October 22, 2012, 3:50 PM

How online privacy trends could hurt e-commerce sites

Blocking tracking cookies could also block useful site content, Moosejaw says.

Paul Demery

Managing Editor, B2B E-commerce

Lead Photo

Privacy advocates generally favor making it easier for online consumers to block or delete tracking cookies. But if consumers do turn off cookies, they may find retailer web sites less suited to their individual needs, says Eoin Comerford, CEO of Moosejaw Mountaineering, a multichannel retailer of outdoor sporting goods.

“There’s a consumer expectation for a certain degree of personalization in the e-commerce site experience, and if more consumers say they don’t want to get tracked at all, it will hurt online retailing,” he says. Moosejaw is No. 276 in the Internet Retailer Top 500.

Pending “Do Not Track” federal legislation designed to make it easier for consumers to block tracking cookies has yet to make its way through Congress. But such efforts may already be raising consumers’ awareness of existing web browser tools for deactivating cookies, Comerford and others say.

He notes that software cookies—both the cookies set by web sites to track activity and support personalization on their own sites based on shoppers’ behavior, and the cookies set by marketing companies to follow consumers through online ad networks—could be compromised if  trends in privacy rules lead consumers to block or delete cookies in large numbers.

The Google Chrome browser, for example, offers several options for controlling cookies. One option lets users allow cookies set by a web site to track click activity only during a visitor’s session, then automatically delete them once the visitor closes her web browser. This wouldn’t affect in-session activity, Comerford notes, because it would still allow a retailer to personalize the content a shopper sees, such as showing button-down shirts to a consumers who has indicated that as a preference. The retailer could also, within a single shopping session, show recently viewed items or retain a shopper’s address and payment card information for faster checkouts.

But with cookies deleted at the end of every browser session, “the site would have no way to recognize visitors upon return, so the return experience cannot be personalized, shopping carts are not saved, recently viewed items are not saved,” Comerford says. Moreover, he adds, this could also hamper the ability of marketing managers to view the recorded online activity, such as recommend products a shopper clicked, that led to purchases.

Comerford says he’s concerned that Chrome also allows users to block all third-party cookies, including those that support ads on other web sites and cookies used by providers of e-commerce site features such as Internet-hosted product recommendations. Google did not return a request for comment, but a person familiar with Chrome said consumers can use controls in the browser to block all types of cookies.

Microsoft Corp. earlier this year took cookie controls to a new level when it announced that its newest Internet Explorer web browser, IE10, now in a preview release, comes with a built-in do-not-track feature that automatically requests web sites to honor do-not-track requests. Unless users of IE10 opt out of the feature, it automatically sends a do-not-track request to web sites reached with the browser. Under pending federal Do Not Track legislation, web sites would be required to honor such requests to deactivate tracking cookies for IE10 users. For now, however, sites are not obligated to honor such requests.

For more information about targeted marketing and online privacy, read the upcoming November issue of Internet Retailer magazine

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