For advertisers, tracking sums up the appeal of the web. Where once you had to make your best guess on who was seeing your ads based on vaguely representative panels, internet tracking gives advertisers the ability to target their ads at the right demographic, and measure how effective those ads really are. That's why advertisers are up in arms about Microsoft's plans.
'Not an option'
Mathieu Roche is UK managing director of online ad data firm Weborama. He says a world without some form of online tracking would be unworkable for the advertising industry and those publishers who rely on it.
He tells TheMediaBriefing: "No performance management (through tracking) is not an option. Firstly, tracking enables advertisers to measure audiences. Without tracking we don't know how many users go to a website, we don't know who they are in terms of demographics, in terms of geo-location. It would be like TV without ratings information."
"Secondly, advertising enables advertisers to measure return on investment, it allows them to effectively know how many people their campaigns reach, how many of those people come to their sites, and buy their products or services, potentially, even through online and offline tracking mechanisms, to know how many people buy their products in stores."The only alternative, says Roche, would be to run panels like TV's BARB. But even large panels of up to 5,000 people cannot adequately represent internet audiences and lack the granular detail tracking can provide.
Are consumers really that worried about tracking?
Some people do make the effort to avoid being tracked, but Roche says that Weborama's own experience suggests even clued up users are not concerned about tracking.
Weborama offers users the chance to opt out by visiting their site, but surprisingly most of those who look into opting out don't bother. Roche says that of the around 10,000 people who looked at Weborama's opt out page over the last year - less than one percent decided they didn't want the company to track them, he claims.
Battle of the Cookies
Advertisers and do-not-track advocates had a face-to-face meeting organised by IAB Europe last week, and Roche expects a compromise to be found.
However, if significant steps to block advertising are introduced, Roche says the industry is unlikely to take attempts to stop tracking altogether lying down. A key point forgotten in much of the debate about do-not-track is that it delivers a marker asking sites not to track rather than cloaking a user's presence online.
-- Sites are under no legal obligation to take any notice, and Roch believes that because consumers have not made an active choice to turn on do-not-track, advertisers have good grounds for claiming it does not represent their will.
-- The focus on cookies also misses a key fact - there are many other ways to track users online, some of which are considerably more intrusive. IP address tracking is already used by some firms, but as an identifying feature it is far more personal than the anonymised cookies because it is linked directly to the computer being used.
-- Another form of tracking, local area objects, or flash cookies as they are often called, operate in a similar way to normal cookies, but have already attracted a range of criticisms, including that they are used by some companies as backups to enable tracking even if a user has deleted all other cookies from the browser.
"All of those are far less privacy sensitive than cookies," says Roche. "(But with) the regulator going after the cookie, what other choices does the industry have?"
The solution promoted by many of those who make their living from online ads - is educating web users about exactly what tracking entails and the advantages it brings.
That doesn't just mean promoting the benefits of personalisation, Roche says you need to explain that the ability to track to at least some degree is so important to online ads that free ad-supported services and content such as Google Maps, Twitter, Facebook and Yahoo News wouldn't exist without it.
Image by Fabulous Five on Flickr via a Creative Commons licence.