Visiting Your Competitor’s Web Page: Should Entrepreneurs be Concerned?
Data Collection and the State of the Internet
Data collection is an integral and expected practice of the internet. In fact, many companies, both established and new alike, rely on it for their continued existence. Data serves a critical role in either their marketing strategies or monetization strategies. Or in some cases, both. This data provides useful information essential to adjusting and tailoring a company’s business strategy. Both websites and third-party advertisers collect data. This data includes IP addresses, location, and web history. Since the practice is unlikely to go away, the question becomes “as an entrepreneur, should I be worried about visiting my competitor’s website?” The good news is that there are some things that can be done to minimize the information a competitor learns about you from your visit to their website. This blog post will cover: 1) some of the technology involved, 2) examples from Facebook’s data usage and privacy policies, and 3) some suggestions going forward.
Numerous free or low-cost tools exist for a company (such as one of your competitors) to ascertain the affiliation of visitors to the company’s website.
Cookies are small text files created when a user loads a website. Every time the user returns to the site, the browser sends this file to the site’s server. Both websites and ad servers create cookies on a site. Important for our purposes, cookies inform how and when ads are shown. You can learn more about cookies here.
Pixel tags are small blocks of codes on a webpages that allow websites to read and place cookies. The resulting connection can include information such as the person’s IP address, the time the person viewed the pixel, and the type of browser used. You can learn more about pixel tags and how Facebook uses them here.
Services such as Quantcast, Google Analytics, KISSmetrics provide extensive data. They include demographic information (age and gender), location information, time on site, and other metrics. IP addresses by themselves will give away a user’s location and network information. For instance, visit IPInfo’s free geolocation databases. Users are greeted with IP address information on the right-side of the screen (IP address, country, region, city, and time). These services can be free or paid, and therefore, there aren’t significant barrier to entry. A basic (yet still comprehensive) version of Google Analytics is available for free.
Examples from Facebook Data Use Policy and Practices
As it has become a part of many people’s daily habits, Facebook may become a problem for the cautious entrepreneur. First, Facebook may increase your competitors screen time as a user’s information and web traffic affect advertising. Second, it may tip off your competitors as to your presence.
Facebook is rather explicit (but not entirely straightforward) in its online policies. Facebook’s privacy page states that they receive data from and/or about “the computer, mobile phone, or other devices you use to install Facebook apps or to access Facebook.” This information may include your “IP address or mobile phone number, and other information about things like your internet service, operating system, location, the type (including identifiers) of the device or browser you use, or the pages you visit.” Facebook additionally receives data whenever you visit other websites, games, and applications that use the Facebook platform or use a Facebook social plugin.
Certain information on Facebook WILL ALWAYS REMAIN PUBLIC UNLESS DELETED. For our purposes, this includes name, user ID, and networks.
Facebook Page Analytics
For a Facebook page, you can see how many people your post reached, how many people clicked it and how many people clicked it, commented on it, or shared it with their friends. The Facebook Pages feature allows administrators (or rather your competitors) to identify the location of users who have seen “any content associated with [their] page.”
What does this all mean for the entrepreneur?
The problem for entrepreneurs is two-fold. First, you may be tipping off your competitors about your presence (and your interest in your competitor). Second, you may be increasing your competitor’s web traffic.
In the first instance, as explained above, by merely visiting your competitor’s website, your competitor is likely capable of learning your location, gender, and age (inferred age group. Furthermore, your competitor might be able to identify your network.To combat this, you may consider using the TOR browser. The TOR software prevents tracking by “bouncing your communications around.” Your internet traffic is carried over a network of different relays, which are hosted by volunteers globally. According to the TOR site, “it prevents somebody watching your Internet connection from learning what sites you visit, [and] it prevents the sites you visit from learning your physical location.”
Private browsing does not anonymize your data. IP addresses and other related information may still be collected. Private browsing only prevents cookies from being stored once the browsing window has been closed. However, a private browsing session will not read cookies from other sessions.
The second situation is not nearly as avoidable. Increased visits to a competitor’s website will increase web traffic. The cookie stored from that site will inform Facebook and other advertisers that you have viewed that site. As a consequence, it will then serve up more ads related to that site/product. Additionally, the more visits a page receives, the more likely it is to show up in search results and other advertisements in general. If you want to research your competitor, this consequence is almost inevitable.
Data collection is here to stay. As privacy policies change, entrepreneurs should be mindful of their internet behaviors, and they should remain up to date on policies. While you can cover some tracks, some things are unavoidable and are the cost of doing business.