Is your organization ethically tracking users?

Has your organization asked itself the right questions about how you track users, or how you benefit from other parties’ tracking of users?  Although most top-tier organizations in our industry have already eliminated any traces of Black Hat SEO (the use of unethical methods for enhancing search engine ranking), the same organizations have not probed themselves as deeply with respect to their tracking practices. 

Whether you are a publisher, advertiser, or someone who connects the two, you need to look at several places where your advertising methods could be linked directly or indirectly to practices that are increasingly being condemned.  The fundamental distinction here is between delivering targeted advertising in a way that is properly earned, versus improperly gamed.  This applies on several levels:

  • Targeting on the basis of opt-out data collection.  Much of the valuable data that advertisers obtain about users is from users not noticing the already-checked “Yes, send me offers from your marketing partners” check-box when filling out a Web form.  Such “opt-out” forms catch numerous consumers who are not really conscious of what they are signing up for.  Data gathered  in such a way is not really “heads up,” and is increasingly frowned upon.
    Opt-out checkbox example

    The thing is, your website could be guilty of dealing in such data even if you yourself don’t practice any  opt-out data collection.  If you allow tracking cookies to be placed on your site from third-parties who use opt-out data, well, you’ve just let someone else do the dirty work for you.  Your users will be shown an ad only because some other site previously foisted the opt-out collection method on them and you’ll be collaborating with, even rewarding, the other site for having done so (since they make money for selling that data when the ad is displayed on your site).

  • Tracking data that the users aren’t allowed to see and touch.  The data management platforms (DMP’s) that publishers and advertisers use to broker data amongst themselves differ widely in their transparency to consumers.  BlueKai, eXelate and a few others allow users to see everything that’s been gathered on them via cookies, and instantly correct or delete all of it.  Meanwhile, Krux does not allow any first-party data to be re-sold for use on other sites from where it was originally gathered.  As a publisher or marketer, you need to think about the ethics of which DMP you are using, and what their practices are.
    BlueKai Registry
  • Sweeping cookies under the rug.   The Economist.com, on a user’s first visit, displays a prominent warning that the site utilizes cookies for tracking purposes. This lets users proceed in full awareness of what is going on behind the web pages.Economist Cookie Statement
    Most sites fall silent about this, and leave most users completely unawares.  The pressure to provide “truth in labeling” about a site’s tracking practices is growing, and if you have a site (or advertise on a site) that doesn’t do something similar, you’ll be looked upon as less-than-honest.
  • Hawking inaccurate targeting data that was created by sloppy methods.  This has to do with a site behaving ethically toward advertisers.  There is a good way and a bad way to gather a batch of user cookies so that one can sell them to advertisers as a “small business audience”.  The good way is to determine that a user is an owner or manager in a business that is indeed small, and only then to qualify their cookie.  The bad way is to simply ask whether the user works in any capacity for a company with fewer than 250 employees, and if so, automatically count them in.  This results in many more included cookies — people in no way managing a small business.
    Your “small business” audience target?

    Result: the janitor is later shown an ad for a $1,500 seminar on small business fundraising strategies, paid for at an inflated rate by the advertiser in question.  If you directly or indirectly (through a DMP) engage in this sort of loosey-goosey cookie gathering, you’re being less than truthful about what the audience really is that you’re capturing.

Based on the above distinctions, people in the industry as well as user advocates and, ultimately, politicians will be making their own report cards on any organizations that are tracking users to make money from advertising.  The time to review your practices to ensure you earn an A, not an F, is now.

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