Executive Summary: You can configure Firefox to hide your referer string (aka: referrer string), which – amongst other benefits – helps to mask any suggestive Google searches you may have done to probe a site.
Covering the Footprints in the Sand
When analysing other websites from an Online Reputation perspective, I usually want to know a variety of different things about the site, and about Google’s opinion of pages in that site. Questions might include “Which pages about my client are most visible?” or “When did the site first mention a new product?“
Conceivably you might even need to know:
“Which pages, published in the last three months, mention a competitor and have received more than one comment, but don’t also mention my client’s new product?“
This means that over a short period, I can make dozens of searches, and then visit three or four of the pages that appear in each of the results.
The owners of the target website will be able to check their server logs, and see exactly which keywords have referred them traffic; some of these can be a dead giveaway if someone is checking the site for ORM issues. For example, seeing that someone had been searching for these would set bells ringing:
- site:reviewsite.com “brand name”
- site:reviewsite.com “brand name” inurl:complaints
Whaddya Gonna Do About It?
Fortunately, it’s not hard to prevent your browser from passing the referer string (and hence search phrases) to the site. Just work your way through this little checklist:
1 – Go out and get a proper browser
2 – In the Firefox browser bar, type about:config
3 – Yes, this may ‘void’ your ‘warranty’. If a warning message pops up, just ‘promise to be careful’
4 – In the ‘Filter’ box, type ‘referer’
5 – You’ll see the line named ‘network.http.sendRefererHeader‘
6 – Double click the line to bring up the dialog box, enter 0 and click ‘OK’
7 – Check to see that Firefox isn’t passing your referer string by clicking through to this referer checking page, and ensure that the first line is blank.
(There’s more information about network.http.sendRefererHeader – and a warning that some sites might not work correctly after changing it – at the Mozillazine Knowledge Base)
You’re all done now, and can happily probe away without revealing your search keywords to webmasters. If you come up against any sites that don’t function correctly, then just repeat the steps above and change the number ’0′ back to ’2′.
I’ve presumptuously named this post as the first part in a series. I’ll carry on trying to post practical ORM tips, but I’m open to suggestions – so drop a comment if there’s something you’d like covered.
Rob Ousbey VP Operations - Seattle