Googlestalking 101: Does My Ex Know I Found His Blog?
Dearest Amalah Bringer of Much Laughter,
I am so enjoying reading your “blog”; I started at the beginning, and am working my way up (I’m to November 2005). You bring me so much laughter, and I can’t wait to see what happens next!
You and I share a hobby: looking up people we used to know on Google. I think this hobby might have caused a little bit of a problem.
I was avoiding doing actual work one day, and I happened to be looking up an ex-boyfriend (among other people I’ve known), and found that he and his wife had a baby gift registry posted on some baby-gift-registry-website. I was so excited to learn that they were expecting, that I clicked on the link, like some creepy internet stalker. I glanced at the registry, and moved on. I also found that they have a blog. A blog! Isn’t this google search paydirt?!? I was so excited because I though I could totally see what he’s been up to (incidentally, this is a boyfriend from a loooong time ago. There are no hard feelings, and we were friends for YEARS after we broke up… until he got engaged, and new fiancee put an end to things, which I totally understand). Anyway, I clicked on the link to the blog, and there was a home page with, gulp, a GORGEOUS baby picture. I wanted to see more, so I clicked on said blog, and was met with a request for a password. Uh? What? I may have clicked on the link one or two more times, because… I’m an idiot. So, the next day I tried again, because… well, you know. I also tried the link to the baby registry, and was met with a window telling me that the owners of the registry had shut it down (it was old, but OH. MY. GOD.) They know… oh no, they know… they know some creepy internet stalker ex-girlfriend is trying to look at the unpurchased items on their (THEIR!) baby registry. I can totally imagine ex-boyfriend’s poor recently-given-birth wife sitting in her house getting the creepy stomach feeling. AAKKK! What have I done?!?
So, my question to you is this… do they know? Seeing as how you have a blog, you can probably answer this question. How much do you know (or can you discover) about the people who click on your site? Do they know it was me? (It wouldn’t be hard to figure out, if they could see my e-mail address). I feel terrible. And sneaky. And a wee bit dirty.
Thanks for your time,
Ok, time for a little Internet 101 Talkyspeak here: In order to correctly identify someone via blog visitor stats, you need to know that person’s IP address. Their Internet Protocol address. Which is a series of four sets of numbers separated by periods. Like, say…123.456.78.9. Your email address is not tied to your computer and is not part of the digital trail you leave behind when you visit a web site, unless you have physically typed it in somewhere. And on its own, even your IP address tells a blog owner very little, other than (with some blogging software) whether or not that IP address has left a comment before.
(Helpful hint for trolls! We can tell when you’re posting different comments under different names and email addresses in order to agree with yourself, or if you’ve previously left non-trollish comments with your real email or blog address. In conclusion: we know it’s you, and we think you’re doubly stupid now. FAIL.)
What a blogger CAN do with an IP address is plug it into a reverse lookup search engine and figure out a few things about the user — their city and state, usually, and sometimes where they work. (Your work computer’s IP address will usually track back to your company, but not always.) Sometimes we find out nothing at all, if the user is on a dial-up connection (which means they receive a new IP address every time they log on to the Internet) or if their IP address tracks back to their network provider and not any specific computer information. (My IP address tells you that I use Verizon, and that’s it.) It all depends on how your computer and Internet connection is set up — I’m not even going to discuss routers and proxies and other things that complicate the whole shebang.
It’s NOT a 100% exact science, in any case, and bloggers who jump to hysterical conclusions because OH MY GOD, SOMEONE IN TOPEKA, KANSAS VISITED MY BLOG I BET IT’S SO-AND-SO WHO I THINK LIVES IN KANSAS, OH MY GOD I BETTER SHUT DOWN MY BLOG RIGHT NOW need to chill out and step awaaaay from their visitor stats.
So. In order for your ex-boyfriend to KNOW that you visited his blog, he’d have to 1) go in to his web stat program and see that someone found his blog via the search terms you used in Google. If those search terms sparked some interest and/or alarm (i.e. his real name does not actually appear on the blog), he would then 2) look for the IP address of the person who came to the site via those search terms. He would then 3) plug that address into a IP lookup engine. Since you were at work, it’s possible your workplace came up, and if he knows where you work (and your company isn’t some HUGE multinational behemoth with thousands of employees, SEVERAL of whom he may know), then…yes. He could perhaps accurately deduce that you were Googlestalking him.
(If you’d like to see what information your IP address reveals, try this: Find your computer’s IP address by either visiting http://whatismyipaddress.com/ or by following these instructions. Then plug that number into WHOIS or other IP lookup search engine.) (There are millions of them, some giving you more info than others.)
This is all assuming, by the way, that he even cares or checks his stats that obsessively. A very small, newbie blogger might. Anyone who’s been online for any reasonable amount of time quickly learns that your stat program will regularly reveal a ton of weird search terms (some that are indeed downright creepy, but hey, it’s not like those people are actually FINDING information about “monkey diaper sex” or “toe fell off how to reattach at home” at your blog) and random visitors from all over the place. Most of us are more interested in what blogs are linking to us than looking up the IP of everybody who visits, unless we have other reasons to feel unsafe.
Personally, I only notice the IP addresses of commenters, AFTER they’ve left a rude or upsetting comment. I use Typepad to search for other comments from that IP address (just to check if there’s a pattern). I then may choose to ban that IP address from commenting. (Some blogging programs allow you to actually ban that IP address from visiting at all, using htpaccess, but Typepad does not. If you’ve been banned from a site you’ll just get bounced or an error message — you won’t see the homepage and then get asked for a password, like you did.)
I don’t automatically ban an IP address after one icky comment though, because the person may be using dial-up or a university computer and a ban means I may be inadvertently banning non-trollish readers from commenting as well. If I get a couple questionable comments from the same IP address, or if I can tell that ONE person has been responsible for MULTIPLE comments from that address — even nice ones, before suddenly deciding to leave something really nasty under a different user handle and fake email address — I’ll ban them. I can’t honestly tell you the last time I checked my Google search referrals or looked up a silent, non-commenting visitor’s IP address.
And! From your email, it sounds like the blog was ALREADY password-protected BEFORE you visited. So…yeah. That has absolutely nothing to do with you. They simply chose to password protect the majority of the blog beyond the home page. Totally not uncommon, particularly for new parents who are just using the Internet to show off baby pictures to a closed circle of friends and family.
As for the registry…I really, really, really doubt that had anything to do with you either. I’ve used online registries and you generally don’t get to see your visitor stats there, at least anything beyond a basic counter, IF THAT. The registry site is not emailing them with a daily rundown of OMG, SOMEONE IN TOPEKA FOUND YOUR REGISTRY VIA GOOGLE. RELEASE THE DELETION HOUNDS. It’s more likely that the registry was deleted because…the baby was born? Yes? You saw a picture? So…coincidence, pure and simple.
If you’d been able to click through one day and read all about his new family and baby…and then gone back a couple days later and THEN been hit with the password prompt…maybe I would possibly say that maybe you were identified. But even then…just like there are a lot of people in Topeka, Kansas and a lot of people who may work at Huge Multinational Behemoth Corp., there are a LOT of reasons people delete and password-protect their blogs that have nothing to do with one innocent Google drive-by.
It IS important, though, to not completely disregard your digital footprint when looking up people on Google. Most of the time, it’s true that they’ll never know that you found their LinkedIn profile or viewed their race time on that charity 5K they ran two years ago. Personal sites, however, where they can access visitor stats and see what IP addresses visited (and how they got there, and for how long, and how many pages they clicked on), it may be possible for them to figure you out based on your IP address. Again, this is assuming a lot of monitoring and a dash of paranoia on their side, AND that your IP address gives away information that they actually already know. They aren’t going to see your email address unless you leave it; they probably aren’t going to pay any attention to your IP address unless you start leaving creepy comments.
For more anonymous browsing, copy-and-paste Google results into a new browser tab or window instead of clicking through from Google — this will register as a direct hit and wipe your search terms out of the site owner’s stat program. Or surf the web using a cloaking service like http://anonymouse.org/. This hides your IP address via a proxy server, thus keeping what little info they may be able to glean about you secret.
Googlestalk responsibly, kids. Don’t waste mental energy looking up people you really should leave in your past, keep it to people you’ve left on good terms, and…you know…respect the restraining orders.
Published September 25, 2008.
Last updated September 25, 2008.