Getting Details of Visitors

Recently, we have been approached by several clients who have been told by other companies that by installing some software that you can either get daily reports showing the names and contact details (business names, phone numbers, email addresses etc) of people visiting their websites or get immediate emails giving the same information.

The questions that we are always asked are :-

  1. Is this possible and
  2. Will it harm the website

This blog post aims to answer both of those questions.

Is it possible to get visitors details without them knowing it?

Technically, yes, it is possible to get some details some of the time. The explanation for this somewhat obscure answer is given below.

This next  bit is fairly technical but we have tried to make it as simple as possible – you do need to read it however to understand the process that is used to get visitors details.

The first thing to remember is that every visitor to a website comes into the site using what is called an IP address – this address is used to send the information back from the website to the visitors browser and is normally in the format nnn.nnn.nnn.nnn (called a dotted quad).  Everything that is connected to the internet (web servers, routers, modems etc) has an IP address with the typical office having an external IP address (used to connect to the internet and assigned by your ISP [internet service provider]) and then several internal IP addresses used by the PCs and printers in the office so that they can “talk” to each other.

There is also a system called DNS (domain name system) which allows domain names to be converted to IP addresses, this system is what is used when you visit a website (for example) or send an email.  Basically you type in http://www.domain.co.uk into your web browser, this then talks to something called a name server and says “where is http://www.domain.co.uk?”.  The name server looks up a database and replies “you need to go to IP address 83.223.118.24” (the IP address given is made up so please do not try to visit it).  At this point the browser says “ok – 83.223.118.24 can you show me the website for http://www.domain.co.uk?” and the server says “here you go…”.

Apologies if you already knew about IP addresses DNS and networking protocol and are sitting there thinking “it’s a lot more complex than that” but as I am sure you would agree this is a summary of what happens.

The process used by the visitor tracking software is that it takes this IP address and does something called a reverse DNS look up which is, as the name suggests where the IP address is looked up and the domain name associated with that address is worked out.  The domain name is then passed to something called a “who-is” which takes the domain name and looks up who it is registered to along with any contact details linked to the name.  Finally some versions of the process will look up the website at the domain name and will try to find a contact page to confirm the details such as address, phone number and email address.

The flow chart below shows the basic steps :-

Tracking website visitors flowchartWhy did you say “some” details and “some” of the time?

If you remember, the idea is to be able to get visitors contact details so you can email or call them to see if you can help them as they have been looking at particular pages of your website.

The problem is that not all visitors will have an IP address that relates to their business.  For example the author was recently on his way back from a meeting and called into a service area on the M6 to grab a coffee, check emails and while he did this he also looked at a couple of websites.  The process detailed above would have told you that the visitor to your site belonged to toto services, which is not a lot of use.  Similarly of your visitor was using free wi-fi in McDonalds, Starbucks or one of the hundreds of other free wi-fi locations or was using BT open zone wi-fi you would not have their correct details.

Let’s assume however that the visitor is using an ADSL connection from their office and lets further assume that this is a fixed IP address (not something that all ISPs provide unless asked for as there are a limited number of IP addresses available).  You look up the IP address using a reverse DNS lookup and find the owner of the IP address and shock, horror, it isn’t the details of the visitor.  For example, the IP address of the connection here is 212.69.47.155, doing a reverse DNS lookup on this address shows that I am supposedly cust155-dsl47.idnet.net, located in Hitchin in Hertfordshire (only about 200 miles from where I am actually located).  Looking up idnet.net gives you the ISP’s contact details and not my details.

Try looking up your details at http://whatismyipaddress.com/ (this gets your external IP address), taking the domain name associated with that IP address and going to http://www.kloth.net/services/whois.php, entering the domain name and see if this lists your contact details.

Alternative;y. if have AWStats installed on your website have a look at the Hosts –> Full List section and see how many of those have a company name that you might recognise.  The author has just looked at one website for this month and of the 1,532 visitors that had a reverse DNS record set only 3 of them had a record that looked as if it was a valid company that could be tracked, all of the others were related to their ISP.

Something else to consider is that even if the process works, the best it can give you is the contact details listed on the who-is (or maybe on the contact page of the website belonging to the visitors domain).  This is not necessarily going to be the person that was looking at your website.  You are a firm of Accountants and someone has looked at the tax advice page on your website – is this the FD of the business (if there is one), the accountant (again if there is one), the owner or even a member of staff that needs help with a tax return.  Or, someone has looked at your page that contains advice about starting a new business – are you really going to ring the telephone number that the software gives you and ask to speak to the person that is thinking of leaving their current job and start a new business?

Does it harm my website?

In all honestly no, it’s not likely to harm your website apart from slowing down the page load speed a little (as long as the server the software is loaded onto is up – if it’s down then it could in theory stop your web page from loading), although web page load speed is a factor in the search engines rankings the difference is likely to be minimal.

However, with all the debate about privacy that is going on at the moment how would your prospects feel knowing that you have installed software that potentially gives you all of their contact details.  Also, you would need to make sure that this use of “non-client” data was covered in your Data Protection Act registration.

Finally I’d be interested in hearing from anyone that has installed this kind of software or used this kind of service.  Did it work as you hoped? Did you get good quality leads from it or did you end up “upsetting” people who realised that you had been “spying on them”?

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