Drudge Report Looks Old-School, but Its Ad Targeting Is State-of-the-Art

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The site is like a 1995 Ford Escort with a 500-horsepower advertising engine under the hood.

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Every major website tracks its users as they make their way through the site, but in an analysis completed by the privacy company Abine, one major website stands out for the number and variety of tracking methods used on its site: The Drudge Report.

That's a surprising finding given that the site's appearance hasn't changed in a decade. In a recent salutary profile, The New York Times' David Carr noted the site had "no video, no search optimization, no slide shows, and a design that is right out of a mid-'90s manual on HTML." But don't be fooled by Drudge's surface simplicity: When you the visit, up to 27 different tracking technologies from 18 separate companies are deployed. Drudge is like a 1995 Ford Escort with a 500-horsepower advertising engine under the hood.

Drudge uses twice the number of advertising tools as the average site, according to Abine. And Drudge stands out even among news sites, which Abine CTO Andrew Sudbury said deploy "a high number of tracking technologies."

Abine created the browser add-on, Do Not Track Plus, which allows users to see the hidden communications between their browsers and data-tracking servers across the web. It provides you with X-ray vision into the advertising ecosystem that's monetizing your visit to a website.

While I'm illustrating the problems of ad tracking with the Drudge Report here, let me be clear that what they are doing is only different in degree, not in kind, from what nearly all the national news sites you visit are doing. I  tested other prominent websites using the same methodology we used to look at Drudge. I found The New York Times deployed 10 tracking tools from 7 different companies and The Huffington Post used 19 trackers from 10 companies. The lesson from Drudge is that you can't judge a site's business-side sophistication by the way that it looks on the web.

Drudge Report did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

The Drudge Report's ads are sold by a long-time Internet advertising company called Intermarkets, which was founded in 1997. The site also sells advertising for MichelleMalkin.com, AnnCoulter.com, and the Media Research Center. Even among these sites, there was wide variation in their use of data tracking tools. MichelleMalkin.com only used 17 and AnnCoulter.com just 10

Update*: Intermarkets' hefty response letter, sent this morning, was caught in my spam filter. It's presented here in full. Writing for the company, Michael Loy, chief managing officer, contended that Drudge's data policy "is not materially different from any other websites." Loy also contended -- rightly, I think -- that because DrudgeReport.com does not have social media widgets that track users, it protects its users privacy in a significant way that sites like The Atlantic, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, and others do not.

There is a substantive dispute over the nature of the data that passes between your browser and the companies that Drudge works with. There are a number of data exchanges related to ad *bidding and placement* but not behavioral tracking that occur through Drudge's relationship with the Rubicon Project. This data, Intermarkets' Loy says, does not meet the definition that the industry itself has given ad tracking: "the collection of data online... for the purpose of using such data to deliver advertising to that computer or device based on the preferences or interests inferred from such Web viewing behaviors." Note the second clause: the industry does not want to count all data collection in the same way. If it's not explicitly going to be used for behavioral targeting, then they do not consider it ad tracking. 

Lastly, as Intermarkets rightly points out: our own media company uses many similar tools, so it is difficult to state definitely who is spreading what data farther or wider. The reality is that we all do this and navigating this terrain is very complicated. 

Tracking tools fall into several categories, as discussed in my article last week on the 105 companies tracking me on the web. In some cases, the tracking code is used to serve an ad. In others, it verifies the ad was sold. Still others measure the audience and provide data for ad targeting. And then there are scores of middlemen that gather data and sell ads all over the web, knitting together the various other players.

Reverse engineering exactly what's happening with even a single website's advertising machinery is harder than it sounds. There are an order of magnitude more characters of code on Drudge dedicated to advertising and tracking than there are words for humans on the page, Sudbury told me. 

"When you go to Drudge Report, you load a whole bunch of their code. It's 160,000 characters of Javascript that you're loading," Sudbury told me. "It reads and sets all kinds of cookies based on what you know and they already know about you."

Before you know it, 18 companies have been daisychained in. And all this can happen between when you hit enter on Drudge and when the ads show up.

Why are so many tracking tools deployed on the site? It's actually a kind of emergent effect. Basically, Drudge can sell an advertising space to some advertising company, who can, in turn, resell that space to someone else, who again, can resell that space. At each step, the data about who you are has to be passed on down the line, so that prospective advertisers can decide how much they'd like to pay to show you an ad. Before you know it, 18 companies have been daisychained in. And all this can happen between when you hit enter on Drudge and when the ads show up.

We created a document of all the code that is called when your browser heads to DrudgeReport.com. We found tracking technologies from Google, Yahoo, and Microsoft. In addition, we found several complex scripts from The Rubicon Project, a real-time advertising sales platform. We also discovered tracking by audience research firms like Quantcast, the plain vanilla ad server AdTech, and advertising marketplaces like OpenX. Every niche in the online ad ecosystem seemed to be filled.

Intermarkets has a commendably simple and readable privacy policy in which it discloses that it might not only collect its own data on your visits, but will connect its information with other third-party sources. Here is the most relevant snippet:

We may augment our click stream data with non-personally-identifiable behavioral and demographic data from third party Services Providers (defined below) to target and serve some of the advertisements you see on the pages of our Site and those of our Portfolio publishers. This anonymous data may include such things as zip code, age, gender, and income range...

As I noted in a previous article, the online advertising world has a very particular definition of anonymity. What they mean is not that they don't know anything about you. In fact, they know, within reasonable bounds: your probable income, roughly where you live, your gender, your ethnicity, and your age. They pair this data with what you read, so they can sell advertising segments like: roughly 40 year old white men who are interested in gun rights. You are "anonymous" but anonymous in name only; all those tracking companies know whom they are dealing with, even if they can't put a face to the data.

There is another key provision in Intermarkets' privacy policy. Namely, that they do not control what third-parties do with the data they collect on the Drudge Report. "The use and collection of information by our third-party advertising Service Providers is governed by the individual privacy policies of those providers," the policy reads. That means that to truly understand what might happen with the data that your visits to Drudge Report generate, you'd have to read 18 different privacy policies. In addition, as the policy itself notes, not all of Drudge's third-party partners are members of the Network Advertising Initiative, which is the main self-regulatory body for ad firms.

While Drudge Report itself may not do anything strange with your data, some other company collecting data could sell it to another business that does, in fact, do something weird. That's one reason that the bare fact of data collection is problematic, especially as long as third-parties are able to set privacy policies that users will never see. Any sort of consumer feedback breaks down when there is this little transparency.

While there are some obvious differences, the structure of the problem is similar to what we see in the ethical debates about companies' supply chains. Apple, for example, relies on Chinese suppliers, who themselves rely on other suppliers, who themselves rely on even more suppliers. This has the effect of distancing Apple from the primary responsibility for the health and safety of the workers who build their products. In the online advertising ecosystem, Drudge passes responsibility down the daisychain, too.

Among the uses of user data that we do know about, Drudge's commercial partner, Intermarkets, is particularly fascinating because they sell ads primarily on conservative websites. That makes them a particularly good place for Republican campaigns. Intermarkets specifically sells campaign strategy services, including database building. As they explain:

We'll target your specific audience in your district or state based upon demographic, psychographic, and behavioral parameters, using our secure platform, reaching more than 185 million unique U.S. visitors, in a single access point, with unified reporting and campaign management for your convenience.

During the recent health care debate, Intermarkets helped the Senate Conservatives Fund target likely fundraisers and activists right after the House voted to approve the bill.

The boundary between business and politics, between the commercial and civic spheres, is porous.

"SCF launched an ad campaign urging the immediate repeal of the Government's takeover of health care.  Intermarkets' expert knowledge about conservative websites ensured that SCF was getting their message in front of the right audience, before anyone else had a chance to react," a case study on Intermarkets reads. "The results of this campaign were astounding.  SCF tripled their email list in one week, and saw a nearly 200% net ROI.  While results like this are not common, this campaign does demonstrate that working with Intermarkets provides powerful tools to mobilize American citizens and identify likely supporters."

The point of laying all this out is that the boundary between business and politics, between the commercial and civic spheres, is porous. The data that can be used to sell you a car can also be used to sell you a candidate. And while some may not worry about targeted advertising for cars, which allows each and every person to remain in his individual filter bubble, it strikes me as something different when all political advertising becomes targeted, too.

Eli Pariser argued in his touchstone book, The Filter Bubble, that the public could be made irrelevant by the increasing personalization of the web. What does it mean to have a public discourse when every demographic and psychographic slice of the country is receiving different information?

The rise of ideologically aligned media helped people sort themselves into different knowledge communities. Sophisticated targeting tools will now reinforce those initial positions, automatically providing ads that have been designed to keep people within the boundaries of the things they once read and thoughts they once had.


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Presented by

Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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