After all this time, Gator was the killer app after all

Years and years ago I worked with the team that produced a very slick little downloadable application called Gator. Gator would watch what Web sites you visited and pop up contextually relevant adverts and coupons in its own window, along with easy form auto-fill and a digital “wallet” for payment information. Gator was vilified by the online community and paraded about as the ultimate triumph of commerce over information, of the evils of capitalism crushing the eager egalitarianism of the mythical “open network”.
Gator, the company, still exists today, and still garners controversy, albeit under its new moniker of Claria Corporation and Gator, the application, has spawned two progeny, Gator Wallet and Dash Bar.
Today my colleagues at LinkedIn told me about a new system, LinkedIn JobsInsider, and rather to my surprise it’s another standalone app that keeps track of where you surf and pops up useful information based on what you’re viewing in your Web browser.


At this point in the evolution of the Web, though, we don’t even think about these tracking applications. The Alexa toolbar, the Google toolbar, the Yahoo toolbar, etc. etc., all dutifully track where you go and report back that information to a central server, and far from people being upset by that violation of privacy, most are eager to download and install one or more of these toolbars on their computer.
LinkedIn JobsInsider is actually quite brilliant and worth a quick explanation, before I go back to the main theme here of software that tracks your surfing. I asked Konstantin Guericke about this new system and here’s his explanation, a day in advance of their demo at Web 2.0 in New York:
“The LinkedIn JobsInsider works with Monster, CareerBuilder, HotJobs, Craigslist and Dice. We noticed that those of our users who are currently looking for a position (between 5-10% of our membership) tended to flip back and forth between LinkedIn and these job boards. They would look for jobs on the major jobs destination sites, but then didn�t bother to apply there since the chances of landing a job without a referral are about as high as a chimp writing the next great American novel. Well, maybe a bit better, but the reality is that it�s really helpful to speak with people at the companies where you are applying, and you are unlikely to find people willing to help you if you just Google them.
“However, when you have the LinkedIn JobsInsider installed (and it takes no screen real estate unless you are on a job board) and look at a job, then it automatically fires off a search to find out if any of your contacts know people at the company that is posting the job.
“Even better, it narrows the results down to those people working at the location where the job is posted and who have indicated they are willing to help people land jobs at their company. With any luck, the person you contact will not only provide you with some good insights into the company�s culture, prospects and hiring process, but also pass on your resume to the hiring manager.”
I think that’s a brilliant intersection of professional online networking and the ingredients that produce a sucessful job search and would like to congratulate LinkedIn on this innovation.
But isn’t it doing the same basic thing that Gator did all those years ago? Isn’t it yet another application that watches what we’re doing, keeps track of the sites we visit and what we view on those sites, then does “something useful” on our behalf?
If I visit a site with the Google toolbar installed, I can instantly see its Google PageRank, a rough but interesting indicator of the relative importance of the site on the Internet. Another toolbar includes Alexa ranking numbers, offering a similar insight and letting me distinguish popular sites from new, unpopular sites.
So what exactly is still upsetting to the people who don’t like Claria’s tracking application? What differentiates a useful, valuable application like LinkedIn JobsInsider from a heinous piece of malware like a spyware application?
Perhaps it’s all in the definition of “something useful” in my earlier comment, after all. Surely something useful is measured on a continuum that inevitably varies for different people. Some are happy to report back information in return for discount codes, coupons, and highly targeted advertising that helps them find the best bargains possible, while others hate the very idea and wouldn’t install and enable a third-party toolbar if you paid them.
Yet in a lot of ways, it was the “reporting back to the mother ship” nature of Gator that caused so much controversy when it first appeared on the scene, a characteristic that is so pervasive now that we are blasé about it and don’t even worry that various companies have the (theoretical, at least) ability to track our every mouse click.
After all these years of Web evolution, after the breathless hype about combining existing technologies in new ways that goes by the moniker of “Web 2.0”, everyone’s just starting to get what I believe the Gator folk figured out a long time ago: tracking what sites I visit and utilizing that data in real time enhances my experience.
LinkedIn had another announcement at the Web 2.0 conference too, focused on a new partnership with America Online. Please read Alex de Carvalho’s cogent analysis for more details.

Update: WIRED Magazine just published an article on Gator –> Claria that nicely demonstrates my thesis here too: Don’t Call it Spyware. Well worth reading…

9 comments on “After all this time, Gator was the killer app after all

  1. Dave,
    I’ve been enjoying your postings for a while now and appreciate the link.
    I remember Gator well and agree that people have less qualms now about installing tracking toolbars. For instance, I rely on PageRank and Alexa as instant indicators of website traffic, although both have shortcomings. The FireFox extensions for these tools take up virtually no real estate and I’ve decided to tradeoff privacy for the utility of these tools. And when I need privacy, I’ll switch on TOR and Privoxy.
    Gator included some fine print in the EULA with instructions on how to remove the software, but nowadays it’s easier to opt-out and uninstall these trackers.
    I’ll be using LinkedIn JobsInsider …
    Alex

  2. “At this point in the evolution of the Web, though, we don’t even think about these tracking applications.”
    You are mistaken.
    I have considered these programs intrusive and obstructive since the first issue of the Alexa toolbar started hijacking my browser.
    I am very vigilant to ensure that nothing of this ilk exists on my computers.

  3. It isn’t that it tracks, it’s that Gator (and others) surreptitiously install the application without the user’s knowledge or assent. Give me the option to install and let me know what I’m installing and, even more important, clearly tell me how to uninstall it.

  4. Hmmm, this sounds an awful lot like google advertising. The internet may be free but it is not without cost.
    Rick Zeien
    Founding Member
    Digichex

  5. If they don’t hide the fact that the software tracks your every move, then it’s up to the individual weather they want it or not. But in todays society, where the government is hacking into the internet to spy on peoples activities, it could turn around and bite you on the butt.
    Especially if you click on a hijacked URL that takes you to a kiddy porn site, hacker site, undergrounds, etc. You could then be flagged as some kind of pervert, hacker, terrorist, etc etc etc.
    I say “No thanks”, I don’t want to be tracked by anyone…..

  6. How about cars that notify dealerships when they reach 100,000 miles so a dealer can follow the driver around and try to sell us a new car. Attorneys that contact couples approaching 7 years of marriage (U.S. average before splitsville) to offer divorce services. Cell phones that call you to remind you of how many minutes you have left and even offer to place a call to someone you haven’t spoken with in a while. Refrigerators that only open if you promise you’ll eat leafy green vegetables instead of cold pizza and beer. You see, the thing is that all of these things would be valued by some people – but we shouldn’t foist them upon everyone. Those of us that are adults, or just like to pretend we are, prefer to make our own decisions about things that matter to us. So let me enhance my own experiences in the real and virtual worlds in the way I want. (Wow, I bet Dave’s really upset he didn’t invent a tool to help people find what the want on the internet instead of a tool offering them things they didn’t care about – if he did, he’d be a google gazillionaire today)

  7. What scares me is that you really believe you are helping people by tracking them and running unknown crap on their PCs. Big Brother thinks he is a do-gooder as well. I hate Gator, unauthorized use of my computer resources by a trojan spy. Computer software has no right to access any web site without my authorization. The only useful information you provided here is that Gator is now called Claria, I will we watching out for them THEM now. Believe me, I DO think about this criminal behavior by people like you, I now run exclusively non-Windows OSes because Windows is the main target of your criminal element.

  8. Here’s the difference, and the reason why Google has it right and everyone else is still playing catch up.
    Gator installs on your computer largely by hijacking legitimate programs you otherwise want. It then monitors what you do and gives you pop-ups, double-underlined ad links, and replaces other advertising with its own advertising.
    Google products install on your computer if and when you want them. It then monitors your web browsing and adjusts its own unobtrusive text ads to better suit you. Oh, and it’s actually pretty damn good about finding stuff that you’d like.
    Just because I’m a male between 18 and 25 doesn’t mean I like dating websites. I would, however, be interested in an unobtrusive article about a fancy new tech item.

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