Arguably two of the biggest problems in the web design industry today are the environmental impact of our online activities and the harvesting and misuse of our personal data.
In reality, these two issues are directly linked.
The tracking and storing of data requires a massive amount of infrastructure and energy. If we can reduce the number of tracking scripts on the web, we can not only be more responsible when it comes to data privacy, we can directly reduce the environmental impact of our online activities.
In this article, we’ll look at some of the most invasive trackers being used almost as standard across business websites, explore some of the more ethical alternatives, and ask whether we can still make insights-based decisions without harvesting personal data…
Table of contents
Statistics on web trackers
- Google Analytics trackers are featured on 72.6% of the top 75,000 websites. Its location tracker Global Site Tag is used on 4.7 million sites, and Universal Analytics on a further 3.18 million sites.
- Facebook collects more data from outside its ecosystem than from within it, with the Meta Pixel tracker present on 30% of the top 100,000 websites.
- Cookie technology on the top 1 million websites generates more than 11,500 tonnes of carbon emissions every month.
- Amazon allows third-party cookies from more than 80 companies, ranging from Facebook to mobile gaming giant King.
- Email pixels, which can be used to detect if and when an email has been opened, what device has been used, and details about the recipient’s location, are present in more than two thirds of all emails.
The use of tracking scripts is now so widespread that it has been described as ‘endemic’. Aside from the ethics of these practices, the problem from a sustainable web design perspective is how much these scripts slow a website down, and how much more carbon they produce.
Each tracker is a file that sits in the shadows of a site and requires loading with the page. Even those ‘do you want to accept cookies’ notifications that pop up need to load extra files to work, adding to the weight of web pages and generating more emissions in the process.
unethical marketing is now the norm
Trying to browse the internet without having to cede your personal data to the highest bidder has become a real challenge.
Even the smallest of business websites now seems to have cookie popups simultaneously telling us they ‘value your privacy’ while harvesting data about who we are, where we are, what we’re looking for and what we were doing online before we landed there.
Tracking scripts have become so pervasive that they have effectively become an industry standard, and most businesses deploy them not only without question, but without consideration of what it means for customer privacy.
How did we get here?
For years, companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon have been dishing out free software for people to use on their websites. These third-party scripts have provided website owners with a host of amazing functionality, ranging from analytics to video embeds and maps, often with the addition of only a single line of code. But these business behemoths aren’t charities, and their ‘free’ tools have come at a price: consumer privacy.
Not only do many of these tracking scripts pass user data back to the third-party company that provided it, they pass it on to any other ‘partner’ they are in cahoots with.
Some of the most common web trackers include:
- Google Analytics – Tracks visits to a website, including information about where a visitor has come from (i.e. search, social media channels), where they have landed, how long they have spent on your site and which page they left. But it goes beyond these useful measurements to collect data about demographics, personal interests and affinity categories which are then fed back to Google.
- Meta Pixel (formerly Facebook Pixel) – Tracks user behaviour and actions on a website – including page views, product views, adding to basket, purchases, links clicked, etc. – and uses it for targeted advertising, including for other companies. Pixel is installed on so many sites that Meta actually harvests more data from outside its social platform than it does from within it.
- Google reCAPTCHA – Ostensibly a security-focussed script aimed at identifying and preventing bot activity, this invasive software collects a mind-boggling amount of user data. Among other things, it harvests IP addresses, Google user account information, behaviour on the page (such as typing patterns, scrolling, mouse movements, time spent completing forms, etc.), browser history and information about browser plug-ins.
- Amazon trackers – As well as all the masses of data Amazon collects through its own-branded platforms, services and devices, it harvests data through tracking scripts installed on other websites, often through adverts or affiliate links.
- YouTube embeds – Embedding videos on to your website might appear to improve the user experience, but it also gives YouTube access to their data. When visitor hits play on an embedded video, YouTube starts collecting data about views, where people are watching from and how long they are watching for.
- Social media feeds – Social media can be an important tool for businesses, but the companies behind them are notorious data-gatherers. Adding a social feed to your website gives those companies access to your prospects, drawing them away from your website (bad for business) and exposing them to data collection (bad for individuals).
- Ads – There are numerous ways advertisers can collect user data on the performance of ad campaigns, including through tracking URLs, tracking scripts, pixels and cookies. Using these trackers on your website gives ad companies access to user data on everything from views and clicks to their behaviour across multiple sessions and websites.
There’s no doubting that website analytics are a useful business tool. They let you measure traffic to your website and identify how people are engaging with your content, and this can help you make improvements to your both your website and your marketing.
Here at Root, as an eco-friendly web design agency, we believe one of the best ways of reducing the carbon impact of a website is by implementing a considerate content strategy that prioritises quality over quantity. Analytics are key to this, because it means businesses can be more purposeful about their content. They can get rid of the content that gets no views, better target more useful questions, and bring down the overall size and emissions of their site.
But analysing your website traffic doesn’t need to come at the expense of your visitors’ privacy. These ethical alternatives will give you all the insights you need to make informed improvements:
- Fathom Analytics – This privacy-focussed analytics software is the ethical alternative to Google Analytics. It measures page views, time on site, bounce rate and goal completions alongside referral channels and link clicks, but without tracking the personal data of website visitors.
- Mave.io – As a low-carbon web design studio, we’d always advise against embedding video content directly into your website because of the impact on page-load speed and consequent emissions. But if you’re looking for an ethical alternative to YouTube, mave.io is a fantastic privacy-focussed, EU-based (and GDPR compliant) video building and hosting platform.
- Buttondown – Email is one of a business’s best marketing tools, and Buttondown is one of the best privacy-focussed providers of newsletter software. Run by a single person who values digital privacy, Buttondown doesn’t collect any data about you or your subscribers, and doesn’t track opens or clicks. Trust is at the heart of an email newsletter, and this software makes that easy to uphold.
Learn more about privacy-focussed software at Below Radar.
Tools for testing for trackers
The first step in being able to protect your users’ data and reduce your website’s carbon emissions is knowing what tracking scripts you are using and where. These tools provide a useful starting point for making improvements.
- Blacklight – This website privacy inspection tool lets you check what trackers and cookies are installed on your site, and identifies other more intrusive technologies like session recording and key logging. It also lets you know which companies this data is being sent to.
- Digital Beacon – This fantastic tool estimates the carbon output of your website using key data on file transfer size, images, fonts and stylesheets. Crucially, it also measures the number of third-party trackers on your site, which, as well as compromising user privacy, add to the carbon footprint. The detailed report gives helpful suggestions about where improvements can be made, and keeps a log each time you test (up to 10) so you can see the impact of any changes over time.
- Browser developer tools – Browsers like Firefox and Chrome (or it’s privacy focussed twin Brave) give you access to developer tools while you are viewing a live site, and these can give helpful information about the cookies installed and the files being loaded into a page. Simply go to the page you want to analyse, and navigate to the developer tools either by hitting F12 or navigating through the menu at the top of the browser to More Tools > Web Developer Tools. The Network tab lists all the files, and the Storage tab is where you’ll find the cookie information.
Read more about Tools for calculating your website’s CO2 emissions.
Do I need to track this?
Here at Root, we believe there needs to be a shift in both the collective mindset and the accepted industry standard for tracking everything we can, just in case it comes in handy one day.
As smaller, ethical businesses, we have a golden opportunity to do things differently and set the tone for a more privacy-focussed future; one that’s not only better for our customers, but better for society, better for the planet, and better for businesses.
When you’re considering whether to install any piece of tracking software, ask yourself these questions:
- Do I actually need to measure this data?
- Is this the only way of measuring this metric? For example, do you really need to measure email click-throughs when your website analytics already show page views and referrals?
- Do I have the time and skills to spend studying and understanding this data?
- If I do, do I also have the necessary skills and resources to action my findings?
If the answer to any of these questions is ‘no’, perhaps there’s no need to install a tracker.
Consumer trust is arguably as important to a business as the products they sell or the services they deliver, yet few businesses give consideration to how they collect, use and share their customers’ online data.
The use of unethical, energy-guzzling tracking scripts have become all-pervasive, and we need a shift in thinking that begins to prioritise people, privacy and the planet. In this article, we’ve spoken about how we can be more thoughtful about the data we collect and how, in doing so, we can better protect our customers and the environment.
We’ve looked at how:
- Big tech company tracking scripts, which gather a massive amount of data, have become endemic
- Website analytics software gathers more customer data than is either ethical or useful
- There are ethical alternatives that put privacy first, but provide useful insights
- Privacy-focussed data collection can lead to more purposeful business decision-making and more considered content creation
- Being more thoughtful about the data we collect can protect our customers and align with our business ethics
- Minimising tracking scripts can speed up our websites for a better user experience and a reduced environmental impact
- How respecting our customers’ privacy benefits them, us, the whole of society, and the environment
- Carbolytics: An analysis of the carbon costs of online tracking – Art meets research in Joana Moll’s important study on the pervasiveness of tracking scripts and their impact on the environment
- How to tell which emails are quietly tracking you – This article about email pixels from Wired gives helpful guidance on spotting tracking emails, and tips about how to reclaim your digital privacy
- The role of data in digital advertising – This Appendix to the UK Government’s Online Platform and Digital Advertising market study takes an in-depth look at the types, sources, role and value of data in digital advertising, and how unchecked data-gathering by large platforms like Facebook and Google may inhibit market competition.
- Tools for calculating your website’s emissions – Root shares some of the best tools for measuring the carbon impact of your website
- How do I make my website more eco-friendly? – From thoughtful design and content strategy to green hosting and SEO, Root takes a deep dive into the elements of a low-carbon website