Unlimited Tracking Is Evil (But Limited Tracking Is Not So Bad)

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Last time, I tried to shed some light on how web tracking actually works in order to debunk a few myths and increase awareness—hopefully to get us all thinking about it more than we are now. My hope was to leave you with a question, of whether tracking as it’s done today is really ok. This time, I want to provide an answer, which, in my opinion, is really determined by dividing web tracking into two types: unlimited and limited.

Why Unlimited Tracking is Evil

If understanding how tracking works has made you uneasy, what can you do about it? Well, if I’ve made you drastically paranoid, you can disable cookies completely in your browser’s settings and avoid the sites listed in the Wall Street Journal’s web tracking investigation materials (there’s more on that in my previous post, by the way). If you just want a clean slate, you can clear out your existing cookies. But, here’s the really bad news: Some of the third-party trackers (including those from Dictionary.com) use a newer technology called a “Flash cookie,” which was initially created to enable media players to remember unique user settings, like your preferred volume, to regenerate a tracker after you’ve deleted it. You just can’t win with those. It’s this kind of tracking practice, above all others, which has truly crossed the line from questionable to straight up wrong.

If the intrusion of Flash cookies wasn’t problematic enough, more particular and troubling privacy issues—like what trackers do with information gathered while a user is viewing or inquiring for information about sensitive health topics—are beginning to emerge. According to Healthline Networks, Inc., another third-party ad network that uses beacon trackers, it does not allow advertisers to track users who have viewed information on conditions like HIV/AIDS, STD’s, eating disorders, or impotence, but does let them track users who have viewed information on other health-related topics. The concern that web users could be discriminated against, in a variety of ways, due to the availability of information linking them with certain medical conditions, is very real.

The same concern exists with other kinds of potential discrimination based upon race, religion, nationality, gender, income, marital status, creditworthiness, and the like. While redlining and other financial discrimination is already illegal, the law is very fuzzy when it comes to discrimination based upon web-browsing history, or the sequestering of demographically-determined groups into unique price lists. That’s just the tip of the iceberg of concerns that privacy advocates have about unlimited tracking. Unfortunately, we’re going to have to wait for legal experts to sort things out before official policy catches up with what is intuitively ethical. In the meantime, I believe that a mid-sized business has very little to gain from engaging with ad networks that collect data far beyond the scope of user activity specific to their website. However, some limited tracking could be helpful to users and marketers alike.

Why Limited Tracking is Harmless and Helpful

Let’s say you operate a website for a business services firm, and as part of your marketing you send out a monthly email newsletter dealing in depth with issues related to your firm’s core expertise. After the introductory portion of the newsletter, you have a link that readers can follow to read the rest of the article on your website. Knowing the number of readers that click that link is the best way that you can begin to measure the success of your campaign. Most email newsletter tools make those links trackable, so the clickthrough data is easily gathered and reliable. That is limited tracking in its basic form, and is quite acceptable, provided that the recipients of the newsletter have opted in. An additional step in sophistication would be to begin tracking readers that click through from the email to your site, so that you can match their session with other goals you might be interested in measuring, such as completion of contact forms, registration for events, or downloading of assets on your website. Being able to segment those goal completions by unique sessions enables you to more accurately measure the success of your web content strategy and can all be done using very basic, cookie-based, limited tracking.

Another example of this type of tracking can help you to match prospects with their initial search engine queries that began their sessions on your site. A tracker that initiates when a user comes to your site from, say, a Google search results page (this could be done for any search engine), would assign that user a unique identification number within a cookie that stores the query they submitted that led them to click the link from Google to your page. From there, the cookie can track their session on your website (and only your website), noting which pages they view and how long they remain on those pages. If the user eventually fills out a form, their form data is matched with their initial identification number. “a4d8h622dfnb7” becomes “chris@newfangled.com.” At best, having rich session data can enable you to better serve that prospect if they enter into your lead cycle. At something a little less than best, it can help you to evaluate whether individual pages and calls to action are doing their job effectively.

What question are you trying to answer?

Those two examples, in addition to the few I mentioned at the beginning my last post (tracking that enables websites to remember user information, auto-complete form fields, or preserve items added to shopping carts) are exactly the types of limited tracking I’ve been involved in offering to my firm’s clients for years now, to their great satisfaction and with clear consciences all around.

But if the distinction between limited and unlimited tracking is still unclear, ask yourself this: What question are you trying to answer? Do you need to know more about your site’s visitors, or do you need to know more about how your visitors are using your site? Your answer to that question will determine whether you can preserve the trust of your site’s visitors. Ask them only what you need to know to serve them better and no more. And above all, don’t follow them out the door!