What I Know: One Marketer’s Response
Spying or Online Data Tracking?
The Wall Street Journal recently posted an interactive infographic on tracking methods of top websites as part of their “What They Know” series. The infographic is very interesting and contains a lot of information about the number and types of cookies and beacons used on websites to track information about visitors. Unfortunately, the article doesn’t go into enough detail about what information is captured and what this information is used for. With statements like, “Marketers are spying on Internet users,” misunderstandings are being perpetuated as to what marketers actually do and what personal information is tracked via online interactions. With all the information on cookies and beacons, even I was starting to feel like the work I do might be akin to tracking someone’s every move via an alien implant. But this isn’t true.
I am a marketer, and I am not spying on you. Since I believe that more people should become familiar with internet technologies and with web analytics, allow me to continue the Wall Street Journal’s discussion and fill in a few more details.
Are You Being Profiled by Web Analytics Tools?
More often than not, the “you” that is being tracked online is an anonymous number, not a name. While there may be some instances where the data I have is tied to a personally-identifying piece of information like a name or an email address, most often, you are about as anthropomorthic as SNFD17438DJ89.
But it’s been determined that anonymous data really isn’t anonymous…sort of. Researchers have determined that patterns and behaviors are unique enough that individuals can be picked out of anonymous data, in general. However, while I may be able to isolate profiles for individual visitors to my website, you’re still a number. I can’t miraculously conjure up names and personal details for everyone who visits my site.
Finally, there’s a lot of information that exists online about who you are, what you like, and what your browsing habits are. If I have access to any of this information about you, chances are good that it’s divided up amongst several tools. There is no secret profile about you that includes your name, age, email address, every website you’ve ever visited, and every action you’ve ever taken on my site. If I wanted to create a comprehensive profile of you, I would need to ask you.
This is what I do know about you.
Your Personal Details
There are several ways I can get personally identifying details about you through my website. If you create an account on the site, submit a form, or in some way send in your information, it will be stored in a database. This is how the website remembers your username, password, and any details specific to your account. The tools that I’m using and their level of sophistication determine whether or not I can match your personal details up with other information about you, like when you came to my site and what pages you visited.
Your Name: If you’ve created an account, submitted a form, made a purchase, or left a comment, I probably have a record of your name or username.
Your Email: Just like your name, if you’ve submitted your email address somewhere on my website, I probably have a record of it.
Your Phone Number: I really don’t care about your phone number unless it’s needed for customer service purposes or it’s related to the product or service I’m offering.
Your Birthday or Your Age: By knowing your age, I can start to make more accurate assumptions about the types of people visiting my website. However, I recognize that if I ask for details like your birthday or your age, there’s a good chance that many people won’t complete my form or sign up for an account on my site. I probably won’t ask you for these because I’d rather get more people to sign up than to know the ages of a few people. However, some sites will ask for a birth date and send out coupons or gifts on their customers’ birthdays. Depending on what you’re signing up for, some sites will require this info to accurately give quotes for things like insurance.
Your Social Security Number: There’s really no reason I need your SSN and no reason you should provide it unless you’re completing information for something that may require a credit check or proof of identity, like signing up for a phone contract or buying insurance.
Your Browsing Behaviors On My Website
I have cookies and tracking pixels installed on my site that give me information on how people use my site. I can see information like which pages you visited, how long you spent on each page, and what links you clicked on. However, at this point “you” is probably an anonymous ID number. I’m more interested in looking at trends and segments of visitors with shared similarities than trying to spy on you personally. However, if I know that Bob Smith from Nevada uses a Windows PC and reported a problem on the About page at 9:30 Monday morning, I might be able to dig into the information and isolate a browsing profile that is likely his. The more I know about Bob, the greater the chance that I can then determine that he visited my site three times that morning, uses Internet Explorer 7 on a PC running Windows XP, and lives in Reno.
Your Geographic Details
When you visit my site, information about your IP address and your internet service provider is recorded. Many times, this will pinpoint you to the Country, State, and City that you live in, although it’s not always 100% accurate.
Your Computer Device Details
Are you visiting my site from a PC or Mac? An iPhone or an Xbox? Whatever device you’re using is recorded, along with information like what operating system it’s running, what browser you’re visiting from, and how big your monitor screen is. This is how we adjust the design of the website to make sure it looks good for as many of our visitors as possible. If we see we’re getting a lot of visitors from mobile devices like Blackberries, iPhones, and Androids, we ‘ll use this information when deciding whether we should make a mobile version of the website.
Your Social Media Profiles
If I already have your name and email address, there are services I can use to gather information about what social networks you belong to. Do you have an account on MySpace, Facebook, and Flickr? I might be able to determine this if your accounts on these sites are listed under the same email address I have for you. In addition, I can gather information from your profiles that you’ve marked as viewable by the public.
I may be able to use information from your social profiles to determine your age, gender, and interests. However, I’m less concerned about you as an individual and more concerned with general segments that define my customers. I use this information to determine what kind of marketing campaigns might be successful, what types of products or services would be best for my customers, and which social networks my company should invest the most time on.
If you bought something from my site, I can access all the details of your order. I can also access the details of your behavior on my site that surrounded that purchase, like what other products you looked at, what items you added to your cart but didn’t buy, and how many times you came to my site before you made a purchase.
With this information about you, I’ll try to make sure that the emails you get are related to topics or products that are more personally relevant to you. The next time you visit my site, you might see products recommended to you that are items you’ve looked at but didn’t buy, accessories for things you did buy, or interesting products purchased by people with actions similar to yours. I don’t have enough time to personally pick out these recommendations for you; algorithms make the choices here.
The Products or Articles You May Prefer on My Site
I can make inferences about what your interests are based on what categories and subcategories you visit on my site, how long you spend on different pages, and what products or articles you look at, purchase, or share with friends. The only way for me to actually know what you like and dislike is to ask you. However, the closer I get to figuring out what interests and motivates visitors to my site, the better I can make the site experience for them.
I probably don’t know this about you. While there are companies out there who could potentially provide me with this information for my customers or website visitors, it’s not something I’m tracking.
Your Demographic Details
It’s pretty difficult for me to gather other specific details about you as a person relying just on what’s gathered by my website.
Your Gender: I probably don’t know this, although I might be able to make a guess based on your name, your purchasing behavior, or by looking at your social media profiles.
Your Income: I also probably don’t know your income unless I specifically requested the information on a form. However, I might be able to access research that says my products or services appeal more to people with a certain income level.
Your Occupation: Again, I can make guesses about your occupation based on the type of website I have, but unless you’ve specifically told me your occupation, I probably don’t know it.
How Many Kids, Cats, and Guppies Live in Your Household: I have no idea.
Does that all seem like a lot of information? It is. If I have this information about one person, I also probably have the same amount of information for all the other people who visit the website. That’s a lot of data to go through, so rather than focusing on the actions and details of one specific person, I’ll spend more time breaking down the information I have about everyone into groups and segments. I might look at data from people from the same state or data from people who all bought the same product, but very rarely do I put together a comprehensive profile of just you.
If that’s not enough information, here are some other details I might access:
If I send you an email, I can probably tell where you were located, and I can track your specific actions, like if you opened it, what you clicked on, and what you later purchased after reading the email.
I can tell how you came to my site. If you searched for a specific phrase in Google, I can see that, and if you clicked on a link on another website to get here, I know which site you were on.
If you clicked on a link on my site that then took you to another site, I know which link you clicked on and what outbound site you went to.
If you clicked on one of my ads to come to the site, I know which ad you clicked on and where the ad was.
Before you lash out at the tracking used on websites, think about this:
In many cases, if you call a company or business, your phone call is tracked and recorded. Your number is saved and your location is identified. The length of the call is noted, and the sentiment of your voice might be recorded. If a phone tracking system is in place, there’s a good chance that while you’re waiting on hold, all the irate comments you make are also being recorded. This information can be used to ensure that the business has enough staff on-hand to answer calls during peak times, to make sure they don’t put people on hold too often, and to monitor that the staff are correctly answering your questions.
If you use a site’s live chat feature, your chat is recorded for tracking purposes. The person that you’re chatting with might also be able to see which webpage you’re currently on, what your IP address is, and what other pages on the site you browsed before chatting.
If you stay away from the web entirely and place an order through a catalog, all of your contact information and your purchase history can be matched with demographic information about your neighborhood, and shared with other companies who are targeting customers with similar profiles. Ever wonder why you started getting random catalogs in the mail?
This type of “spying” doesn’t only exist online. Tracking, measuring, and monitoring information is crucial to many industries. It’s how organizations make informed decisions about what to manufacturer and sell, what to air on TV and radio stations, and what civic pursuits will benefit the most people.
Who else out there is tracking things like your movements, actions, and purchases? Potentially, the US Census, your credit card company, your car, your phone, the cameras at street intersections, grocery stores with rewards cards, retail stores with video surveillance, and many others all are “spying” in some form as well.
What kind of tracking tools am I using on Flat Frog Blog? Installed on this site I have Google Analytics, Clicky, ClickTale, and Userfly. Google Analytics and Clicky are web analytics programs that tell me who visited the site, where they came from, and what pages they viewed. ClickTale generates heat maps of users’ clicks and mouse hovers, and it generates videos of your mouse actions and page movements. Userfly also shows videos of your on-page actions. All of these are free.