Do you pay attention to the URL before clicking on a link? If you do, you will have noticed that sometimes the link gets really long and that the URL contains random or descriptive characters.
Look at this mess.
That is the URL I got after searching for "Microsoft". Here is a trimmed version of the same.
Why is this so important? In a nutshell, tracking.
All websites store cookies in your browser to display the content on their webpages, to help you login, and also to serve ads. While cookies are one of the ways that websites can use to track you, it's not the only method that's implemented for this purpose.
A seemingly harmless URL can be used for tracking user activity. The most common example for this would be a referral or affiliate link that takes you to a particular site (landing page). It will send some information about you to the original site (the referrer).
For e.g. example.com/?ref=somewebsite
This will take you to example.com, but when this data is sent to the server, the site will know which page you visited, and which website you came from (for e.g. "somewebsite" since it was the referrer). The same can be said about Google, Twitter, Facebook, Shopping websites, Blogs, etc. While sites may get the info from the referrer header value as well, it is possible to block this in the browser so that it is not submitted.
Email newsletters are another medium in which such links are used casually. When you click on them the website will know the source, i.e. the newsletter link. That's quite a privacy risk, but URL based tracking can be reduced with the help of some add-ons.
While extensions like uBlock Origin (and the ad filters) help prevent most trackers, they don't clean the tracking elements from "normal" URLs. This is why you should use something like ClearURLs or Neat URL. We'll be discussing the latter here.
Install Neat URL and its icon appears on the toolbar. You can click on the button to disable the add-on at anytime. The icon displays a badge on it that represents the number of trackers that were trimmed from the URL.
How does this work?
All tracking URLs use certain patterns. For e.g. many URLs have a ? which is followed by a random string that's used for tracking
Here's an example URL
And here's the Neat URL version of the same.
Can you spot the differences between the two links? The second URL has been trimmed, it is missing the content after the ?, in this case these attributes: "utm_source" and "utm_medium". The first parameter tells the website where I visited the page from, in this case an RSS Feed. The second one is useful for marketing reasons: to show the direction/origin of the traffic (direct link, Google, etc.).
Neat URL uses a parameter based system that is used to detect and remove unwanted content from links. The above link for example was trimmed because of the following rule.
Campaign tracking (utm):
This will remove anything that includes "utm_" in the URL. For e.g. utm_source, utm_RSSfeed or whatever the link contained.
While Neat URL trims most of the common tracking terms from the URLs, it doesn't include all words by default. But it offers us a way to add custom parameters. This is very useful for filtering content that you want to remove, especially from specific domains.
Here's another URL (from my email) that has a tracker.
If we want to block the "snr" parameter, we need to set up a custom rule for it. Right-click on the Neat URL button and select preferences.
Scroll down to the third box. It is labeled "Blocked Parameters". Type the letters snr in the box. Go to the end of the page and click on the "Save preferences" button. Load the same URL, you should see a badge on the counter that reads 1, to indicate 1 change was made to the URL (since there was only 1 tracker).
Similarly, you can add other parameters to block different trackers. You may also use domain specific rules like [email protected], [email protected], etc. Scroll down the page to disable (whitelist) the extension on specific websites.
You may have noticed that Neat URL has a lot of default parameters at the top of its options page. Each rule that's listed in the box has a label. Unfortunately, the add-on does not support labels for custom parameters, at least not yet. So don't bother labeling your custom parameters, e.g. Campaign tracking (example): snr. That won't work. Instead, use only the word to be blocked. Add commas as the delimiter between parameters, e.g. tracker, snr, utm_*.
Neat URL is an open source extension. It is based on Lean URL.
If the extension sounds complicated and you don't need custom rules, go with ClearURLs. It has a lot of default rules that works out of the box, and also supports removing redirects from links.
Neat URL is pretty good with custom parameters though.
Before you go, take a look at our article about Firefox containers, which can further help in preventing websites tracking your activity on other sites.Advertisement
Ghacks is a technology news blog that was founded in 2005 by Martin Brinkmann. It has since then become one of the most popular tech news sites on the Internet with five authors and regular contributions from freelance writers.