With cookie deletion rates leading to significant problems with tracking online campaigns, a solution finally exists.
However, with greater tracking comes responsibility and consumers are becoming more savvy, as the Facebook ‘Beacon scandal’ has shown.
Poor old cookie - so misunderstood - what was actually just a simple text file grew to be a virus carrying spyware in the minds of people, according to the rumour mill and privacy paranoia.
Anti spyware companies appeared to clean away these unwanted pests, but ironically many of these tools were actually Trojan horses for the kind of malware they were supposedly trying to remove.
I’m not denying that cookies are a privacy concern - leaving a trail of every website you’ve been to can be a recipe for embarrassment during sales presentations, but only if you decide to navigate to the hidden cookie files on your hard drive and share them with your audience.
The reality is that the browser history and temporary internet files are far more revealing than any cookie is ever likely to be.
People were looking for something to attach their big brother paranoia to and unfortunately, cookies were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
They are the technical equivalent of a shopkeeper writing down notes when you enter a store, giving you a copy and then asking you to give it back to him when you next come into the store so that he can remember your preferences.
As well as providing a more customised browsing experience, cookies are also used to monitor and improve the effectiveness of online marketing activities.
This is a quite different use to customisation and is where much of the privacy concerns come from.
The general consensus is that around 30% of internet users delete their cookies on a monthly basis - many automatically and unintentionally because of the hype around free-download spyware removal / malware Trojan installing programs.
While 30% may not sound that bad, the knock on effect for metrics that depend on identifying users can be dramatic.
Both RedEye and comScore have published studies using site-centric (monitoring from the server) and user-centric (monitoring from the browser) techniques.
The studies broadly agreed with the level and impact of cookie deletion, concluding that reach figures can be over-estimated by as much as three or four times as a result.
And clearly if you are selling a product with a long purchase cycle, undercounting by 30% will severely effect your business model.
So why am I dragging this up again? Because there is finally a solution.
They’re called Flash Shared Objects and although they have been around for a few years now, our TagMan product is one of the first to use them.
Shared Objects are a very similar technology to http cookies and have already gained the nickname Flash Cookies.
However, the big difference with Flash Cookies is that they are not deleted in the same way conventional cookies are.
This makes them much more accurate as virtually nobody has heard of them, let alone deleting them.
This is fantastic news for online marketers, who can now get a clearer picture of how many people visit their website or respond to campaigns.
But if Flash Cookies are not to suffer the same fate as http cookies, marketers need to think about full data protection compliance rather than relying on users to delete cookies - which is by no means an opt out and certainly does not lean towards current marketing legislations.
Our TagMan product allows consumers to opt out of tracking across all of our clients by following a single link and thanks to Flash Cookies once they do opt-out they will stay opted out. We think of it like a telephone preference service for consumers.
As the current furore over Facebook’s Beacon ad system shows, companies need to be more transparent when it comes to tracking and to respect both consumer opinion and the law.
Given that bad practice ruined the cookie, I hope other companies will follow our lead and make sure Flash Cookies don’t gain the same reputation.
If so, marketers can start to get a clear picture of website audiences and marketing effectiveness which will mean lower prices and better websites all round.
Paul Cook is the CEO of Positive Feedback.