John Andrews is a Competitive Webmaster and Search Engine Optimization Consultant in Seattle, Washington. This is John Andrews blog on issues of interest to the SEO community and competitive webmasters. Want to know more?

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October 7th, 2008 by john andrews

It seems EVERYONE is stuffing your local Flash storage…

Once in a while I like to remind everyone of some of the trust points that exist out there in Internet land, and this time I will underline the importance of paying attention because dang, it seems just about everyone is stuffing crap into your local Flash storage these days.

Everyone knows about cookies, those little locally-stored files that companies hide on your system so they can refer back to the hidden data later when you come back for another page, or when you visit a partner website. Cookies are what makes the stateless web stateful — without a cookie stored on your machine, a web site cannot relate two web page requests to each other. There would not be any “login” without cookies, because the cookie maintains your status as a logged in user. There can be no “remember me” without cookies, because the cookie is the “memory” storage facility. If you clear your cookies, you will find that websites you visit regularly no longer recognize you (until you fill out the login form again, at which time the website places a new cookie on your system).

Companies would not be able to track you easily either if there were no cookies, because by sharing cookie data companies can share usage data and ultimately track your usage of the Internet. And that’s why people like to clear their cookies. By clearing the cookies, you maintain some control over how you appear to those companies tracking your use of the Internet.

There are other ways to track, however, and one of those has become a major tool of companies these days. I am seeing just about everyone taking advantage of the local storage made available outside of the cookie system by the Flash player. Hiding tracking data in the Flash local storage is nothing new… this has been going on for years. However, lately it is amazing just how much stuff is being stuffed into that Flash storage.

If you want to see for yourself, you simply need to visit the Fash local settings control panels for your system and set your system to “always ask” for requests to utilize the local storage. You will also need to clear the existing permissions and data (which might be quite substantial if you didn’t already know about this “feature” of Flash). And of course be forewarned that clearing your local settings will change your browsing experience. Pandora will forget who you are, for example, as Pandora uses Flash to store your identity. Ditto for other websites, just as if they had been using cookies and you cleared your cookies. You can also access the settings manager with a right-click on any embedded flash object, such as a YouTube video. A right-click should offer a settings option.
It used to be my Flash local storage was stuffed by obvious Flash content… Flash content which desired to store variables or settings for use by that Flash application. Now, however, it seems web designers are placing tiny meaningless little Flash objects into web pages just to utilize the Flash local settings storage for hiding tracking data. Geez… Youtube is barely usable with “always ask” turned on… every few seconds it’s trying to store something locally. Is this really necessary?

Check it out for yourself… visit the Adobe page that displays your Flash local storage settings manager, clear the junk they’d already stored on your system, clear the list of “allowed websites”, and set your privacy to “always ask”. Then resume surfing and be amazed as your are contsantly interrupted by web site after web site seeking to store stuff on your system.

Beware that you’ll need to visit most of the tabs of the Flash local settings manager app to be sure you get all of it… not just the “Global Privacy Settings”. They have some redundancy in there and certainly didn’t make it easy to take control of your own system.

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August 5th, 2008 by john andrews

Another Security Breech – CLEAR

Another example of the fast and loose behavior of today’s wanna be businesses comes with the CLEAR program’s misplaced laptop computer. CLEAR is a security program sanctioned by the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). You may have seen the CLEAR people at airports, pitching their program as a fast-track through airport security. Similar to expedited border crossing programs like Nexus (US-Canadian border) and SENTRI (US-Mexican border) Trusted traveler programs, only owned and operated by a private company, CLEAR is supposed to be as secure as the normal border patrol process. Last week CLEAR “lost” a laptop with the personal information of 33,000 applicants to the security program. Several days later, the missing laptop was “found” in the same office where it was “lost”. The CEO said this:

“We don’t believe the security or privacy of these would-be members will be compromised in any way.”

but he didn’t elaborate on how that could be, address whether or not the data was encrypted, how the data is protected, etc. No audit trail, no explanation of where that laptop was for several days, and apparently no concern beyond getting past this ugly public relations incident. It seems obvious that someone with access to that office knows something about where the laptop went and how it came back, right? We can only hope that someone in our government will look into this breech of security and figue out why it happened and how it can be prevented in the future.

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June 3rd, 2008 by john andrews

Home Page Privacy Link Lowers Conversions

How do you explain that Google doesn’t want to post a home page privacy link, and is willing to violate California law by refusing to include the privacy policy link on the Google homepage? It must hurt conversions.

Google is a serious web company and Google tests things before deploying them. The privacypolicy is an important aspect of web publishing, and even Google , with its significant investment in trading in people’s personal information, supports the idea that a privacy policy enhances trust and quality of a web site. Yet Google won’t put it on the home page, where the law says it has to be. Why not?

It must hurt the business, that’s why.

When you consider what would be important to Google, you first must consider profits. Conversions. How well the web page (and site) perform the intended tasks. And if testing shows that the presence of a privacy link on the home page reduces page performance (tracking whatever success metrics have been defined), then the wise business decision is to not post that link. If there is a law requiring the link, the wise business decision is to weigh the relative risks and rewards for compliance, and act in accordance withthe corporation’s best interests. Al lis not black and white in business. Any law is arguable, and arguing costs money. The balance has to be in the corporate favor. Otherwise, rst assured Google would post a privacy link.

So what is the defind conversion that is hurt by the presence of that link?

I’m betting it’s cookie clearing, but I haven’t studied the situation. If n% of readers click through to see they are tracked by cookies, m% of those n% may clear their cookies at that moment, or look to learn more about cookies and how to use cooies washers etc. But that’s just an off-hand opinion. You have to consider everything — click thru rates off the task of running a query, click offs to privacy web sites, secondary searches for Google and privacy, etc etc. Everythign detracts from the initial desired actionof user querying Google to find stuff. And that’s what Google will always choose to hide behind. Google can always say that the link detracts from the user experience. Privacy advocates argue back that a seven letter hyperlink doesn’t clutter the page much, doesn’t “detract” much, and Google can counter with the old web designer response “well, if everyone requested a 7 letter hyperlink from the home page, the home page would be all cluttered…” etc.

Google tests, and it is safe to assume testing has revealed that privacy homepage link hurts the page goal achievement rate. And it hurts enough to warrant resisting the laws of the state where Google is incorporated.

privacy rights clearing house

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John Andrews is a mobile web professional and competitive search engine optimzer (SEO). He's been quietly earning top rank for websites since 1997. About John

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