Joseph Turow's book, Niche Envy: Marketing Discrimination in the Digital Age, is driving me crazy. He is happy building up premises and then leaving out the keystone: the logic of human interaction. Never does he consider that online marketers are giving people what they want. I'm not going to whine for the online marketers of the world - there are some skeezy guys out there - but after 100 pages I still have not heard what it is that online marketers do that is so terrible. However, I will cover the crux of Turow's argument in (many) subsequent posts. In this post, I would like to debunk a number of myths floating around the interwebs and whispered in hushed corners around the globe. First, let me say that personal data is stolen online every day and identity fraud will only grow in coming years. Consumers should take every precaution to protect themselves and act carefully while purchasing or even interacting online. Those like Turow, however, will run about, gnashing their teeth, while shouting that the sky is falling. One example is his crafty use of language about cookies.
A cookie is part of your web experience you ideally do not even know is there. For instance, let's say you wanted to buy Turow's book on Amazon.com. If you have used the site before and haven't erased your cookies, you will notice that the site greets you by name. This is thanks to a cookie. Cookies are also responsible for the recommendations Amazon gives for other books based on your previous buying history. When you go to log-in, a cookies is the reason the site remembers your username. Cookies even allow you to use the ubiquitous shopping cart while you are browsing. Cookies aid the user experience, save the consumer time and energy, and give valuable (non-personally identifiable) information to a website owner so s/he can tailor the website to ensure you have an even better experience the next time you visit.
Cookies are not viruses, spyware, or even programs. They are simply little pieces of data passed back and forth between your web browser and the website you are visiting. I do not want to downplay all concerns - any interaction between your computer and a website has the potential for problem. But the myths propagated by Turow and others create undue anxiety. I'd like to respond to the following statements from his book (all of which can be found between pages 74-76 of his book, if you would rather just skim it at the book store):
- "If spam endangered marketing because it angered consumers over information delivered to their computers without consent, cookies put online marketing in jeopardy because of the information they allegedly could retrieve from consumer' computers."
- "...This article pointed out that cookies 'aren't able to grab an email address' or to probe an individual's computer. That may not have been understood by everyone who reacted with alarm to cookies' existence."
- "An online firm could not tell anything about a site visitor...unless that person wanted the firm to know. That bothered marketers...'Ever since the Web gained prominence as a commercial medium, marketers and publishers have demanded some way to understand how user move through their sites."
- "Nevertheless, such incidents and the very presence of cookies worried people that the new medium might threaten users with theft of personal information."
- "Consumers' reluctance to go online for fear of losing control over personal information seemed like an additional problem that could kill what many still considered a huge potential commercial resource."
First of all, how many people know what cookies are and how they work? Not many. And even if they know, this statement is complete speculation and allegation. Spam didn't kill email and cookies aren't going to kill web browsing. Besides, people will either not mind cookies because they contribute to the user experience or they will disable them. Simple enough.
The two statements I draw from this are that A) The people who were concerned about cookies were ignorant and B) Turow should feel obliged then to correct these misunderstandings (he doesn't).
The emphasis above is mine. Turow weaves in this conspiratorial language throughout his book - the evil marketer demanding(!) that they have some undefined personal information - the horror! What is really important in the above quote is the word "their." While some people like to believe the internet just springs forth like manna from heaven, it actually takes a lot of work and money to produce. And those producers want to provide the best experience possible. Legally gained and innocuous information helps on both accounts. It really gets under my skin then when I read this unsubstantiated, fear-mongering garbage.
I concur on one level - let's get as much protection from identification theft as possible. But putting marketers in the same boat as hackers, spammers, and other online miscreants is patently false at best (if not libelous to some degree). Cookies ease the process for users, especially while shopping, especially for less experienced users.
Ah yes, and thereafter did Amazon and eBay shutter their blinds and close up shop. Oh wait, that didn't happen? Online shopping grew exponentially? It seems pretty obvious this statement is bunk.
So the facts simply don't bear out Turow insistence that cookies are part of some plot by marketers to steal information. He even begins the next section with, "At the end of 1997, a Forrester Research study estimated that online retail revenue would total a record $2.4 billion in that year, 'driven in large part by new security technology, easier-to-use commerce sites and advertising that is helping to reduce consumers' fear about shopping online.' " Websites being easier to use did not just occur out of thin air. There were a lot of smart people working very hard on the user experience. Cookies helped them understand user behavior so that web developers could clear the path to whatever it was the user wanted to do.
My goal with this post is to communicate that cookies are useful to online marketers because they help us help the user. There is no conspiracy. And if you aren't comfortable with them, turn them off. It's no skin off my nose. Whether through cookies, log files, surveys, or focus groups, online marketers will be studying your behavior to improve websites. Hopefully the cookie Chicken Littles will forgive us.