When opening a website, not only an HTTP request is sent to the directly visited website as displayed in the browser’s address bar; numerous other HTTP requests to third-party entities are transmitted in the background. Technically, third-party scripts are designed to be processed invisibly and without the users’ interaction, as they are embedded in the webpage’s code and run within the domain of the visited website. The page fetching of the directly visited website triggers HTTP requests to entities of different kinds.
Some of them refer for example to Content Distribution Networks (CDN), which enhance a website’s performance in loading data-intensive content. However, many third-party HTTP scripts load specialized web tracking services, which are capable of tracking users across different websites through embedded third-party scripts.
The penetration of websites through the ten most frequent third-party trackers has almost doubled from 40 percent to 70 percent between 2005 and 2008.
In the same span, the average number of trackers per site has speedily grown. The digital advertisement industry and accompanying ecosystems are continuously evolving, undergoing rapid changes.
Yet displaying advertisement is not common or desired on all kinds of websites. For instance, on websites of religious or governmental context, advertisement is less likely to be encountered. In other words, some parts of the web are inaccessible from the ad-trackers point of view, as advertisement is unnecessary in this realm. However, Facebook and other social media plugins address different needs compared to pure ad-related services by bringing multifaceted value to websites that do not seek monetization of their website through ads. Users benefit through personalized content or single log-ins (e.g. Facebook Login) for instance. Conversely, publishers can potentially increase awareness and reputation for any kind of web content through social interactions of their visitors. The implementation of social media plugins allows the operators of such widgets to retrieve information from the embedding site and learn about its users.
Among the top 3,000 globally popular websites, the clear dominance of Google-owned scripts is striking.
A website using third-party scripts has embedded 16 individual services on average. Aggregating all individual services belonging to Google (such as Google Analytics, DoubleClick, Google AdWords,…), Google is present in nine of ten websites of the sample. Despite Facebook – the provider of the most frequently embedded social media plugin – is present on a large proportion of the sample websites, the categories of websites on which social media plugins are frequently encountered do not substantially differ from websites on which Google – the leading provider of ad-related services – is present. It appears that the distinct relationship between social media plugins and the embedding site does not give Online Social Networks an advantage over other tracking services regarding possible applications of third-party tracking. Facebook, however, has managed to emerge as a serious counter-weight regarding the penetration of third-party websites by bringing a distinct value to the embedding websites in the form of social plugins.
A few third-party scripts on the top have a very high diffusion, whereas most of the 935 individual third-party scripts are only present on a slim number of websites.
The high concentration of market shares is likely to reinforce the predominance of the leading web trackers. Highly concentrated markets with a few prevailing platforms are a typical outcome in internet economics, where markets have strong network externalities and multi-sided platforms.
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