Anti-Spyware takes a bite out of cookie accuracy

Nervous consumers using anti-spyware to avoid having their Web surfing tracked by marketers are lessening the accuracy of customer data gathered by online retailers and other companies, a research firm said yesterday.

The biggest impact is on third-party cookies, tiny files an advertiser will plant in a visitor's browser in order to track which sites the person visits on the marketer's network, JupiterResearch said. Anti-spyware vendors are most aggressive in removing such cookies, while cookies set by the retailer itself, called first-party cookies, are more likely to go unnoticed.

JupiterResearch found that companies moving to first-party cookies from third-party cookies are getting more customer information from visitors, typically seeing a 10 percent to 15 percent increase in unique visitors, 13 percent to 30 percent more repeat visitors and 10 percent to 30 percent more visitors attributed to specific marketing campaigns.

"Companies depending on third-party cookies for long-term identification of new and repeat visitors are definitely suffering from diminished accuracy," JupiterResearch analyst Eric Peterson said.

Most cookies are harmless and contribute data used to improve Web sites and marketing efforts. Ad networks use cookie-gathered data in an attempt to deliver advertisements based on a person's Web surfing, that is, whether they visit a lot of sports or cooking sites.

But despite the availability of analytical software tools, many companies struggle to make sense out of all the data gathered.

"Regardless of whether they're using analytical applications based on first- or third-party cookies, Web site operators still struggle to make use of the data," Peterson said.

Nevertheless, media reports of threats posed by viruses, identity thieves and phishers have led consumers to err on the side of caution, and not really care if the cookie their deleting through their anti-spyware is benign or a security problem.

"Most harmless cookies are getting deleted because they're caught up in our attempt to protect ourselves from the scum of the Earth," Peterson said.

Fully 32 percent of the 150.8 million online households in the United States are running anti-spyware applications that delete third-party cookies, JupiterResearch said. Nearly 38 million of online households use aggressive anti-spyware that removes nearly 75 percent of tracking cookies.

In a survey in October, 69 percent of companies surveyed by JupiterResearch said data received from first-party cookies was more accurate. Therefore, the research firm recommends companies switch, but cautions that a long-term fix won't be possible without reaching a compromise with anti-spyware vendors.

"First-party cookies are not a panacea, but better is better," Peterson said.

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