How the World’s Top Websites Track Your Online Behavior

Last Updated: February 3, 2021

Have you ever come across some of the same items you checked out on Amazon or eBay, showing as an ad on other websites? Creepy, right? Many people do not consider this dangerous or weird. They do not think it is something that affects their privacy or even poses a threat to them. Many internet users have no idea what information the websites they visit collect about them. They do not know how they collect the data, what they use it for, or why they even keep track of their online activities. 

What Is Online/Website Tracking?

It is the collection, storage, and sharing of internet platform users’ information by such platforms’ operators. In other words, it is the monitoring of your internet activities, interest, and behavior on the World Wide Web. 

Numerous top websites monitor every activity the users of their platform performs, including web form inputs (email address, credit card information), items checkout (e-commerce websites), password inputs, and lots more. 

They analyze user behaviors and suggest their preferences to make relevant suggestions whenever they revisit the website. They keep a record of your browsing history, which they later use to build suggestions on item preference, video preferences, and shopping habits. 

Many top companies, such as Amazon, Facebook, and YouTube, track your preferences for shopping items, friends, and videos, respectively. This is why YouTube users will see suggestions related to the last video they watched days, weeks, or even months after watching the video. 

The same goes for e-commerce websites like Amazon. Such sites suggest items you might be interested in based on the items you searched for or checked out on their website. 

How Do Top Websites Track Your Behavior Online?

Top websites use several methods/technologies to keep track of visitors’ activities on their websites. Here are some of the methods they use:

1. Cookies 

You must have come across a notification that reads, This site uses cookies to suggest relevant information or something similar. Some websites do not even give you an idea of what the cookies are for; they just send notifications like This site uses cookies and give you the option to accept or decline. Most users are quick to click on accept, especially when the notification appears similar to the former. The question then is, What are cookies?

Cookies are small pieces of data in the form of texts, which a website stores on your device. These data contain preferences related to users’ activities and interactions with pages on the websites they visit to deliver a “personalized” browsing experience to individual users on their website. Cookies contain several other types of information, including sensitive details like log-in information, enabling them to store passwords against your next visit. 

Types of Cookies

There are three basic types of cookies: Session cookies, persistent (first-party) cookies, and third-party cookies. Others include Flash cookies and Zombie cookies.

Session cookies are temporary; hence they are stored on the users’ device only for the session’s duration and are deleted once you close the browser. Session cookies can be useful on ecommerce or shopping websites. 

Persistent (First-party) cookies, on the other hand, can stay on your device for as long as the website owners specified, which may be for just a few weeks, months, or even years. You can, however, delete them manually. For first time visitors to a website, persistent cookies are saved on the devices by default. This type of cookie is used to track your online activities, remember log-in details, language preferences, internal bookmarks, and lots more. Once the expiration date specified by the website administrators are reached, the cookies are deleted automatically. 

Third-party cookies, also called tracking cookies, are similar to persistent cookies because they also collect data based on your online activities or behavior. However, third parties install these cookies to collect data (such as online behaviors, spending habits, item preferences, search trends, demographics) from web users. Such data are used mostly by advertising companies so that they can provide you with personalized advertisements. 

Flash cookies are not dependent on the web browser. They permanently reside on your device and remain there even when all the web browser cookies are deleted. Zombie cookies are similar to flash cookies, except that they are more difficult to remove because they are recreated even after you have deleted them. Online games use these types of cookies to prevent users from cheating. However, fourth-parties also use them to install malicious programs on users’ devices. 

2. Fingerprinting

Similar to biometric fingerprinting, websites use specific data collected about devices and browsers to build a user profile. Wikipedia defined browser fingerprint (also called device fingerprint or machine fingerprint) as information collected about a remote computing or browsing device for the purpose of identification. Fingerprints can be used to detect your phone or computer’s characteristics, including the screen resolution, model, operating system, browser type and version, language preference, time zone, and active plugins.

The device fingerprint does not have any value on its own, but a proficient person could use it to build a whole profile about a users’ internet behavior when assembled. Just like biometric fingerprinting, it is almost impossible to have two users who share 100% similar browsing behavior, and websites take advantage of this to create a unique profile for each user, which can then be used to monitor their online behavior. 

3. Web Beacons

Web beacons are used mostly with cookies and also used as part of third party tracking service. They are often transparent images (usually less than 1×1 pixel) embedded in web pages.  

When a web browser lands on a website that uses a web beacon, the image is requested for download. This request can pass information such as the IP address of the device that retrieved the image, the type of browser that retrieved the image, and the time the image was retrieved. Webmasters use web beacons to detect whether a user opened an email and how many times it was opened. Unlike cookies, you cannot decline web beacons, but setting your browser to reject cookies will ensure that web beacons do not keep track of your activities. 

4. Cache

Browsers save cache on your devices to reduce load time. Web contents (images, texts) are cached on devices based on the servers’ expiration headers. Caches are used to detect whether a user has visited a website or clicked on a link before. Preventing this can be difficult unless you deliberately clear the content of your cache constantly. 

How Can You Tell if A Website is Tracking You?

To detect whether or not a website is tracking your online activities, you can install browser plugins and extensions that notify you whenever this happens. Some trusted browser plugins include Disconnect, Privacy Badger, HTTPS Everywhere, Blur, and NoScript Security Suite. 

Can You Stop Websites from Tracking You? How?

Yes, you can stop website or online tracking. Here are seven (7) ways to prevent online/website browsing:

  1. When giving our personal information on a website, ensure you painstakingly read through their Terms of Service Conditions. 
  2. Make use of search engines that do not track your online behavior. Examples of such include Startpage, DuckDuckGo, and Qwant. 
  3. Frequently clear out your browser cache and cookies from your devices (phones and computers)
  4. Use browser extensions and plugins such as Ghostery and Privacyfix
  5. When accessing the internet through public Wi-Fi, ensure that you use encryption software or tools such as Tor or a VPN.
  6. Use different emails for different websites if possible.
  7. Adjust your social media privacy settings to suit your preference. Also, reduce the number of unknown users who have access to view your profile

Conclusion

The strategies for monitoring users are still changing and becoming more advanced. And although monitoring is not mandatory, data collection has become law for many websites on the web. The good news is that there are still services that protect your privacy, and in the light of privacy concerns and data protection on the internet, more of them have recently been developed.

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