A personal privacy organization praised new features in several leading browsers last week, singling out the forthcoming Firefox 4.1 as the leader in personal privacy. This latest chapter in the effort to inhibit online tracking may also affect some personalization and behavior driven tools that ecommerce businesses use.
The recent accolades for Firefox 4.1 — and the forthcoming version of Google Chrome — came from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), which, according to its website, confronts "cutting-edge issues defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights today."
"We believe that Mozilla is now taking a clear lead and building a practical way forward for people who want privacy when they browse the web," wrote Rainey Reitman, an EFF activist.
The Firefox Solution
Mozilla aims to end unwanted online tracking by adding a "Do Not Track," HTTP header. Tracking and shopping recommendation services will have to agree to recognize the new header and, as a result, not collect information about consumers using it.
So far no companies have signed onto Mozilla's plan, but the U.S. Federal Trade Commission has already begun to call for ways to opt out of behavior tracking and could mandate compliance with a plan like Mozilla's.
What is Online Tracking?
For some time, websites have monitored individual user behavior in order to improve visitor experience. For example, Google can filter search results based on what it knows about the person doing the searching. In this way, search results are more relevant and the user benefits.
While this sort of user profiling does not generally upset privacy advocates, things can be more heated when information is shared or collected across many websites, potentially tying together user behavior and preferences from extremely different websites.
To make matters worse, many consumers do not actually know that their web browsing — even when they are using "Privacy Mode" on their web browser — may be tracked using any number of methods. These include browser "fingerprinting" (such as screen size, color schemes, browser versions, fonts installed) and various types of cookies (HTTP cookies, Flash cookies, or so-called super cookies that can't be easily removed) or applications installed on a computer.
Perhaps the most problematic reason for tracking is advertising targeting, where advertising networks customize ads based on a users behavior across dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of sites.
In addition to targeted ads, marketers, including those in the ecommerce industry, often use the information gleaned from cross-domain tracking to adjust how they engage with consumers or to better measure the effectiveness of marketing campaigns.
As an example, online retailers know that showing customers related products can increase sales. Likewise, there has been some evidence that consumers like receiving personalized recommendations.
While this sort of personalization may certainly be done with information from a single domain, cross-domain data can be a powerful and alluring additive. For example, imagine if a retailer knew that on three previous sites a customer looked at a specific product and that the product had been priced at $19.99, the retailer could programmatically adjust its site so that the product was only $17.99, potentially grabbing a sale from its competitors.
Or if a retail site could using cross-domain tracking to learn that a shopper that looked at men's suits also tended to look at children's clothing, that site could adjust recommended products to not only include shirts and ties, but children's wear too.
In a second use case, marketers can use cross-domain tracking data to determine which online promotions are actually generating the best results and avoid the "last click effect," which wrongly attributes marketing success to the last action a customer takes before buying. Specifically, this kind of attribution tracking seeks to discover how many ads a prospective customer sees or interacts with before making a purchase.
Privacy and Personalization
From the ecommerce perspective, Mozilla's new "Do Not Track" HTTP header and similar efforts to protect consumer privacy, may require paying more attention to how recommendation, personalization, and ad attribution services collect data. It might also mean choosing advertising networks that don't use cross-domain information.