We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Cookies! (Or Do We?)

Consumers have cookie fever, and they’re deleting cookies faster than ever. This has a lot of advertisers very concerned. Many studies have reported on the phenomenon, and all agree users are deleting cookies. What they don’t agree on is how many users actually delete them. Most studies say more users are deleting more cookies now, and the trend will accelerate.

Cookie deletion has mostly to do with confusion about what cookies are and how they’re used. Anti-spyware applications, such as Lavasoft’s Ad-Aware and a few others, are the biggest offenders in the cookie war. They provoke cookie fear to drive product sales.

In light of cookie deletion, what are the best cookies practices? And what common advertising and publishing practices are most likely to be affected when cookies are deleted? Let’s review three best practices commonly used by experienced ad agencies. Also, how to discern when cookie deletion is a concern… and when it isn’t.

  • Agencies use third-party ad servers (3PASs) to manage and track ad campaigns, and post-event tracking mechanisms to correlate impressions and clicks to conversions (or site visits driven by ads). 3PAS use is smart and highly recommended. Yet anti-spyware companies typically, if erroneously, target 3PASs for automatic cookie deletion. If you use a 3PAS, be aware some percentage of your users are stripped of their tracking cookies, most either weekly or monthly.

  • Most agencies configure their ad servers to ignore conversions coming from ad impressions, and clicks over one week old. This is typically viewed as a best practice in and was common well before this controversy erupted. Now, it’s even more important given deletion trends, as the vast majority of users don’t delete cookies more frequently than weekly. We know approximately 99 percent of conversions for ad campaigns occur within the first week of an impression or click. In fact, the vast majority of conversions take place within hours of an impression or click.
  • Some more advanced agencies use a 3PAS to track ongoing marketing activity and tie it to the lifetime value of users delivered to a site via ad campaigns. When only a 3PAS is used for tracking, cookie deletion becomes a real issue. Because 3PAS cookies are the ones most likely to be deleted by anti-spyware tools, these results will likely be skewed over time.

Agencies prefer to track lifetime value with their own tools. It helps them demonstrate the value of their work to the advertiser, and they needn’t rely on their client to provide this data (which could be a conflict of interest).

Most sophisticated advertisers measure lifetime value themselves, either with internal or Web analytics tools. Both typically use first-party cookies, rather than third, so they are deleted manually — not by anti-spyware applications.

There’s no reason agencies can’t use one of these in addition to their 3PASs. But they make life a bit more complicated, and some advertisers don’t want their agencies to have that much data on how their sites work.

What does the future hold? Will cookie deletion become a bigger issue? Yes, according to studies on more sophisticated Web users. Though these users understand cookies aren’t dangerous, they delete them because they don’t want to be tracked. We need a technology to replace cookies within the next few years, or much of the value we’ve built will crumble alongside the cookie.

A cookie replacement had better be consumer-friendly, not some underhanded method of tracking against users’ will. It must be transparent, fair, and honorable — or we’re right back where we started.

If this issue interests you, join the folks at Safecount.org, as I have. Let’s work together to solve the problem.

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