Why not offer a cookie-free option?

There’s one way to work out exactly how consumers feel about the virtues and vices of cookies on websites – offer a cookie-free option and see how many take it up.

Michael Barnett

As my colleague Ronan Shields wrote last week, both Google and Weve – the joint venture between the UK’s mobile operators – are exploring how to track browsing behaviour and target online mobile ads without cookies. Their reasons are mainly pragmatic: specifically, they want ways of serving and evaluating ad campaigns that work on Apple’s Safari, the most popular mobile browser, which blocks all cookies from third parties such as ad networks.

There are plenty of other gripes against cookies too. For one, they allegedly slow down the browser because the file needs to be dumped onto the user’s computer. For another, consumers have grown suspicious of them, partly because EU laws mean they must now constantly be told websites are going to use them and yet only a precious few give them a choice in the matter, except simply to go elsewhere if they don’t like it.

For full disclosure, Marketing Week’s website tells users that continuing to browse it means they consent to the way we use cookies. But in our defence, we also have one of the plainest and most straightforward cookie policies I’ve read. If you’re interested, you can find it here.

Personally, I’d be interested to see the results if more companies offered simple options on their website home pages, allowing users to block third-party or non-essential cookies.

My suggestions aren’t meant as a way of complying with data laws or of forestalling more potential regulation. In my opinion, the cookie law introduced in 2011 is a basket case and its non-sensical enforcement is even worse. We’re just left with a lot of ugly and annoying prompts on websites reminding us that cookies exist, or otherwise websites that ignore the law entirely. It offers no meaningful consumer protection.

What I’m arguing is that it can only help customers’ perceptions of your brand if you give them a choice. The fear that everyone will turn off advertising cookies is surely overblown, since most people who care enough to do so will probably have switched them off in their browsers already anyway.

And returning to the question of cookie alternatives, in my mind the same principles apply. Don’t expect the lack of specific regulation around, for example, device fingerprinting – which identifies a web user’s device by creating a unique profile of its technical specs – to persist for long if it becomes the established method of behaviour tracking.

Entries are now open for the Data Strategy Awards 2014. For a full list of the categories and instructions on how to enter, click here

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