Tuesday, April 21, 2009

I am Big Brother

Although I vowed in a November post (Blog site counters—or spyware?)  that I wouldn’t use Sitemeter here, not long afterwards I added it to this blog. It’s the little green box at the bottom of the screen.

The information that Sitemeter provides was just too alluring. Among its many features are:

• a world map that shows the location where this blog’s readers were the moment they looked at it;
• which posting(s) they looked at;
• how long they looked at the posting (it’s disappointing to see that many readers only look at this blog for “0 seconds,” although that seems humanly impossible);
• the search terms they used to get to it; and
• the referring web sites that sent them here.

In case you're wondering why you don't see all of these things when you look at Sitemeter, I’ve blocked access to this info to the outside world.

Through Sitemeter’s World Map feature I see that in April alone I’ve had anonymous readers from more than eight countries including Russia, South Africa, Taiwan, Indonesia and India. (However, to be perfectly honest, many of the readers from other countries account for the “0 seconds” searches.) This is something I never achieved in my days as the publisher of a very small magazine. I had a few foreign subscribers, but not from such a breadth of countries. However, one might argue that my magazine subscribers really wanted to read the product; it was not something they just happened to click on, or which showed up in a list of search results. They actually paid for it, including the additional cost of international postage.

Sitemeter’s “By Referrals” feature has shown me which web sites have linked to my blog. This is something that cannot be easily found with a Google search, and which other bloggers seem to do quietly on their own. (I’ll list these in a separate post someday since I’d like to acknowledge and thank them).

It’s also through Sitemeter that I’ve discovered that I may never live down the “Beautiful Poem” I wrote on poetry.com—someone searching for “poems on flatulence” found my blog posting about that silly submission.

But Sitemeter gives me a little too much information sometimes. If a friend from Wyoming told me that he or she looks at my blog, I’d know they are lying—the Sitemeter World Map shows no readers from Wyoming. I try not to use Sitemeter to spy on people I know who may have looked at my blog, though sometimes I discover it accidentally.

The too-much-information category would also include details on what kind of computer system the person was using (Mac or Windows), the names of businesses and organizations in whose computers the person typed the search (if they didn't do it at home), and what their Internet provider is. The worst example of this is that I know that in April, someone at a specific YMCA in a specific town in Connecticut searched for “HBO real sex lick it” and wound up looking briefly at my essay, On getting free HBO for a month.

Sitemeter is quietly gathering all this information to use as I wish. I won’t use most of it. All I'm really curious about is how people find this blog. But I wonder, as I said in my previous post, who else might be gathering and looking at such information and for what purposes they might use it.  Perhaps there is a hidden cost to so much free information on the Internet, especially when it's being distributed by sinister or greedy people.

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