The recent US presidential election has spurred an intense debate over the influence of news sites that target more politically conservative readers.

While the media has been filled with arguments on both sides that focus on these sites’ content, our interest at Mezzobit is on understanding the technology that powers the Internet without regard to political stripe.

So we decided to compare mainstream media (MSM) destinations against these sites, which we’ll call opinionated news (ON) sites, to answer the following question: Is there a noticeable difference in the advertising, marketing and publishing tech that powers these two types of properties?

The answer ended up being yes. Read more>

This study used 96 ON sites from a list compiled by media researcher Jonathan Albright that has received widespread attention and we only removed sites from this list that experienced repeated technical problems during measurements. For the MSM properties, we sampled the same number of sites from Alexa’s top news site ranking.

Mezzobit’s site scanning platform examined each site and catalogued all first- and third-party code loaded into the browser, which includes ad units, analytics beacons, images, tracking pixels, Flash, media files and the like. We scanned sites from last-mile network locations in the US to simulate what end users would observe.

We also compared code signatures of these tags against our database of nearly 10,000 patterns to determine which companies owned which technology. In total, we analyzed more than 25,000 objects in this study.

Our core finding was that MSM sites employed almost twice as much third-party technology as ON sites. Nowhere in our data did we detect patterns on either list of sites that suggested questionable or nefarious activities, such as increased malware or site hijacking.

Here’s what we found, with details provided in the below graphics:

  • MSM sites tended to be heavier users of more sophisticated programmatic advertising and advanced analytics, which requires more tags loaded into the web page. This makes sense given MSM’s expertise in ad-driven business models. This also demands more internal technology and operations expertise to use these systems, which is also consistent with the fact that the MSM sites are associated with larger companies (with more resources) than the ON sites.
  • Some ON sites were structured like traditional media sites, while others had a more streamlined approach similar to corporate sites, which involved fewer tags. In general, the most complex sites on each list were comparable in terms of tag load, but when median values were used, there was a clear difference. The MSM sites had medians of 173 total tags, 112 unique tags, and 24 vendors, while the ON sites had 112 total tags, 69 unique tags, and 12 vendors.
  • Most media companies employ stables of designers and user experience professionals, which is reflected in their 5% higher usability score as calculated by Google PageSpeed. But because of differences in overall page weight, PageSpeed found that ON sites were 8% faster.
  • This difference in technology intensity was reflected in how much data was collected by each type of site. The median number of cookies dropped per page was 167 for MS sites and 73 for ON sites. Mezzobit’s tracking index, which measures overall visitor tracking activity, also reflected this difference.
  • Many site operators have moved to the secure HTTPS protocol in recent years, but ON sites appear to have transitioned more quickly, with 44% of total calls using SSL compared with 32% of MSM site calls. This may be due to the fact many MSM sites have older and more complex technology platforms that could be more difficult to move to secure protocols compared to newer ON site technology (which often is based on WordPress).

There has been considerable ink spilled regarding the underlying goals and motivations of different types of sites, but we’ll leave that analysis to others. Rather, Mezzobit continually seeks to use our unique data to increase the level of transparency and accountability regarding Internet technology to permit all interested parties – enterprises, consumers, regulators, and researchers – to have a more informed discussion.