Analytics Group Aims to Clear Cookies’ Bad Name

An industry trade group has embarked on an educational initiative to help consumers better understand the benefits of cookies.

The tactic of using small data files, or cookies, to keep track of repeat visitors to a site has been lumped in with spyware by privacy activists and legislators alike. The Web Analytics Association (WAA) aims to dispel the myths surrounding cookies by creating materials for its members to share with consumers.

“It’s a continuing challenge to educate the marketplace that cookies are OK and are not spyware,” said Ben Isaacson, co-chair of the WAA’s advocacy committee, and privacy and compliance leader for Experian and CheetahMail. “Through the education initiative we will separate fact from hype.”

The biggest misconception about cookies is that they are applications that are capable of running on a user’s computer, according to Jay McCarthy, co-chair of the advocacy committee and VP of business development at WebSideStory.

“Cookies are just data files used to store information. They’re not software,” McCarthy told ClickZ. “In most cases, cookies are being used for reasonable purposes.”

Cookies have been included in most first drafts of anti-spyware legislation over the past few years. Once the purpose and function of cookies is explained to legislators, they are invariably removed. Public perception of cookies, fueled by aggressive anti-spyware filtering applications that highlight cookies as a threat, needs to be changed to preserve marketers’ ability to utilize them as an analytics tool.

“Cookies are fundamentally different than spyware, but they’re being lumped into the same group [by anti-spyware applications],” McCarthy said. “Put in that context, it creates an immediate association between cookies and spyware.”

The advocacy committee will help WAA members, mostly Web analytics providers and Web publishers, to educate their users about the ways cookies are used by marketers, and how they can improve a user’s experience on a site. The most common implementation of cookies is the use of persistent cookies, which identify a user as a repeat visitor the next time they visit a site. Site owners use that information in aggregate to improve site content and site performance.

“Cookies are used for measurement, especially things like frequency and loyalty measurement that help publishers learn to monetize content,” McCarthy said. “It’s not always clear to users, but that’s part of the ecosystem of the free Internet.”

When cookies are deleted or blocked, it degrades the ability of publishers to get useful information on how to monetize their content. That leads to more ads, or less quality content, he said.

In addition to its cookie education efforts, the WAA is also re-iterating its stand against spyware, enumerated in a “statement of principles” earlier this year. That statement includes vows by members not to engage in deceptive practices, and to open up policies and practices to third-party review. The group also comes out in support of federal legislation to establish a framework targeting deceptive practices of spyware, rather than focusing on technology.

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