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Tracking and data privacy in 2020

Current data and privacy issues find search marketers in an entanglement. Here’s where it’s at and where it’s going.

A woman stood in front of a projection of code and numbers

January of this year feels like a long time ago, but it was an influential moment in time. Google Chrome became the leading browser to promise us a cookie-free future.

We’re going to look at where things stand today. We’re also going to assess where digital marketers find themselves in this cluster of data and privacy laws and what the future looks like.

2020 has secured a place in the history books. Pandemics aside, the politics that influence how we handle data has seen some revolution, too. The events that have unfolded during 2020 see us, the marketers, in the middle of a privacy war.

Quick definition — What is the cookie?

A cookie will store information passed from your browser to a server so it can serve the page with consistency as you navigate the site. This can be something beneficial to you, like your shopping cart, for example.

You will add a product to your cart then maybe navigate around the site some more. That product will stay in the cart. You can go to another site to check out another price, maybe, and when you come back, that product will still be in your cart where you left it. This is what is meant by ‘consistency’ for the user.

For marketers, a cookie will help tell us useful information about the users. For example how the user found the site, what and how many pages the user looks at and the number of times you visit that site. This consistency, therefore also benefits marketers. This information is used to understand what products and how interested the user is in purchasing. This means appropriate retargeting adverts can be used to sway the user back to the site to buy what they left in the cart.

Imagine how skewed conversation rate (the metric used to track those who viewed the product versus how many went on to purchase it) would be if marketers had to continually authenticate the user during one visit? Or, if each time a user came back to the site to look at the product again, it was counted as a new and unique user? This would product inflated numbers.

This consistency can be beneficial to both parties, but it can also violate trust.

Some cookies get removed when you exit a browser. Others might accumulate over months, even years. This will farm your information across multiple sites and sessions, purchases and the content you consume. There are some huge differences between cookie types and some have more significant implications than others.

First versus third-party cookies

It’s important to know the difference between first and third-party cookies. They’re actually written, read and stored in identical ways. All cookies are pieces of information stored on your computer. There isn’t a distinction between first and third-party cookies. Not even in how they are classified or stored. The context of access is what matters.

The top-level domain being referenced by the cookie is what matters. A first party cookie will interact with and reference one domain and its sub-domains.

For example

codeenigma.com

codeenigma.com/meet-the-team

events.codeenigma.com

A third-party cookie will interact with and reference multiple domains.

Other important concepts in web tracking

You may have heard of session and/or persistent cookies?

A session cookie will expire at the end of your session when you close your browser. A persistent cookie will not. The duration of data collection is and will further become a huge concept for regulation.

Cookies aren’t the only method of web tracking. We also experience something called fingerprinting. Developers found a way to use minute pieces of information that varies between users such as their device or even font preferences. These can be used to match a user over multiple websites. A user cannot clear their fingerprint, unlike with cookies. This means the user has no control over the data being collected. This is, of course, inherently immoral because it removes all user choice.

Storage is another thing to be aware of. It’s a board term. Naturally, it usually means cookie storage and how a browser might restrict the storage of cookies. There are more ways to store data, though.

Javascript can be used to store information within a browser. It offered some hope to web analysts who were affected by the loss of cookies. Until more recently where some browser updates ruined that tactic, too.

How did we get here?

There isn’t a singular event that caused a subsequent domino effect of changes to data privacy legislation. It’s been more like a subtle snowballing.

Facebook moving toward monetisation can be pointed out. Facebook opened up it’s data to the highest bidders and safe to say things haven’t been the same since. Whilst it’s not all Facebook’s doing, it is fair to say they paved the way for the world treating data like oil. And, like in the oil industry, only the bigger players thrived.

Giants like Google, Amazon and Facebook have surveillance on the world. They know what we search for, buy and like. Unfortunately, the more you team up, the more vulnerable you become to data breaches and leaks. Looking at you, Cambridge Analytica.

Cambridge Analytica was the biggest data scandal to hit the news. If you haven’t seen the documentary on Netflix (and you’re not easily scared by Big Brother concepts), give it a watch. It teaches us how easily our data can be farmed and used against us not only to sell us a pair of shoes we might like based on our browsing habits but what political party advertisement to push in front of us. This documentary invited many of us to realise how deeply personal and intrusive data collection can be.

Where we are now?

The state of thing today is much different. Thankfully. Consumers are very much in the driver’s seat now. Following the Cambridge Analytica story, for example, 75% of Americans either deleted their Facebook profile altogether or tightened their privacy settings.

We see millions of people adopting ad blockers. This is hitting publishers hard; those who rely on millions of impressions to make a sale.

Political Movements

Very shortly after the Cambridge Analytica scandal, the EU gave us the GDPR. This enhanced and defended our digital privacy. Around 114 million euros were paid in fines from companies who didn’t comply.

Again, shortly after, the US implemented the CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act) which we saw come into effect in January of this year and enforceable in July. The main concept with this is transparency. It gives the residents of California the right to fully understand which elements of their data is being collected and how it’s being sold or shared to third parties.

Cali isn’t the only state making moves. Around 24 other US states have introduced laws revolving around data privacy and web tracking.

Outcomes for businesses

Businesses are having to be smarter with less data. Safari, for example, implemented changes that meant businesses had to tighten cookie data, storage and how first and third-party cookies functioned on their site.

At first, all first and third-party cookies (eg: Google Analytics) were capped to only seven days of storage. For some websites, this was really brief. A user may not want or need to visit the site each week.

The next iteration of changes to the privacy feature (called Intelligent Tracking Prevention, and here I am talking about ITP 2.3 onward) saw that cut down to just one day for Safari users. Meaning, if your user came to your site on Monday and came back on Wednesday, by default they would be granted a new Google Analytics cookie by default.

Chrome has jumped on this and say we’ll have no more third-party cookies by 2022.

This is a big thing. It changed the focus toward qualitative metrics rather than just numbers, numbers, numbers. While users are seeking more and more privacy, marketers are seeking more and more personalisation, hence the challenge of the current situation. As you can see, we’re edging toward a cookieless internet.

Where does it go from here?

Data privacy and tracking can expect a few changes from here, which could be:

Not much change at all

Due to the complexity and time it takes to complete and enforce legislation, some think not a lot will happen any time soon.

Marketers will be kept on their toes

As we’ve seen the CCPA come into action as well as the EU forcing US companies to sign up to higher privacy standards, before transferring data to the US as the current means did not meet EU standards. Marketers need to make conscious effort how where and how they store data.

Correction

Consumers are holding tightly to their data now. We need to win back trust and ensure safety.

However the cookie crumbles (urgh), it’s all in favour of the consumer and we should look positively toward better protection.

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We’d love to talk to you about how to continue your marketing efforts, ethically. Contact us.

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Code Enigma is a community of creative souls and the technically brilliant, dedicated to building a better world wide web.

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Maygen Jacques

Maygen Jacques

Marketing Manager for web design, development and hosting agency, @CodeEnigma. Hold my drink, I’ll be right back…

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