Tracking Do Not Track

Yahoo! has taken a number of steps forward over the last couple of years as it tries to grow its business.

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I think they took a large one backward last week as they made an announcement that they had reversed course on the issue of “do not track” settings.  Let’s see what you think.

If you’ve ever gone to get some information on a product and then seen ads for that or similar products for the next month, welcome to the world of “ad personalization.”  It can also be called behavioral targeting although I tend to classify that more for the content presented to a visitor on a web site than to ads that are served up across the web.  Regardless, it can be great if it reminds you of a sale on an item you really want or massively painful if you were checking something out for a spouse or friend that is of no interest to you and the ads just won’t go away.  We will often buy children’s books for friends’ new arrivals and my inbox is littered with emails of new kiddie books.

Two years ago, Yahoo! said it would honor something that’s built into every browser:  do not track settings.  These request that the site you’re visiting not collect data about your visit for the purposes of ad targeting and remarketing.  Key word:  request. Yahoo! said it would honor those requests until it reversed itself last week.  As Media Post reported:

Yahoo still allows users to opt out of receiving behaviorally targeted ads by clicking on a link — either on its own site, or an umbrella site, like the one operated by the Networking Advertising Initiative. But privacy advocates say that opt-out links are problematic because they’re tied to cookies — and consumers who are especially privacy conscious often delete their cookies.

Then there was this report at about the same time:

The digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation this week released a new tool aimed at helping consumers avoid online data collection and behaviorally targeted ads. Privacy Badger — an add-on for Chrome and Firefox — says it “blocks spying ads and invisible trackers.” The EFF says that the tool, still in alpha testing, is its “answer to intrusive and objectionable practices in the online advertising industry, and many advertisers’ outright refusal to meaningfully honor Do Not Track requests.”

So because most major sites’ attitude on do not track requests is “nah,” they’re setting themselves up for users to take matters into their own hands and prevent the gathering of data beyond what is needed for the ad tracking.  As someone who uses visit data to improve the user experience as well as the consumption of my clients’ content I can tell you that if the quantity and quality of all the data declines, so will the overall usefulness and quality of the web. We talk in digital marketing about user signals – someone entering a sales funnel, someone requesting information.  If the other, less obvious, signals are made even harder to ascertain, the web economy is heading for a bumpy ride.


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