Which is the Bigger Spy, Alexa Toolbar or SearchStatus?

SpyVsSpyI wrote Alexa, Valuable Tool or Technical Stalker? and the post generated a good discussion that I thought warranted follow up.

Alexa.com is a service run by Amazon.com that collects traffic information about your site. A browser must have a program installed that will report back to Alexa.com. This service reports your traffic in comparison to other sites on the web. This can be an excellent tool to help determine how your blog is doing.

How Alexa.com Works

To understand the role of these different services, let’s take a look at how the Alexa service works. As you browse different web pages, the program you’ve installed on your computer, collects information and sends it to Alexa.com. There are two programs, that I know of, that will report information back to Alexa.com, the Alexa Toolbar, and SearchStatus for Firefox. Thanks to David Airey for the heads up on the SearchStatus extension.

Now if you read the privacy policy on these programs you will learn the following information:

AlexaLogoWebSitePrivacy policy for Alexa Toolbar:

ALEXA’S TOOLBAR SERVICE COLLECTS AND STORES INFORMATION ABOUT THE WEB PAGES YOU VIEW, THE DATA YOU ENTER IN ONLINE FORMS AND SEARCH FIELDS, AND, WITH VERSIONS 5.0 AND HIGHER, THE PRODUCTS YOU PURCHASE ONLINE WHILE USING THE TOOLBAR SERVICE. ALTHOUGH ALEXA DOES NOT ATTEMPT TO ANALYZE WEB USAGE DATA TO DETERMINE THE IDENTITY OF ANY ALEXA USER, SOME INFORMATION COLLECTED BY THE TOOLBAR SERVICE IS PERSONALLY IDENTIFIABLE. ALEXA AGGREGATES AND ANALYZES THE INFORMATION IT COLLECTS TO IMPROVE ITS SERVICE AND TO PREPARE REPORTS ABOUT AGGREGATE WEB USAGE AND SHOPPING HABITS.

IN ADDITION, WHEN YOU PERFORM SEARCHES USING THE SEARCH FUNCTION AVAILABLE ON ALEXA’S TOOLBAR SERVICE SOFTWARE VERSION 6.5 AND HIGHER OR ON THE ALEXA WEBSITE, YOU OFTEN WILL BE TAKEN TO A WEBSITE DETAIL PAGE AT AMAZON.COM. IF YOU HAVE AN ACCOUNT ON AMAZON.COM AND AN AMAZON.COM COOKIE ENABLED, YOUR SEARCH RESULTS WILL BE TRANSMITTED TO AND LOGGED BY AMAZON.COM AND MAY BE CORRELATED BY AMAZON.COM WITH ANY PERSONALLY IDENTIFIABLE INFORMATION YOU MAY HAVE PREVIOUSLY PROVIDED TO AMAZON.COM.

. . . If you are visiting the Alexa website (alexa.com), we collect the following information: the full Uniform Resource Locator(“URL”) of the Web page from which you came to alexa.com; your Internet Protocol (“IP”) address, which may include a domain name; the date and time for each page you view; the name of and information about any advertisement that brought you to the Alexa website; searches you perform, links you click on; and computer and connection information such as browser type and version, operating system, and platform. We also transmit cookies to your computer so we can track the pages of our website that you view and the order in which you view them.

The emphasis in the privacy policy is mine.

My understanding of the Privacy Policy for Alexa Toolbar

The Alexa Toolbar service will collect and store the following information:

  • Your browsing history, any web pages you view will be recorded
  • The data you enter in online forms and search fields (This could include private financial, bank or medical information)
  • Version 5 or higher – The products you purchase online
  • Version 6.5 or higher – Using the search function on the Alexa website, or toolbar can redirect you to a results page on Amazon.com, and that site will collect and store your data also.
  • Alexa.com will collect referring URL, IP Address and domain name and will use cookies to determine which pages you are browsing on the site.

Update: Thanks to Geoff from Alexa for comments clarifying some of the toolbar policies. The privacy policy is misleading, the Alexa Toolbar does not scrape data from the online form at is leads you to believe, but the data will be caught if it is sent as part of the URL. The privacy policy is written as it is to cover the case of online form data being included in the URL. Geoff reminds me that it isn’t that difficult to turn the toolbar off using the Tool menu, and disabling the Toolbar, and that the toolbar shuts itself off while on secured sites. I would say that this is the type of information that needs to be added to the FAQ, and should be easy to locate.

SearchStatus-FirefoxPrivacy policy for SearchStatus for Firefox:

For every web page you visit while using SearchStatus (excluding secure domains and those you have configured as private), certain information, including your ip address, the url of the web page you visit, and general information about your browser and computer’s operating system will be transmitted from your computer to Alexa. Some of the url’s you visit, which are transmitted to Alexa, will contain information that is personally identifiable.

By downloading SearchStatus you indicate that you understand and agree to this Privacy Policy, including the Alexa Privacy Policy.

The emphasis in the privacy policy is mine.

My understanding of the Privacy Policy for SearchStatus for Firefox:

The SearchStatus extension will collect and store the following information:

  • Your browsing history, any web pages you view will be recorded, excluding secure domains, and those configured as private
  • IP Address, URL of page visited, general browser and OS information will be transmitted to Alexa
  • You are also agreeing to the Alexa Privacy Policy – I am not sure this this includes the Alexa Toolbar section of the Privacy Policy, or just the Alexa.com policy.

From their privacy policy SearchStatus does not mention that they capture data from online forms. I have requested information clarifying their policy on collecting data from these online forms. I received an email reply before this even posted, kudos to Craig at Quirk eMarketing Services, for a speedy reply. From the email:

No, SearchStatus collects as little as possible, which comes down to your current URL and IP address that Alexa needs to provide the Alexa ranking (and take the traffic information the extension provides into account in their algorithm).
No data from forms is analysed  [sic] or collected.

This is very straightforward, SearchStatus does not collect data from forms.

Summary

Alexa.com can be a valuable tool for collecting metrics on how your blog is doing. I use the site daily to measure if I am increasing my rank and reach. The problem is, if a visitor does not have the program loaded that reports back to Alexa, they visit will not be counted, so it is a tool that is skewed towards websites with a larger technical audience.

I think that the Alexa Toolbar, collects and stores too much information for me to be comfortable using the tool, needs to have their privacy policy clarified. If you do want to use the toolbar, do not install it on your primary browser. There does not appear to be an easy way to disable the toolbar if you temporarily do not want to use the service You can disable the toolbar using the Tool menu. So if you shop online, do banking or check your medical information, this data will can be collected and stored.

SearchStatus for Firefox also collects and forwards your browsing history to Alexa, but I did not see anything about capturing data from online forms, which was confirmed by the email. You have the ability to easily disable this extension so you can browse without your actions being recorded.

Of the two, I find the SearchStatus extension for Firefox to be much less invasive. I think the Alexa Toolbar captures too much information and there is no easy way to disable the service. This will also depend on how much of the privacy policy is applicable to SearchStatus. The thing I like the best, is that you can easily disable the SearchStatus extension, but not the Alexa Toolbar.

I do have a request out to clarify if SearchStatus collects data from online forms, as soon as I receive this information I will update this post. Thanks to Quirk eMarketing Services, for their speedy reply.

Post Updated from Reply from Craig at Quirk eMarketing Services and comment from Geoff from Alexa.

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10 Responses to “Which is the Bigger Spy, Alexa Toolbar or SearchStatus?”

  1. Geoff Says:

    Hi Thomas.

    You got it wrong about the Alexa Toolbar. It only collects URLs. It doesn’t scrape the page and collect information in posts or forms. The privacy policy s worded that way because often what you place into online forms appears in the URL, and the URL is sent to Alexa. That’s all. It is the same as SearchStatus.

    Oh, regarding turning off the toolbar, a) it turns itself off whenever on a secure site, and b) how hard is it to go to View | Toolbars and unselect it? I would argue that it is, if anything, less invasive than other tracking toolbars, and having it installed does a public good, for everybody.

    As long as we are on the topic, don’t forget to try our latest toolbar, sparky, for firefox.

  2. Thomas Says:

    Geoff – Thank you for stopping by and clarifying. Reading the privacy policy is misleading, and gives the impression that the data from the page is scraped. I think this would be good information to add to the FAQ. After reading the Privacy policy, my first reaction was to uninstall the toolbar.

    I would say for a less technical person, that turning off the toolbar is not that easy. Would a non technical person think to go to the Tool menu? I did not see any information about turning the toolbar off, or that the toolbar turns itself off on a secured site on your site.

  3. Opal: Vegan Momma Says:

    Thanks for the update Thomas.

    I still won’t use it even if they aren’t doing that now the way that policy is worded the could do it later.

  4. Thomas Says:

    Opal – I agree that a privacy policy should be viewed with a skeptical eye. I received a reassuring email from Geoff about some of the features / functionality of the Alexa Toolbar. The privacy policy still does give me pause.

    I will post this information tomorrow, to ensure that feed readers that may not have received the updates to this post will still receive the information.

  5. Thomas - Technical Blogger Do Scary Privacy Policies Hinder Adoption? « Says:

    […] 2007 — Thomas I wrote up the privacy policy associated with the Alexa Toolbar in my post Which is the Bigger Spy, Alexa Toolbar or SearchStatus? In this post, I review the privacy policy with the Alexa Toolbar and SearchStatus. Reading the […]

  6. David Airey :: Graphic Designer » The Face Behind The Blog update #2 Says:

    […] Since then, however, I thought that the idea had slowed and the momentum was gone. That was until Thomas of Technical Blogger sent me a message asking if I was going to update the original […]

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  8. 18 Key Firefox Extensions That Improve Online Productivity | Ben Parr.com - Better Utilizing Internet Tools For Entrepreneurship, Business, & Online Marketing Says:

    […] SearchStatus does send some of your browsing information to Alexa (that’s how they figure out the website rankings), so be sure you’re comfortable with […]

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