Thursday, September 18, 2008

So Long, Spymeter

Tracking Betrayal
It’s a hard thing, dealing with betrayal. It elicits an emotional response unlike any other: simultaneous shock and sadness, quickly evolving into anger.

Some betrayals are obviously worse than others; and while this one may not rank right up there with marital infidelity, on a more general, personal level, the violation isn’t too far off the mark.

Hopefully I’m not making too big a deal out of it all, but I’ve been really bummed, disappointed, and saddened by what I’ve discovered over the past few days about a company and a product that I used to trust.

Y’know it’s amazing how we anthropomorphize things; just look at people and the love affair they have with their Macs. As a consumer society we’ve become so enamored with ‘our’ products we use in the course of our daily lives; those inanimate things that bring us comfort and joy, especially if we have any kind of ‘history’ with them. The longer we’ve used them, often the deeper that relationship grows. The loyalty can be fierce, or warmly passive, as in our dependence on something so common as a chair: we’re confident that it will be there every time we take that leap of faith we call sitting down — the act of falling backwards onto something we can’t really even see at the time.

But what if the chair breaks and we wind up flat on our ass? What’s our reaction? Who’s responsible? Whom do we accuse? Do we blame ourselves for unwisely assuming our former four-legged friend would support our weight, despite the fact that it had performed the feat perfectly numerous times in the past?

Of course not; we blame the chair.


Sometimes it’s like that in the virtual world too.

We depend on things like web sites, computer programs and hardware to work as they’re supposed to, and when they don’t, we become frustrated and angry, even if they’ve for the most part been a dependable, consistent part of our daily lives.

Take the Internet, for example. There’s nothing more frustrating than waking up one Saturday morning to discover that you ‘have no Internet,’ right? And far more so when you find out the reason you have no access is because ol’ Butt-crack Bobby, the construction worker, dug up your underground coax line with a backhoe.

Now that’s bad enough, but imagine how pissed you’d be to learn that he did it on purpose?

Me and My ‘Meter
Those associated with this blog for any length of time know how fond I have always been of ‘my’ Sitemeter. It’s that little bit of web-counter tracking code that many of we bloggers use to ascertain details about those who visit and frequent our sites.

I have a number of times written fondly of my attempts to gently bring out into the open a number of ‘lurkers’ on my blog; those of whose existence I learned only through seeing them in my Sitemeter logs; they’d visit but never comment. However through these public invitations to coax them out of the shadows, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by my ability to get them to finally speak up and contribute. I like that

I just think it’s fun to go through the Sitemeter logs and try to imagine who my visitors might be and speculate as to what brought them here. It satisfies that basic human instinct that I have in great abundance — mean, curiosity!

And as those of you who use it know, Sitemeter is (or was) the greatest thing since sliced bread. It’s simple, easy to navigate, reasonably comprehensive in the types of basic information it provides via the ‘free’ account (which is how I’ve always rolled). There’s also a paid service that provides much more in-depth statistical analysis and broader features, but I’ve always been happy just to have the ability to know where my visitors are from, when they stopped by, and what referrer (search engine, web link, etc.) brought them here.

So WHY did they have to go and mess it all up?

I am now in the process of converting my three blogs from Sitemeter to its chief competitor, Statcounter, in the wake of the inauspicious ‘upgrade’ of the Sitemeter web site this past weekend (Sept 12-14, 2008).

It was a disaster by anyone’s description.

Fortunately for everyone who uses them, they immediately rolled back to the previous version of Sitemeter within hours of the new launch debacle of the new interface Sunday afternoon; one that they had never even bothered to beta test with ACTUAL USERS.

To their credit, the new interface did offer a wealth of information that users never before had at their disposal. However it was so counter-intuitive and clunky, the thing was virtually worthless (no pun intended).

I was extremely frustrated, but refrained from taking my frustrations out on the company directly; however my show of restraint was apparently in the vast minority. It’s now obvious that the company’s customer service forum was absolutely inundated with complaints and the incoming hate e-mail was off the hook.

But that aside, I still assumed that it would all shake out eventually, so I stepped back, watched some football and revisited the situation later that evening. It was only then that I learned the rollback was in process and realized the level of hell that must have broken loose.

So I did a little digging around the Intertubes to gage the reaction. I figured that any response so drastic must have sent at least a few bloggers screaming straight to their keyboards.

And this is what led to my current action; my decision to say sayonara to Sitemeter. It’s not because they experienced a major gaffe in execution of an upgrade attempt — hell, I hope I’m not that unforgiving.

Nope, this was something that was most likely related (more on that later), but not obviously so. But much more importantly, what I found shocked me, saddened me; infuriated me. It opened my eyes.

To Catch a Thief
Sure, I was all about the frustration with the Sitemeter upgrade alright, but not the one; not the one that happened last weekend.

I did a little Googling to try and unearth recent reaction to what had just happened, but didn’t find any right away. Instead, the material I came up with was over a year old; several blog references from the spring of 2007, revealing the non company-publicized news that Sitemeter had teamed up with SpecificClick, one of the better-known (and most despised) spyware/tracking cookie companies.

Now I was hot!

I learned that I had for the past 18 months unwittingly been serving up spyware to all of my blog’s visitors, and had myself been spied upon by this piece-of-crap excuse for web technology. I just sat there, my mouth agape. I couldn’t believe what I was reading.

And then it hit me like a wet mackerel across the chops. In their advance e-mails and site blogs, Sitemeter, in touting the coming new features of ‘Sitemeter II,’ touted new information-gathering capabilities for its customers that would employ visitor demographics reports as well as ‘User Interest Reports,’ that would reveal “what categories of content people are reading when they are not on your site,” promising to “find out what your visitors’ real interests are.”

I had read that several months ago and it didn’t really faze me at the time; I figured that all these new bells and whistles would be lost on my being a ‘free’ user who used only a fraction of the available features Sitemeter offers its ‘paying’ customers; I pretty much dismissed it without really taking the step of logic to realize just how the aforementioned new features would be employed.

Well, Sunday night was my V-8 moment. I immediately checked my cookie list in Firefox and sure enough, there was SpecificClick.

To assure myself that the illicit cookie wasn’t placed there by a site other than Sitemeter, I cleared out all the cookies in my browser and surfed around a few other sites and checked again.

No SpecificClick!

Then I went to my OWN blog, waited a minute and then again checked a third time, and sonofabitch...there it was, back again.

Needless to say I was livid then, as I am to this minute, 72 hours later.

A Breach of Trust
Sitemeter, I’m sad to say, has betrayed the spirit of the Web in my opinion, and that sentiment is spreading rapidly, especially in the aftermath of their aborted upgrade debacle. They’re taking on water faster than the Titanic.
So I’ve decided. Sitemeter is out; StatCounter is in.

I’d heard good things about StatCounter over the years, but was already emotionally invested in my trusty Sitemeter. I know it’s silly to think of it in those terms, but I considered Sitemeter a true partner in my blogging life. If they’d gotten a dollar for each time I’ve visited their site over the past forty-eight months, well...I’d be broke and they’d be a heck of a lot richer than they are today. Maybe then they wouldn’t have felt the need to do this deal with the devil; but I doubt it.

I suppose that’s really the root of all this: the apparent need to profit at the expense of not only their customers’ (and by extension, the blog-browsing public’s) dollars and cents, but also their privacy.

I don’t begrudge any company the legitimate attempt to gain an honest return on their products and services, but not when it involves the unwitting acquisition of the personal information of its users.

These SpecificClick cookies record and categorize the browsing habits of the web browsers they spy upon, allegedly transmitting that information to Sitemeter’s customers for use in augmenting and/or creating topical content to better attract and interest the violated party who visits their blog or other web site; a pretty audacious means to a purportedly innocent end.

For one thing, that’s a fairly diabolical way of gaining the upper hand that absolutely NO ONE would approve of if reported of in advance to the user. It’s no different than illicitly reading someone’s diary for the purpose of currying favor with them by catering to their innermost hopes and dreams.

However beyond the out-and-out distastefulness of that flavor of data mining, there’s also no guarantee that the collected data will stop there. There is no way I can believe that anyone who could stoop to that kind of technological subterfuge would refrain from using it for other purposes, such as the selling of it to a third party or some other unscrupulous end.

Call me paranoid, but as it is I have enough of a battle on my hands in the battle to retain my freedom, my identity, and my integrity of choice.

Losing my Cookies
So, as of this post, Sitemeter has been officially dispatched. I’ve removed it from my Blog code and it is no longer tracking the visits of this blog’s users.

I now use StatCounter exclusively, which also uses cookies, but not ones that follow you around like a slimy private eye.

Unfortunately, regarding the Sitemeter/SpecificClick spyware problem, that’s not where it ends. I’m obviously not the only one ever used that Benedict Arnold-ware utility. More specifically, a number of my friends and Blogsville neighbors have used it for as long as I did, and likely will continue to.

So the hassle remains; unless all my friends join with me in kicking Sitemeter to the curb, I’m going to have to make it standard procedure to constantly cleanse my cookie roster each and every time I visit their sites — which is not an idea I relish. I hardly expect that anyone besides myself would necessarily follow me down this path I’ve taken. Maybe they don’t see this kind of thing so passionately as I do; maybe they don’t care. And be that as it may, whether or not they do it’s neither my business nor my place to lay such a burden on them.

Making the switch to StatCounter has, admittedly, been an adjustment. I’ve been using it for nearly a week and I like it okay, but I’m just sayin.’ It’s actually a more powerful tool than Sitemeter (at least in its own ‘free’ version). Many of the features it offers free-of-charge are only available in the paid version of Sitemeter, and that’s a nice perk indeed.

However the interface is taking a little getting used to. It’s not that it’s so bad, or that Sitemeter’s was so good; it’s just that it’s not what I’ve been used to looking at for the past four years; and every time I do, I’m once again reminded of why it is I’m looking at it in the first place — because I’ve been betrayed — and that still bums me out, even now..

So I guess the bottom line is, it’s going to be a painful transition — perhaps not drastically so, but uncomfortable nonetheless.

Not that There’s Anything Wrong With That…
Again, to any of you who believe that he doth protest too much, believe me, I’m almost in agreement with you. However in this case, it’s really not that I have anything to hide, it’s like my dearly departed Step Mom, Maxine used to say, “It’s the principal of the thing, dammit!”

Those records of your web site visits hither and yon, around the Interwebs my well never wind up in some shadowy Homeland Security database, but then again, who’s to say they won’t? And even if they don’t, it just doesn’t make it right for anyone to keep tabs on you like that. Again, call me paranoid, but I’m funny about my freedom that way.

So if you’re still into SM (not that there’s anything wrong with that…), fine. Stay with them. I’ll gladly take the time to purge the beasties from my browser after I leave your site. But if you really want to send Sitemeter a message — as I do —letting them know that it’s NOT okay for them to pursue this unscrupulous tactic — then I’d invite you to join me and make the switch to StatCounter or any of the other dozens of similar web traffic utilities out there that won’t spy on you or your blog’s visitors.

It’s up to you, and I’ll like you just as well no matter what. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions.

Now back to some hopefully happier subjects…

blog comments powered by Disqus