How and What Websites Know About Visitors

The Web’s New Gold Mine: Your Secrets (Wall Street Journal)

Tracking Web VisitorsThe Wall Street Journal is running an excellent series on how websites track visitors.  From a marketing perspective, tracking, which is part of website analytics, is an essential marketing research tool.  For marketers tracking has several uses.  First, it is used to provide information on who is visiting a website as it offers such details as how visitors got to the site (e.g., search engine query), the amount of time visitors spend on each page of a site, visitors’ geographic location and much more.  Second, and much more important, tracking is used for determining what promotional options to deliver to the visitor.  That is, what type of advertisements are shown.

This WSJ series provides keen insight into how web tracking works.  For instance, though most online users are familiar with “cookies,” the discussion on “flash cookies” and “beacons” is particularly intriguing, and, for some, potentially disconcerting.  While the extent to which individual websites track visitors will surprise many, the real surprise is how tracking is used to follow people across many different websites.  This level of tracking enables online marketers to develop a profile of visitors based on the websites they visit.

Of course, most of the top websites discussed in this story say they do not track someone as an individual but rather they follow the device (e.g., laptop, smartphone) that person uses to connect to the Internet.  Whether there is much comfort in this will likely be a matter of intense debate for years to come.

The most intrusive monitoring comes from what are known in the business as “third party” tracking files. They work like this: The first time a site is visited, it installs a tracking file, which assigns the computer a unique ID number. Later, when the user visits another site affiliated with the same tracking company, it can take note of where that user was before, and where he is now. This way, over time the company can build a robust profile.

From an ethical perspective,  by default should web browsers, such as Internet Explorer, Firefox and Safari, be automatically set to assume users want the highest level of privacy when visiting websites?

Image by chrisjohnbeckett

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