When you install a banner ad on your blog or other website, and that banner ad is hosted on the advertiser’s server, not yours, you give that advertiser identical information about your visitors as I was able to obtain about mine; your visitors don’t even need to click on the banner ad to make that happen.

Once an advertiser obtains an IP address, they may obtain more sensitive information as well. Some offline merchants sell data about their customers. Why not assume that some online merchants and social networking sites do the same?

They have some amount of personal information matched to an IP address, and may decide to monetize that private data. They might even state that in their privacy policy.

When you install a widget or ad on your site that contains script, the effects are more far reaching. The company that provided you with the widget code can obtain information about the source and actions of each visitor. Scripts can even be malicious, as in the case of poisoned banners. :-(

Your Due Diligence Can Help

You are responsible as a blogger or web site owner to protect the privacy of your visitors as best you can. Use web widgets from reputable sources and banner ads, too. If practical, host the image on your own server, as I myself generally do.

Hopefully, data that reputable third parties obtain from you and your visitors will be used for reasonable purposes, and their widget code will perform as specified. You need to take care that all third party widget code you embed in your site is from a reputable source.

Your turn for questions or comments. ;-)

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Larry Brauner

A shorter article than the past one.

Privacy and spam concerns continue to induce Facebook and Ning to make changes that hurt marketers. Facebook, for example, will end network affiliations, while Ning has already disabled the sharing of any content across participating sites.

Good-Bye Facebook Networks

Facebook members now use school, city of company network affiliations to control access to their personal content.

Since network affiliation is less relevant than it had been at the network’s conception, and since¬† the display of network affiliation can jeopardize members’ privacy and security, Facebook is replacing affiliation-based permissions with a friendship-based alternative.

This solution better protects Facebook members. :-)

However, it also takes away an important targeting mechanism from honest business users wishing to find people in the regions where they operate. :-(

Thanks Ning for Duplicate Messages

If you and I are friends at several Ning sites, I probably send you duplicate messages. Since I can no longer share content across sites, I send the same information from several sites, and you receive that information multiple times. I try to minimize duplication but haven’t yet eliminated it.

Ning has made it less convenient for spammers. :-)

However, if a spammer is motivated enough, you’ll now receive their spam several times instead of once. :-(

Good-News Bad-News

The good news is that social networking sites will continue their efforts to safeguard the privacy and security of members and to create an enjoyable networking experience… great when we have on our networking hats.

The bad news is that more safeguards can mean more limited access to members, and when we have on our marketing hats… not so great!

What are your thoughts on this hot topic?

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