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HTTP Cookies and Privacy Concerns

HTTP Cookies and Privacy Concerns

Monday, April 15, 2013 15:29

The issue of ‘cookies’ is becoming increasingly important for websites, online marketers and privacy advocates. Cookies have traditionally been used by websites to track visitor activity and repeat interactions, as well as what they do on a website through tools such as Google Analytics. The use of these tracking cookies has become increasingly sophisticated, but online users are also more concerned about their role, leading to privacy concerns and changes to legislation in Europe.

A cookie (aka HTTP cookie, web cookie, or browser cookie) is usually a small piece of data sent from a website and stored in a user’s compueter or device, or in the web browser while a user is browsing a website. When the user browses the same website in the future, the data stored in the cookie can be retrieved by the website to notify it of the user’s previous activity so that repeat behaviour can be tracked (such as by Google Analytics), or advertisers can use cookies to display relevant adverts to web users based on their tracked behaviour.

Although cookies were originally designed as basic tracking mechanisms, they have now progressed beyond this and have become a crucial component for marketers to target advertising and to implement direct marketing techniques to relevant prospects. This tracking activity has raised privacy concerns to an extent that prompted European authorities to take action in 2011. The European Union’s Privacy and Electronic Communications Directive began to dictate that “explicit consent” must be gathered from web users who are being tracked via cookies. As a result, all websites in the UK, for example, that use tracking cookies, need to make this clear and give visitors the option to block these when they use the website.

This area is increasingly becoming a issue between privacy advocates and web users on the one hand, who don’t want their online activity to be tracked, and online businesses on the other, who want to target and improve their marketing activity. This includes user tracking which many websites now do through tools such as Google Analytics, and targeted advertising which companies can use, from behavioural marketing to remarketing activity – which should increase relevancy and reduce advertising costs.

In the past month, Mozilla announced their intention to include a default setting that disables third-party cookies by default in upcoming releases of their Firefox browser. This prompted the US Interactive Advertising Bureau to state that it will fight the move, which it describes as being “a nuclear first strike against the ad industry”, as without the third party data companies will simply not be able to track users across sessions. Firefox may be hoping that this move will attract more web users to start using their browser and if that proves to be the case, then the other main browsers such as Google’s Chrome and Microsoft’s Internet Explorer, are more likely to follow suit.

This could be a backward step for online businesses, who will lose valuable information and the option to improve the targeting of their advertising. For web users, it can also mean less relevant advertising and a reduced user experience. If you’d like to know more about cookies and how they can affect your online business or privacy, contact us now.

This article was written by the web search workshop, a search engine optimisation and marketing consultancy for UK business websites. Contact us today for a free assessment of your website.

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