Privacy Concerns and Web Analytics

I’ve had a number of conversations in the past week about digital analytics (and digital marketing in general) and privacy concerns. Mostly, these have been with acquaintances that aren’t all that familiar with what we actually do, other than what they read in the news, and two things have struck me about these conversations.

First, there is a whole lot of misinformation and ignorance around what we as digital marketers actually do. And second, when reading the mainstream discussions on the topic, we as digital marketers have done a profoundly poor job of providing an alternative framework for this debate.

The voices on one side of the argument — let’s call them privacy advocates, and I certainly respect their intentions — do a good job of scaring people with invocations of Big Brother always watching you, but the main voices defending the use of Web tracking, cookies, etc. seem to come from companies like Google and Facebook that, let’s be honest, make a huge amount of money in this space and may not be our most credible advocates.

So I wanted to make a few points in favor of Web tracking that I don’t hear made often enough. I might not sway anybody’s opinion, but maybe it will provide an alternative perspective.

Cookies Make Your Life More Convenient.

You know how when you go to Google or Facebook you don’t have to log in each time? Or how when you’re on Amazon and put things in your cart, they’re still there the next time you come? Or, how you can watch half a show on Netflix and then switch screens and pick up right where you left off? All of that is possible due to cookies. Cookies are a primary method websites use to remember data from one page to another, and one session to another. So while there are certainly some ways that cookies can be used that not everyone would be comfortable with, cookies are not automatically evil. So when politicians or pundits try to make arguments that cookies should be completely banned, it’s important to understand that this would make the Internet significantly less convenient for everyone.

Digital Analytics and Optimization, Done Right, Make Websites Better.

Have you ever tried filling out some form online, and missed some box you were supposed to check, and then the form reloads — blank — and you have to do it all again? That is really annoying. Or have you visited sites on your mobile phone that had popups you couldn’t get rid of on a mobile device?

Yeah, that really grinds my gears too. Or have you searched for “blue tennis shoes” on Google, clicked a result, and been taken to the homepage of a site where you had to search for the same thing again?

These are all examples of situations where websites are not adequately responding to their users’ intent. Determining what that intent is, and then optimizing websites so they respond better, is the primary goal of digital analytics. For the most part, we’re not trying to trick users or steer them toward buying stuff they don’t want: we’re trying to understand what they DO want and provide it. And, if we do our jobs well, the next time they want tennis shoes they might come straight to us instead of Google.

Responsible Use of Tracking Technology Can Mean Fewer, More Relevant Ads.

Sure, nobody likes ads. But they do pay for a whole lot of things we do like, especially on the Internet. And as the technology behind ad serving (largely reliant on cookies and tracking user behavior) gets better, in theory visitors can be shown fewer ads that are more relevant.

This is because these days many ads you see online are being targeted to you, based on your known behavior. Facebook, for instance, knows how old you are, your gender, and a lot about your likes and dislikes. This is why a 20-year-old male is far more likely to see ads for video games than adult diapers (well, depending on what you’re into, but that’s a different story).

Most of the more respectable ad networks have at least some similar data, based on what websites you visit; as they’re able to sell their advertisers a more targeted audience, they can make more money on each ad impression. At the same time, Web publishers want to keep you on their sites, so they don’t want to just vomit irrelevant ads all over your screen. Over time — maybe too long a time — these incentives can form a virtuous cycle whereby you the user will see fewer annoying ads and maybe even a few that you find relevant.

And that brings me to my last point…

We as an Industry Need to Be More Transparent About All This.

There is a somewhat fine line between creepy and clever, and as an industry we do not always fall on the right side of the line. We need to be unapologetic about how we use our customers’ data, but we also need to tell them how we are going to use it — and we need to mean it. This means better, plainer-language privacy policies; easier ways for people to opt out; we may need to be more vigilant about what our partners and vendors are doing with our data when we put their pixels on our websites.

But I would argue (well, I just did) that we also need to take the opportunity to help frame the debate on our terms and educate the public about why we’re tracking what they do; if we don’t engage in the discussion, we cede it to the people who are afraid of the men in black.

I hope you all join in that conversation.

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