Tracking Users Across The Web

New opportunities for web partnerships enable us to provide more options and better service to customers, but these same opportunities also bring new challenges in tracking web behavior.

Banner advertising and affiliate programs were two of the early uses of integrating web sites, as one site refers traffic to another. It has also become common practice to use an outside e-commerce vendor by linking to its site for the transaction, then inviting visitors to link back to the main web site.

A recent trend in profile marketing is to use a personalized email newsletter with content tailored to the profile of each subscriber. Links to the web site from a personalized newsletter direct readers to areas within the site that are most appropriate for them.

This accomplishes many of the goals of web personalization without the time and expense of redesigning a web site. One example of a company that uses this approach is Safety Alerts, a publisher of recall notices about products such as cars, food, toys, and many others. By linking to an outside vendor who provides profile collection and newsletter services, all of the technical problems of managing email are handled by a company specializing in that service.

A growing number of software companies are now providing access to their systems via the web. This has created a whole new category of web companies – Application Service Providers (ASP).

The research firm IDC predicts that the market for ASP services such as e-commerce, email, and other applications will grow to $2 billion by 2003. Who knows if it’ll actually be $2 billion – the exact size of the market isn’t important. What is important is that “interlinking” multiple servers can create a seamless web experience. And, it’s a technique that is going to grow very quickly.

For marketers looking to profile visitors as they move through the main site to interlinked sites and back, there are a number of technical challenges in keeping tabs on everyone. The current web log analysis programs do a very good job of combining log data from multiple servers, but that assumes all of the servers are under the control of one group. And, log analysis generally doesn’t allow individual profiles to be updated.

The solutions to tracking and updating individual profiling across multiple sites are as varied as the potential combination of sites, but in general there are only a few scenarios:

  • Multiple sites on one server using one profile database

  • Several servers each using its own profile database
  • Interlinked sites operated by different companies

Relatively speaking, the first option is the easiest to implement since profile data collected on one site is immediately available when someone links over to a related site. However, merging profile data across multiple servers, either within the same company or with those of a business partner, requires some creative technology to pull it all together.

For tracking people across multiple sites, placing a unique cookie on each person’s computer works well. This is the technique used by banner serving companies that allows them to build anonymous profiles as people visit different sites with ads served from a central server. However, this still doesn’t allow us to bring data back to a profile database from other sites.

One technique that expands on the cookie technique described above is to have the remote site not only include a graphic on a web page that’s served from the central server, but also add data to the graphic so the central server can update the user’s profile. This technique not only tracks a user through a remote web site, it also provides a way for the remote site to send purchase data, interest data, and practically any other data that would be useful to include in a profile database.

This is just one of the technical approaches that can be used to update a profile database with more than just traditional traffic data from the remote site, but it does require the cooperation of each site to agree on what data is passed between them.

By collecting a wider range of data about interests, needs, and actual activities web marketers can spot overall trends, as well as provide better recommendations and service to individuals coming to their web site.

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