Can online consumers have their cookies and eat them? | James Ball

Sunday, June 3rd 2012. | Internet News

It’s not unusual to get the unnerving feeling that you’re being followed when online. A day or two after browsing features on Rome on one website, another is showing adverts for holidays in Italy. Shortly after visiting a website about car repairs, adverts for great deals on new models pop up. As many of us now know, this is rarely down to coincidence: almost every site on the internet tracks its users, and one of the main reasons to do this is in order to sell targeted adverts.

A recent Guardian project – Tracking the Trackers – investigated how tracking works, and which companies are behind it. The results might surprise some: a visit to, say, the Huffington Post will be logged by tracking files from Google, Twitter, Doubleclick (Google’s advertising network), Facebook, Quantcast, Nielsen and Appnexus – and that’s nothing unusual. While advertising is not the only reason for tracking (it’s also used to help remember logins, to improve websites, and for audience research) it’s a major motivation – and also a bet many websites are relying on for their future.

Web advertising is much, much cheaper than its TV or print equivalent. For many companies, this means that the shift online is met with precipitously falling revenues. Trying to increase the value of online advertising is, therefore, central to the strategy of many sites online. User tracking helps this in two ways: firstly, it fixes the basic mechanics of tracking which adverts get clicked, and how often. The second method, though, is the key one.

Most websites you visit have no idea who you are (assuming you don’t have a login), but they want to be able to serve you an advert you might actually be interested in, for a product you might actually buy. That way, visitors to the site are less likely to be annoyed by inappropriate ads, and advertisers to the site are more likely to pay higher rates, for successful campaigns. Tracking facilitates this through a series of educated guesses: if you’ve visited a group of travel sites, adverts for holidays or travel insurance might work. If you’re googling “divorce”, then lawyers (or offshoring experts) might be more in line. The website still has very little idea who you are, but through the glimpses of your online history it’s seen, it makes a best guess at which of its adverts might be best for you.

It’s a hit-and-miss process which at the moment, frankly, usually misses. But better handling of user data and tracking, and the better adverts that would result, is the great hope of most websites looking to make money from free and open access.

Users, however, are often less happy with the arrangement. Benign or not, many feel an aversion to being tracked, and a concern the process is out of our control. Privacy settings on the browser make it possible to block these tracking files, but though not complex, this is beyond the experience of many users. Furthermore, it makes using many sites which rely on these files (Facebook, online shopping, webmail, and more) a more difficult process.

In the UK, the law has recently changed to make sites more open about how they track their users – a guide to how the Guardian tracks its users is here – requiring sites to give their users notification their site uses tracking files, and a chance to opt in or out of such measures, or else face penalties.

Users choosing to opt out of this information economy face a dilemma, though. Ultimately, at least some degree of tracking is required to make ad-supported websites work. While most sites now rely on funding from a variety of sources (paid sections, freemium, and more), advertising is the overwhelming majority of revenue for most – including Google and Facebook. If the advertising model collapses online, there are two alternatives remaining: paying for the services a site offers, or letting it shut.

For online consumers of information, entertainment and news it’s time to stand and deliver: your money or your (online) life. Which – if any – would you be most willing to hand over, and how much of either? And if the answer’s neither, how else can the web look to keep itself afloat?

• This article was commissioned after a suggestion from MakeMPsOwnUp

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