The labyrinthine maze of data-collecting technologies that makes the web hum became even more complex in 2012.
A Global Tracker report by privacy-services firm Evidon measured sites across the internet and found 987 web-tracking tags from ad servers, analytics companies, audience-segmenting firms, social networks and sharing tools. That's up 53% from the 645 unique trackers found in first quarter.
The 10 most-prevalent technologies come from some of the biggest online players, including Google, Facebook and Twitter, as well as less-familiar names, including Quantcast, Omniture and AddThis.
As the number of tracking technologies embedded on websites grows, so too does the risk of publishers losing control of the data they're collecting.
According to Evidon, only 45% of the tracking tools were added to sites directly by the publisher. The rest were spawned by the publisher's partners, their partners' partners, and so on.
What happens -- sometimes unbeknownst to publishers and even some of their partners -- is that data is being transferred from one company to another in a series of data "hops" as prolific as rabbits. For example, when Evidon studied Amazon-owned IMDB.com, it discovered that a DoubleClick tag on the site sent data to two other companies that collect it for various purposes -- Rubicon and Casale Media, representing a "hop." In a subsequent hop, Casale transferred the IMDB data to BlueKai, Optimax and Brandscreen, while Rubicon pushed it to TargusInfo, RocketFuel, Platform 161, Efficient Frontier and the AMP Platform. AMP then sent the data on to AppNexus and back to DoubleClick.
In its study of more than 500 websites, Evidon found nearly 29% of tracking technologies were deployed in two hops, around 13% in three, and nearly 10% were deployed four times.
"With each hop, new scripts are deployed on the site -- meaning a new company has access to a wealth of data about the user and the page on which it has been placed," states the report. Each hop to another intermediary could reflect value for the seller of the data -- ultimately the publisher.
"The industry is really, really hungry for new ways to monetize this data and ... not spending a ton of time thinking about the consequences," said Andy Kahl, director of data analysis at Evidon and a lead researcher for the report.
Evidon has a stake in this game; the firm offers services that help publishers manage the tags on their sites and control where their data flows. However, data leakage and site latency is enough of a problem that the industry's largest trade group, the Interactive Advertising Bureau, released a draft Site Tagging Best Practices guide in December.