Online Behavior Tracking: No Such Thing as Enough

Every time you go online, you leave electronic footprints — and someone is following them.

When you display a page, enter a search query, play a video or click on an ad online, that information is logged by the servers of the companies that own the site or serve the video or ad or search results.

Those are some of the findings comScore came up with in response to a project it jointly worked on with The New York Times’ Louise Story to find out how much data Web companies can collect from users.

Here’s why she did this: Internet companies are ranked by how many different people visit their sites in a given month — or, in trade jargon, how many eyeballs their sites generate.

That, by the way, is why many Web sites had those annoying flash graphics for a while — they were trying to get you to click on their pages.

Targeting the Eyeball

However, the number of eyeballs alone is not enough. Advertisers would rather have their ads seen by a smaller number of people who are likely to make a purchase than by more people who might not be interested. Why advertise mink coats to members of PETA?

So, Story thought that you can spot companies that will take the lead in online advertising by looking at how much data large media companies can collect about each of their Web visitors.

In addition to the four actions listed above, comScore also looked at ads served on pages anywhere on the Web by advertising networks the media companies owned. These included text ads from Google’s AdSense network, and display ads from AOL’sAdvertising.com unit.

Being tracked online is not, in itself, a bad thing, because it actually reduces the number of ads you are bombarded with online. “A lot of people in different empirical studies have emphatically said they prefer relevant advertising,” Greg Sterling, founding principal of Sterling Market Intelligence, told the E-Commerce Times. His company looks at the Internet’s impact on local consumer and advertiser behavior.

That having been said, people “are uncomfortable being tracked, and more and more users are ignoring advertising,” Sterling said.

This might not be true for everyone: “Some people might know that other people know their data but they don’t care,” David Hallerman, senior analyst at e-Marketer, told the E-commerce Times. “It’s not all that different from having a publicly listed phone number in the phone book.”

How Much Information Is Enough?

According to The New York Times, the study showed that Yahoo had the potential to gather data through 400 billion events in December 2007; Time Warner, which includes AOL, was second, with about 100 billion events; and Google could gather data through 91 billion events. Microsoft, which often evokes a knee-jerk reaction of antipathy from users, could only gather data from 51 billion events.

So what? Businesses have been gathering data about their customers forever.

“Newspapers and magazines have been selling your addresses to marketers for some time, and you could say that’s a more intimate knowledge than your computer’s IP address,” Andrew Frank, lead analyst for online advertising at Gartner Group, told the E-Commerce Times.

What About Online Scams?

Many fear that if they are being tracked online, this makes them much more vulnerable to flimflam artists, especially because more data about them is readily available online to anyone they come across than it is in the real world.

However, while the volume of data being tracked online is much higher than elsewhere, how concerned you should be “depends on what you’re worried about,” Frank said.

True, the online world creates new opportunities, and higher volumes of opportunities, for ID theft, but “I don’t think those opportunities are qualitatively different than what has always existed,” Frank added.

Scam artists or shady advertisers could get your data online and target you, but “there have always been bad practices in advertising, and that’s why we have watchdog groups,” Frank said.

With Twitter and Pownce, Who Cares?

Here’s the thing, though: Consumers are revealing more and more information about themselves online, through services such as Twitter and Pownce, or through social networking sites such as Facebook and MySpace.

Twitter is a free social networking and micro-blogging service that lets users send “tweets” — text messages up to 140 characters long to its Web site through various means.

Updates are displayed on the user’s profile page and delivered instantly to other users who have signed up to receive them so you can update your friends and acquaintances in real-time about what you’re doing and where you are.

Twitter was so successful that several imitators have emerged — there were 111 as of May 2007.

One, Pownce, lets users share messages, files, events and links with existing friends.

As for social networking sites, advertisers are increasingly using them for viral marketing as they can specifically target ads to the sites’ members because of the large amount of information they disclose about themselves.

Big Brother Is the Real Threat

The ad companies track users based on their IP addresses, which is “relatively anonymous and has no ill intent;” it’s when the government gets into the act that things get troubling, e-Marketer’s Hallerman said.

“When the U.S. government requested records from Microsoft, Google and Yahoo some time back, the sheer existence of the records, even if gathered without ill intent, means they could be used in ways the individuals those records pertain to might not like,” Hallerman added.

“The Internet makes possible a comprehensive database of information to an extent that wasn’t possible in the past, and that has implications that are very frightening,” Sterling said. “There are vast repositories of information about consumer behavior that can be used by governments that might want to monitor what people are doing online.”

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