Analytics

How To Get (or Give) 30,000,000 Links

Let’s play a game. What do all these sites have in common:

Philly.com
Compact Appliance
MSNBC
Hewlett-Packard
Centers for Disease Control & Prevention
AARP
MLB.com
Cornell University
Pontiac
Sports Illustrated

Ok – how many people came up with this: they all use Omniture as an analytics tool? If you did, you get partial credit because that’s only half the story.

Let’s examine part of the source code for sportsillustrated.cnn.com. And don’t forget – this is a page rank 8 site:

SI code

If you’ve looked at Omniture code before, you’ve probably seem something like this before. However, have you ever noticed the line about halfway through this code that starts with < noscript >? It contains a link to Omniture with the title “Web Analytics” (keeping in mind that “title” is different than anchor text). The rest of this tag loads a 1×1 tracking pixel (that’s what comes after img src). Now, I’m not a coding expert, but it looks to me like this is a link to Omniture.

Omniture link

That’s right. All the sites above link to Omniture.

Don’t believe me? Let’s examine further. I ran a link analysis on the homepage of the CDC site. There are 17 external links off www.cdc.gov:

Notice the last link points to Omniture, although it does not have any anchor text associated with it.

Ok, so we’ve established that there are external links pointing to Omniture from sites that have Omniture installed. Then I started thinking about how many sites actually use Omniture and how many links that must be. To give you a rough idea, Wikipedia has 48,400,000 links while Omniture has 39,300,000. To be fair, I repeated those searches multiple times and came up with different numbers but every time, Wikipedia and Omniture had tens of millions of links.

yahoo links

To put those numbers into even more context, WebTrends has 47,900 links. Unica and Coremetrics have fewer than 10,000 links. (For fun, look back at the image and check out the number of .edu links that both Omniture and Wikipedia have.)

I did notice, however, that not all sites that use Omniture have this link included. While sportsillustrated.cnn.com has the link, cnn.com appears not to have it. CNN’s code does call for the 1×1 pixel, but the noscript does not contain the link:

CNN code

I have not been able to figure out the pattern by which Omniture-using sites have the link and which do not. I am not sure if it depends on the version of the code that is installed or if it is individual manipulation of the code, but I do know that it is not included on every install.

After I got this far in my analysis, I started wondering if other analytics tools are using the same sort of tactic. After all, many analytics packages will call a 1×1 pixel in a noscript tag. Here’s what a 1×1 pixel from WebTrends looks like:

WebTrends pixel

The code simply calls the 1×1 pixel, no img alt, no link to WebTrends, no text like “Web Analytics.” Clean. Simple. Quantcast also calls a 1×1 pixel. Additionally, Quantcast does have a link back to the site, but the link points to a page that is not the homepage. Every install of this tag points to a different page.

Quantcast pixel

Now I’m sure the engines discount some of the Omniture links, particularly because many of the sites with Omniture installed have these links on every page (since Omniture tracking code must be installed on every page). For example, a Yahoo search reveals 21,100 pages on CompactAppliance.com that link to Omniture:

CompactAppliance Omniture links

To me, it just doesn’t seem right. Particularly because this link is buried under a line that says, “Do not alter anything below this line.” It’s also suspicious because there is a title that says “Web Analytics.” Why not just “Omniture”? As a web analyst for our clients, I often request that clients add tracking code to their pages. However, I only want to install what is absolutely necessary to get the job done. Moreover, if this is an attempt to gather links, where does it stop? It seems like a slippery slope of stuffing things into noscript tags.

In researching this post, I came across some others who have discussed uses of the noscript tag. In late 2006, Eric Enge wrote about uses of noscript and in his post, mentions a WebmasterWorld forum that suggests that noscript links do not pass PageRank. I tried to look for an official answer from Google, but this is as close as I got. From this, I gather that Google wants you to have the same content in javascript as in the noscript tag, which doesn’t seem to be the case with these Omniture links. In the comments to Eric’s post, “Marshall” mentions that a shopping cart company is dropping links in the noscript as well. As Eric responds, “The issue is that the company using the shopping cart does not even know that they are linking to the shopping cart company.” How many Omniture users know the code contains a link to Omniture? Additionally, Stephan Spencer uncovered a similar tactic being used by Bidvertiser in early 2007.

All of this makes me wonder how widespread this practice might actually be. And it would be interesting if Google (or Matt Cutts) could address this issue specifically. Is this an acceptable practice? If not, are these links discounted in any way? Do (or will) companies that engage in this type of practice face any repercussions? For now, I’m going to be paying much closer attention to code that is “required” to be installed on client sites.