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

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


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.

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