The internet is the most trackable and accountable marketing medium we have today. Marketers and business analysts want more information about their visitors while visitors want their privacy. It's a tug-of-war.
Admittedly, internet privacy is not the most glamorous topic you'll read about today. However, if you consider the internet an important medium for your business, it's worth taking a few minutes to understand the basics of privacy, how visitors are tracked, and how governments are getting involved. In no way do I intend to oversimplify a very complex topic. Instead, I hope to cast some light on an issue affecting our web experience both as marketers and as users.
Much of the internet privacy debate is centered around the types of cookies allowed to track a visitor. So what is a cookie exactly? A cookie is a small piece of anonymous data that a website (e.g. Amazon.com, Facebook.com, WorkItRichmond.com) sets in your browser (e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome) as a way to identify and track your behavior.
The first time you visit a website, a cookie, or set of cookies, gets stored in your browser. These cookies will contain information about you, such as the date and time of your first visit, the way you arrived at the site, how long you stayed on the site, and other information about your visit.
This information can be used to tell Google Analytics (or any other web analytics platform) that a certain visitor came to the site four times before finally submitting a contact form. It may also know that you purchased an iPhone case on your last visit so now you are shown iPhone chargers on the homepage.
1st party cookies are only used by the website that set them in the first place. Every visit to that website is like punching a time card, while any other behavior that takes place on another website is invisible and cannot be reported. 1st party cookies are the most common and least likely to be rejected by your browser’s default settings. They are also considered the most safe from a privacy point of view because they do not collect PII (personally identifiable information).
Google Analytics is a perfect example of 1st party cookie use. This means Google Analytics does not share data with or collect data from other websites regarding any particular visitor. It only tracks what a visitor does on your site and nowhere else.
3rd party cookies go a step further by allowing other websites to access the cookie information and collect or store additional information. 3rd party cookies are less like punching a time card and more like stamping a passport since other sites can view the cookie to see where you’ve been and what you’ve done. Let’s look at a couple common examples of 3rd party cookies...
1) Facebook: Ever visit a popular site and notice that the Facebook box on the side shows all your friends who “Like” the site you’re on? This is done using 3rd party Facebook cookies. Your behavior on this site and any site that uses Facebook plugins (provided you are logged into Facebook) is captured and sent back to Facebook.
2) Re-marketing ads: I was recently on Crate and Barrels‘ website looking at furniture. Now, when I visit other websites, I see Crate and Barrel ads showing me the exact pieces I was looking at. Ever experience something like this yourself? Is it a coincidence? Not at all. Creepy? Maybe just a little. 3rd party cookies? Now you’re getting it!
The laws governing internet privacy, as it pertains to tracking visitors, are defined in part by the types of cookies allowed to track visitors and how the information can be used. Some countries target 3rd party cookies, some go after 1st and 3rd party cookies, others go as far as requiring users to consent before tracking cookies are allowed. Currently, most of these discussions are taking place in the EU, however it’s possible that these countries become the model for future legislation in the United States.
Whether you are an internet marketer, a business owner with a website, or a casual web surfer, understanding the basics of online tracking and privacy will make you more web savvy and (hopefully) more responsible with how you use the web.