A few weeks ago, I received an email from a respected consumer watchdog group campaigning for support for two online privacy bills currently being discussed in Congress. Here’s a sample of what it contained:
“Hidden ‘cookies’ in your computer that track your Internet movements and record what you buy online. Smartphones that secretly log the places you go. Even your personal information on Facebook may have been accidentally leaked to advertisers, according to media reports…”
“…The latest bill from Sen. Rockefeller would require companies to honor your decision if you do not want to be tracked online. And it would put the full force of the law behind your decision, so tracking companies would be held accountable if they go against your wishes.”
DATA LEAKS & CONSUMER CONFIDENCE
Things like Facebook data leaks and the recent Sony data security fiasco should be taken very seriously. Users should be able to feel confident that their personal information is secure. But this email, along with some of the legislation it references, mentions online tracking cookies together with major security breaches despite the fact that they are two VERY separate issues. *Ironically, the links in the email take you to a site that uses Google Analytics tracking cookies.*
The first bill, proposed by McCain/Kerry, seems to me to make a lot of sense: if a website is collecting personal information, it has a responsibility to the users to notify them and keep their information secure and private. This falls well in line with how the Web Analytics industry treats data (see the Google Analytics or Omniture Terms of Service, or the Web Analytics Association’s Code of Ethics).
Another piece of legislation, led by Senator Rockefeller, is on the floor right now: a “Do-Not-Track” bill that will legislate a user’s ability to opt-out of having any of their online activity tracked. Along with this bill comes much propaganda like the above-mentioned email, scaring people into thinking technology that they don’t understand must be harming them.
THE PROBLEM WITH GOVERNMENT INVOLVEMENT
The problem with the legislation and the information going out with it is that it lumps all kinds of tracking together, from security leaks of personal data (very bad), data-mining and sharing (potentially bad) to web analytics tracking (good). Web Analytics tracking, when done in accordance with industry standards, leaves practically no room for harm to the user and so much room for benefit for the user, but by legislating it and scaring the public with mixed-up information about it, it may lead internet users to opt-out of services that are actually beneficial to them.
Let’s take a look at just how “evil” these tracking cookies are and what information they store. On my blog currently (unless you have blocked it) I have set an Omniture cookie that may look something like this:
The “value” (what the cookie contains) is just a string of arbitrary letters and numbers that serve no purpose other than to identify the user from page to page. “User afb5ced3bc5c8c3767728316b1db17f2 came in on the Google keyword ‘blue wugs’ and went from the home page to a content page then left the site.” If I had a retail site, I might use this cookie to track what items were purchased and how much revenue I generated, so that I could tie it back and see which marketing efforts are returning value.
CONSUMER AND USER BENEFITS
Every internet user should WANT this kind of tracking on them. It’s like voting by secret ballot: every time you click (or don’t click) on an item, you are submitting an anonymous vote for how the website could be better.
These are the kinds of messages you are anonymously sending to the website you are on, without even knowing about it, when you are tracked:
- “It took me 18 clicks to get to the content I was looking for. Not cool. Please streamline your website.”
- “Your advertising partner’s “interactive media” ad on your homepage is so annoying that I could only handle being on your site for two seconds before I closed my browser. You may make money off of hosting that ad, but you just lost my business.”
- “Your video got really boring about 2 minutes into it. Best keep it short and sweet.”
- “That article was fantastic, I clicked your share button to pass it along! Please make more content like that!”
- “Asking me to verify my email address for a third time on your 16-field form probably wasn’t a great idea. You won’t find me hitting the submit button on your form until you ask for less info.”
- “I can’t find the Technical Support information I needed online. Instead, I’m going to have to call one of your employees, wasting both my time and your staffing budget.”
- “I came from a Google advertisement on one of my favorite blogs and ended up finding just what I needed. Thanks!”
When these pieces of feedback are looked at in aggregate- thousands of users all trending one way or another- Web Analysts not only can see what ways to improve their site but also where they should spend marketing dollars.
TARGETING VS RELEVANCY
Much of the current legislative hullabaloo is around targeted marketing efforts. Targeting is when websites use tracking technology (usually something beyond basic web tracking) to automatically present a user with content that is particularly relevant to them based on information that the website has learned about that user. For instance, on Facebook I just saw this ad:
Either highly coincidental, or Facebook has learned (probably from my user profile where I state my profession as a web analytics professional) that I have an email-based job and that I am obsessed with measuring/analyzing data. This is targeted advertising and it comes in many forms. Once you get past feeling mildly creeped out (it helps to remember it’s all anonymous and automated), targeted advertising benefits you in all sorts of ways.
All internet users want online marketers to succeed, whether they are aware of it or not. The existence of (and free access to) the sites we know and love relies on successful marketing. I know no one loves an internet cluttered with ads, but I’m pretty sure we’d hate it even more if it were ad-free with the caveat of having to pay for each site we visited. The more relevant the ads can be to the users, the more successful they are- meaning less ads are needed to keep the internet afloat. Targeting not only helps keeps the internet free it makes the internet more relevant to users.
With web analytics tracking technology as it is right now, you can send an online marketer a message that their ad is annoying or ineffective by simply not clicking on it. Marketers can see if their ads are a waste of your internet space and a waste of their marketing dollars.
These are just a few of the ways that, by volunteering a little bit of anonymous information about their web usage, users contribute to a better internet- not just better for marketers and analysts, but better for internet users everywhere. Regardless of current legislation, the Web Analytics Industry must put effort into educating the public about what is being tracked, why, and how it benefits the average user. Where do you stand?