Are Marketers Really Spying On You Online?

Here's What We Know and What We Don't Know About You

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Erin Jo Richey
Erin Jo Richey
The ongoing "What They Know" series in The Wall Street Journal is drawing needed attention to some of the ways web analysts and marketers gather and track information about people online. As part of the series, they visualized the types of cookies and tracking files used by 50 top websites, including their own. However, the WSJ failed to fully explain what type of information is being collected about visitors and what marketers do with the data. Rather, they left the public to wonder if online marketers are actually spies.

I don't deny that I use cookies and tracking pixels to gather a variety of details about you if you visit my site. However, most of the data I have is anonymous and the details exist across multiple systems, not aggregated in one tidy personal profile. Rarely do I feel like I have pieced together enough details to be considered a spy. But with all that data, what do I really know about you?

Your Personal Details: I don't know your name, your email address, your phone number, or any other contact details about you unless you explicitly tell me. If you visit my website and sign up for an account, make a purchase, or complete a form, I will have access to any information included there. This could be as little as a username or as great as your entire purchase order. These details are stored in a database, which is how you're able to log in to your account the next time you visit.

Your Browsing Behaviors: The analytics code installed on the site tracks your browsing behavior on my site and records your actions. I'm able to see what pages you visited, how long you spent on each page, and what links you clicked on. This helps me infer what products or resources are most interesting to you, and which are not. However, I probably don't know this information about "you" personally. In most cases, this data is anonymized and recorded only as ID numbers. I spend most of my time looking at trends and segments of visitors with shared characteristics rather than focusing on profiles of individual browsers. However, if I already know that Mary Smith bought a black toaster with product number 08971 on Monday morning, I can probably isolate the anonymous profile that represents Mary's visit to my website Monday morning.

Your Location: Each time you visit my site, your IP address is recorded. The analytics code interprets this to determine your geographic details. I get details on your country, state, and city, but it isn't always entirely accurate. I don't have access to more specific information like the street address of your office or your exact longitude and latitude.

Your Computer: Just like your IP address is recorded, certain details about the computer device you are using are also captured. I know if you're using a PC or Mac, if you just came from a Blackberry phone, or if you're browsing around on your Xbox. I also know what operating system the device is running, how big the screen is, and what web browser you were using. I use this type of information to make sure the website looks the best for as many people as possible. If we start to get a substantial number of visitors coming from iPhones or Androids, I may advocate that we create a mobile-friendly version of the site. If not, plans for a mobile site might wait until next year.

Your Online Purchases: I only know what you've purchased from my site. When you complete an order, a tracking pixel records details like the order number, the product purchased, and the price. Some of this information is recorded by the web analytics program as part of your visitor history. I can then go back and review the products you browsed, items you added to your shopping cart but didn't buy, and what your final order ultimately included. While I can get your complete details from the order database, when I see your browsing information within my web analytics data, "you" are still just a nameless number.

Products You May Like: I don't really know what products or articles you like or dislike unless I ask you. However, I can use tools like Baynote, MyBuys, or Coremetrics Intelligent Offer to generate guesses about what you might prefer based on your actions on my site. Like web analytics, these programs use tracking code on the site to look at the pages you visited and the products you browsed or purchased. This information is passed through algorithms, and out comes recommendations for more products or articles you might like. Sometimes these algorithms do a good job, and at times the results are completely off.

Your Social Media Profiles: I don't have a good way of determining which social networks you belong to, unless you tell me. However, if you created an account or made a purchase and provided your email address, there are services like Flowtown and Rapleaf that I can use to determine which social networks you belong to, whether it's Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, or any of the others. The email you used for your social network account has to be the same email address I have for you, but if these match I can see profile information that you didn't list as private. Based on what's included in your profile, I may now know your gender, age, and interests. With these details I gain a better understanding of what a segment of my customers like. I also use the data gathered here to determine which social networks my company should spend more time and money pursuing.

What I Don't Know About You: All of this data adds up pretty quickly. But a lot about you is still a mystery. I don't know what you bought or looked at on other websites, I have no idea how many pets you own, and I won't ever know your social security number. The more I know about you, the better equipped I am to create an experience you enjoy with products you love. However, if I need more details to create a complete picture of you as a person, I have to come to you and ask.

Erin Jo Richey is a digital marketing analyst and user experience consultant. She helps companies of all sizes develop interactive marketing campaigns and comprehensive web strategies. Follow her on Twitter at
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