Privacy and your website

Written by Ash Blankenship

October 25, 2021

When Kara Zajac launched SPART*A, a nonprofit that serves trans military service members, she decided not to track users via the organization's website.

“I don’t track users,” Zajac told The Markup, a privacy-focused tech journalism organization. “Not everyone in the military is wanting to be known for being trans. They might not be out yet. So any time we can protect privacy in that way, we try to do it.”

Zajac told The Markup that she had only allowed three trackers on SPART*A's website—ones from Twitter, Facebook and Disqus.

To test this, The Markup ran the organization's website through Blacklight, a tool for inspecting a website's trackers.

To Zajac's surprise, The Markup found that 21 companies were tracking users via the SPART*A website.

"The trackers loaded because Disqus sells ads on the free version of its commenting portal, and that ad space comes with third-party tracking," notes The Markup.

Zajac learned one valuable lesson as a result of The Markup's review of the SPART*A website. “If it’s free, that doesn’t mean it’s free. It just means it doesn’t cost money,” she said.

“If it’s free, that doesn’t mean it’s free. It just means it doesn’t cost money."

Zajac had good intentions. She applied techniques that should have prevent user tracking on the SPART*A website, yet without her knowledge, additional trackers were being use to spy on site visitors.

This is an all too common outcome.

Trackers are often hidden, where you least expect them, and user agreements for so called free services often lack transparency when it comes to methods for tracking and selling user data.

Tracking and your website

What steps can you take to reduce or eliminate the amount of user tracking on your website?

Some of the most common ways websites trackers get attached to websites is through social media share buttons and feeds, and analytics platforms such as Google Analytics.

For these reasons, I discourage my clients from adding these "free" services. Instead, there are a few simple and privacy focused methods.

The best alternative to social media feeds and share buttons is to create them completely "in-house" on the website itself without any embed codes from Facebook, Twitter, or other social services.

For clients who want social media buttons on the site, I incorporate the use of icons with links. The result is nothing more than an image with a link. There's no tracking when using this method.

A row of social media icons with no user tracking.

And for social media feeds, an image gallery can be used and easily swapped out whenever there's a new social media post.

A social media feed with no user tracking.

For analytics, I use Fathom Analytics, a platform that does not incorporate any user tracking or cookies. While the service is not free, it is worth the small charge.

As Zajac said, “If it’s free, that doesn’t mean it’s free."

Does your site track visitors?

To find out, you can do a quick search using The Markup's Blacklight tool. The results will show which companies are tracking users through your website.

Blacklight by The Markup

What can I do to reduce user tracking?

Since most tracking is done through social media plug-ins, it's essential to remove them all from the website.

Add icons and link them to your social media profiles instead. The stock image site Icons8 allows for free downloads of the icons for popular social media services. Just search for "social media" or "Facebook", "Twitter", etc.

Remove Google Analytics. The best alternative is Fathom Analytics. It does not track users and still offers many great features for learning about your users' behaviors without following them across the web.

These simple and easy to complete steps will reduce or completely eliminate any trackers on your website. If we all do our part to reduce the number of user trackers, we will help make a dent in the online tracking space.