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Web bugs draw interest of online traffic auditors

Online auditor ABC Interactive teams with an application service provider to use a browser-based auditing procedure to verify Web site traffic numbers and patterns.

    Online auditor ABC Interactive said Monday it has teamed with an application service provider to use a browser-based auditing procedure to verify Web site traffic numbers and patterns.

    Advertisers use such audits to determine people's purchasing behaviors. To date, the technique has focused on analyzing Web site log files.

    However, San Diego-based WebSideStory says it is offering a different method of collecting and analyzing data: Its service takes advantage of so-called clear-GIF pixels. Labeled "Web bugs" by privacy advocates and "Web beacons" by advertisers, the technology uses controversial, invisible tags on Web sites to measure traffic and provide other data on Web site usage.

    Privacy advocates say the use of Web bugs is widespread but that it raises consumer concerns because it's not adequately disclosed.

    WebSideStory said it believes its technology is more protective of consumer privacy than other methods of gathering traffic data such as Web server log files. The company added that it does not link data to personal information or an individual's Web surfing habits, but uses only aggregate traffic figures.

    In contrast, Net companies monitoring traffic via log files have the ability to combine personal data with surfing habits. Collecting information this way can result in data overload for Net companies that seek to cull only a few, key bits of information about traffic patterns. Maintaining the exhaustive amount of data that log files produce can also contribute to what privacy advocates call "data spill," which occurs when personal information is made available online through a technical glitch at a company.

    "The less data people save, the less privacy issues there are," said Richard Smith, chief privacy officer at the Privacy Foundation.

    WebSideStory also said its service, dubbed HitBox Enterprise, is "cost-effective," especially for people that use multiple servers supporting their Web sites. The company said its technology enables advertisers and Web site operators to audit without installing software at each server. ABCi will be the first auditor to use the service.

    Scott Hanson, vice president of auditing services for ABCi, said that WebSideStory's technology is complementary to, rather than a replacement for, current methods of tracking Web sites and consumer behavior.

    "Our strategy is really to make audits available to any Web site?that is in the business of selling ad space," Hanson said. "By opening this relationship with HitBox Enterprises, it broadens the number of Web sites that can take advantage of our services."

    News.com's Stefanie Olsen contributed to this report.