The ‘Do Not Track’ debate has sparked a lot of controversy the last few years, highlighted by a recent dressing down by Congress a few months ago. Any discussion that relates to one’s privacy and perceived loss of anonymity is an important conversation to have, but like many other hot-button issues that tend to be layered and complex in nature, the national conversation can often be riddled with generalizations, inaccuracies and a bit of scare tactics.  Let me see if I can provide a brief overview about what information digital marketers are privy to, how it is used, how consumers, publishers and marketers can benefit from the procurement of this data and what the Do Not Track movement is aiming to accomplish.

Behavioral Targeting and How it Works

Do Not Track | Digital Marketing CommentaryThe crux of the debate about Do Not Track is centered around the practice of Behavioral Ad Targeting. This practice is used by website publishers and marketers to capture a host of different data points so they can create a ‘profile’ of each user. The data ascertained is often used to establish demographics and geographical makeup as defined by each marketer so they can serve ads and content that they deem relevant to each user and other similar users. When visitors return to this site or other sites on the network, the profile associated with your browser is served ads and content relevant to your profile. In theory, the more we know about each visitor, the easier it is to customize a message that resonates with each user. And the claim of how well a site knows its users, allows them to charge a premium for their ad space.

But who is actually tracking you when you visit a website and how do they track you? Ah, now here’s where it gets a bit sticky. By visiting one large website, you can trigger over 200 different tracking cookies that are actively compiling data on your browsing habits, across multiple websites, which are then shared with a host of third party data collectors.

The Wall Street Journal did an excellent job illustrating just how this process works and how the data is collected and shared. View this piece here.

While the sheer number of companies compiling data on you is certainly eye-opening to most users, fundamentally your information is secure. Your data is anonymous and no one has access to your sensitive information.

What Marketers Know About You

One of the benefits to online marketers in the digital age is the access to information and analytics about our audiences that we’ve never had before. We’re able to glean valuable data from our users and also reach our target market with unprecedented accuracy. Gone are the days of relying on estimated media reach, eyeballs on commercials or media plans that erroneously estimate offline circulation. We can reach our target and we’re able to gauge views and interaction with advertisements with unprecedented accuracy.

‘Tracking’ and ‘Spying’ often frame the conversation in a way which instills in the layperson fears that Big Brother is looking over your shoulder and that your name, social and general anonymity is somehow ripped from you by visiting various websites.

The truth is that unless you have provided your information to me via filling out an opt-in form or product purchase, I will never have access to the following.

  • Your Name
  • Your Email Address
  • Your Phone Number
  • Your Address or Latitude/Longitude
  • Your Social Security Number
  • Your Gender

What I and Other Marketers May Know About You

It’s important to note that when I say ‘you’, I mean your browser. You, as a person, are actually not tracked at all. If more than one person is using the computer, it’s all the same to most tracking platforms. You are but a faceless silhouette in most cases.

Location: Each time you visit my website or one of my client’s sites, your IP address is likely recorded, which (while not 100% accurate) can provide me your location down to the zip code. Again, not your physical address.

On-Site Behavior: The pages you have visited on my site, the time you have spent on my site are logged and recorded. Also, we can tell the time of day you have been to my site. I am able to record this information and then follow it right up until conversion (usually a purchase or form fill-out).

Browser/OS/Device: I am able to tell what operating system you are using whether it is a phone, tablet or laptop. I can tell whether you’re using a Mac or a PC, and I can tell what browser and version you’re using as well.

Referral Sources: I can likely see how you got to my site. What website, social network or the referral source sent you. And if you found it via search, I have access to the keyword phrase you entered that connected you to my site. (Unless you are part of the dreaded, increasingly Not Provided or Not Set crowd. But I digress.)

By no means comprehensive this does give you an idea as to the fundamental information marketers have with respect to your on-site behavior.

What is Do Not Track trying to accomplish?

In short, Do Not Track is based around the concept of giving users the ability to understand that they are being tracked, but also provide the user to opt out of being tracked by websites that they do not visit and stop third party collectors from tracking their browsing habits through the web. The proposed regulations are layered and certainly too much to cover in this blog,

While I am ok with being ‘tracked’ on the web, I understand the unease felt by some and I support giving users the ability to opt out. While your anonymity is upheld, a lot of your data is seen by a lot of different people.  As a marketer, I of course don’t want to lose valuable data on my target markets, but as a user, I like having the web as personalized to me as possible. And I absolutely agree that regulations need to be enforced to ensure that private customer data be kept that way. But I also am hopeful users understand a few key things before they make the decision.

What Users Should Understand About Do Not Track

The idea for this blog came upon reading polling data which showed the majority of people are against wanting to be ‘tracked’ on the web. But does the layperson understand what being ‘tracked’ really means? A few things to consider:

  1. Opting in to Do Not Track does not mean that you will stop seeing ads. You will just see much less relevant ads to your profile.
  2. Aggregated consumer data does have value. The web is still a largely free place. And it is kept that way through valuable data collection and targeting. Reducing this means you’re reducing the ability for companies to reach their target market, which will mean companies will have to make their money in different ways. (I LOVE not having to pay subscription fees for the majority of my content online.)
  3. The web will be less relevant to you as a user. Personally, I like that I am not going to be inundated with ads highlighting women’s shoes and apparel while surfing the web. Gone will be the geo and demo data profile on you, so if you think ads are annoying now, wait until you are faced with ads that have absolutely nothing to do with your profile. As a marketer, it is of great value to me to target my prospects precisely and I truly believe the user benefits as well.
  4. Offline targeting has been doing this for years. Way before the internet.  Credit card and Mortgage companies have been selling your contact information and accessing your demographic data for years. And these include names, addresses, buying habits and a lot more. The “yeah, but HE’s doing it as well” argument is pretty weak, but where is the outcry with these practices?
  5. You are under no threat of your anonymity being infringed upon. Ok, I am sounding like a broken record.

Anyway, I hope this was helpful. It’s certainly a complex issue in nature, and I think education and information will go a long way in shaping this issue as we move forward.