In his article Internet Says: "Me Want Cookie," WSJ 5/5/2008, L Gordon Crovitz points out that “Web sites do a poor job of explaining how and why this information [cookies] is used…” and that “Web sites and marketers have failed to explain why cookies are harmless…. So people don’t understand how the Web works, so fear they are being spied on and manipulated.” The consequence of which is more and more web users are deleting their cookies, and “Do-Gooders” are lobbying for and politicians are considering legislation to restrict cookies.
Crovitz’s primary justification for cookies is that they make advertising more relevant – visitors get ads for relevant products and services and “in exchange for seeing targeted advertising, we get access to Web sites, usually free.” Relevant advertising and free access are nice benefits from cookies but aren’t their most important benefit. The most important benefit of cookies and the reason I try to avoid Web sites that don’t cookie their visitors is that cookies enable Web sites to distinguish between visitors (not identify who they are just that they are different visitors). This is the foundation of the Web measurement necessary to improve users’ Web experience. Without cookies Web sites don’t have the information they need to improve their site. Sites that don’t cookie their visitors don’t care enough about their visitors to want to give them a better user experience.
Can a site’s visitors find the products they’re looking for? Is the check-out process confusing? How well does online support work? What features are useful and how often are they used? What kind of enhancements would best serve our customers? What types of capacity are needed? How can we improve the customer experience? Did the changes made to the site really improve the user experience?
Comparing the online experience with brick and mortar facilities, the absence of cookies would be like prohibiting companies from looking at and identifying their customers when they came to their facility. Today, banks observe customer behavior and use that information to do things such as have special windows for Merchants who come in with large volumes of cash, to have a single line for retail customers that is serviced by multiple windows, and to position customer service personnel. Retail establishments observe customer behavior to determine where and how to place and displace products, how to design traffic flows, as well as the placement of checkout stations. Grocery stores use membership cards to identify what products customers buy together to better place products making it easier for customers to find what they want. If done properly, it does improve profits, but it also improves the customer experience. No one would even think about prohibiting commercial establishments from observing their customers and using that information to improve their business. In my opinion, Web sites that don’t cookie their visitors don’t care enough about them to want to improve their site and should be avoided.
They only reason to prohibit online merchants from doing so is, as Mr. Crovitz says fear of the unknown – what cookies can and cannot do. Mr. Crovitz’s solution is to have better disclosure statements and uses as an example Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher’s disclosure statement. Here's what is says:
“Some of the advertisers and Web analytics firms used on this site may place 'tracking cookies' on your computer. We are telling you about them right upfront, and we want you to know how to get rid of these tracking cookies if you like."
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Tracking cookies are small text files that can tell such companies what you are doing online, even though they usually don't record your name or other personably identifiable information. These cookies are used by these companies to try and match ads to a user's interests. They are used all over the Web, but in most cases, their presence is only disclosed deep inside privacy policies.
We want you to know how to get rid of these tracking cookies if you like. Here are links to pages where you can opt out of the cookies set by our ad-placement contractor and our analytics contractor:
"We'd prefer a totally opt-in system, but, as far as we know, the ad industry doesn't have a practical one as of now.”
I enjoy reading Mossberg’s column and respect his judgment. However, in this case I think Mossberg and Swisher’s approach is wrong. It’s great that they tell people upfront about cookies. However, their whole emphasis is on what to do if you don’t like cookies and their explanation of the benefits of cookies is tepid at best. They subtlety pander to the fear of the unknown while pretending that they are objective. They should explain how valuable cookies are and that they enable Web sites to get better. Perhaps they don’t truly appreciate the importance of cookies in Web site improvement. Perhaps they are only aware of cookies as a marketing tool. They should advise their readers to keep their cookies and to avoid sites that don’t cookie their visitors.
I strongly agree with Mr. Corvitz’s position that there is quite a bit of misunderstanding and ignorance about cookies and their value. I propose that those of us who understand cookies and their benefits do something about it to combat the “real risk that someday soon we’ll find the untested hands of regulators in the cookie jar.” Web sites should have an information page explaining the benefits of cookies in access through a “cookie link” that only talks about cookies and their benefits in clear, easily understandable language (no legalize). Measurement companies like Omniture, digital Agencies like Digitas, and associations like the Web Analytics Association should take out ads in major publications explaining the value of cookies (if they don’t they may be out of business). Web professionals of all kinds should write their elected representatives explaining the value of cookies and asking them to refrain from misguided restrictions of their use. Let’s not be intimidated by fear-mongers and the ignorant.
Let’s standup for what we know to be true.