Tracking: How that trail of cookie crumbs can leave behind more than you thought

You may or may not have heard of cookies, and before we go any farther lets get everyone on the same page, we are talking computer cookies.

Cookies are teeny files that are deposited on your hard drive while you surf the Internet. A cookie definition is a text only string that gets entered into the memory of your browser. A cookie is sometimes referred to as an HTTP cookie, web cookie, or browser cookie. However, all cookies aren’t the same, in general they seem to be pretty harmless. They tend to expire quickly and actually make websites easier to use.

For example, you know those logins that remember you as you start typing in your information – that’s the cookies. Maybe creepy, but most just pass it off for the convenience factor.

That doesn’t seem too bad, a couple of sites you frequent often remembering your information, right? No, it gets personal and creepy when you throw in the word tracking.

Tracking has been defined by the Center for Democracy and Technology as “the collection and correlation of data about the Internet activities of a particular user, computer or device over time and across non-commonly branded Web sites, for any purpose other than fraud prevention or compliance with law enforcement requests.”

Long term tracking cookies, aren’t your run of the mill cookies. These cookies can actually collect a lot of information about what web sites you visit, and what you look at and do on those web pages also.

Your web browsing habits can be tracked and profiled, which can ultimately allow companies to make predictions on your “offline” purchasing habits.

So what is the problem with these “long term tracking cookies”? Companies such as advertisers or web analytic groups, may know more about you than you think they should. Not only do they have information about you, they can sell this information too.

However, there is good news: you can easily delete your cookie from your browser as often as you like. But deleting your cookie file entirely will make you start from scratch with every website you visit – there goes your convenience factor.

To protect yourself you can also opt-out of having your information used by third-party ad servers.  This site also allows you to see what and how many third parties companies are tracking you, check it out by visiting: or more recently request to be on the “Do Not Track” list. Do Not Track allows users to hide their browsing activity from advertisers.

And don’t think you are not interesting enough to be tracked, if you are on Facebook then this might be of interest to you. Facebook is once again being sued for tracking their users even after they have signed off of Facebook. This isn’t the first time Facebook has been accused of using cookies to track users after they have logged out of their account. Facebook has said they don’t track users across the Web and its cookies are used to personalize content. And for the tracking cookies, after you log out, it’s for your safety and protection. I’m not so sure about that….

With that being said, ourselves as the user need to be aware of how, where, and why our information is being used. It is definitely something to think about, whether your browsing activity is allowing companies and the government to manipulate us, the consumers, too much?  Lucky for us their are multiple privacy and advocate groups and that are out there trying to protect our privacy and push companies to be more transparent about the data they collect.

Metrics. How Does it All Measure Up?

A metric in its most basic form is a standard of measurement. A metric then allows a researcher to standardize his analysis on a given topic. This allows researchers to compare studies from different cases. When one is researching web metrics he is usually seeking different measurements that can tell him how well a website is performing in comparison to other websites. In order to successfully gage a website’s viability one should conduct proper web analyses. Web analysis according to the knowledgeable guys over at the DAA (Digital Analytics Association) is the measurement, collection, analysis and reporting of Internet data for the proposes of understanding and optimizing Web usage. I encourage you to follow the link provided below to the google analytics page. Google has packaged every metric needed for understanding and optimizing a website. Users wanting to gage the success of their Facebook pages can refer to Facebook Insights for detailed Facebook specific metrics.

Wake up, look around. Every startup, every restaurant, bakery, babysitter, non profit to multibillionaire organizations have some sort of web presence. Some of these organizations can’t even tell you why they have a web presence all they know is their competitors seem to have one. Understanding how all the metrics add up will lead to more optimal usage of your website and perhaps more revenue as well. Researching metrics can become overwhelming for a website manager due to the amount of information a site can collect from each visitor. Before you begin it’s important to note what to track and measure. Maybe you want to sell ad space on your startup company’s website. Understanding and improving  your metrics can boost your value to advertisers. Information like website traffic, website referrals, average click through on content, how users navigate through your website, what stories are viewed the longest or viewed the most are valuable and can be utilized to influence strategy and increase value. Below is an example of the type of data that can be gained by researching your company’s website.


Metrics available today are updated in real time. Those metrics  really become useful when a company can apply context to the quantitative data. Companies can improve their online presence and perhaps increase revenue with algorithms created from specific metrics. For example, when an individual is referred to a story on your page from a friend on Facebook and spends 10 minutes  on the page that might maybe a success to you if you are an online newspaper and your main goal right now is to drive views to web stories. That would look something like (Referred from Facebook)*(10>Mins)= success. If you get success thousands or millions of times you know that that strategy is working. Advertisers then can see thousands or millions of views times 10 minutes as an opportunity to deliver related advertisement with that same data.

Numbers don’t lie.

Honey, I Shrunk the Terms and Conditions

“What belongs to you stays yours.” Seems like common sense, huh? Well according to google and facebook’s terms and conditions, this is an important point that needs clarified. Lately, big online corporations such as facebook have been trying to make the move to “simplify” their privacy policies and Terms and Conditions to be more transparent, but this isn’t necessarily the fix that users wanted.

Before the shrinking of facebook’s Terms and Conditions, users could barely understand what data was being pulled from their facebook pages, much less what it was being used for. It was tough to get through the pages upon pages upon more pages of the privacy policy, and tougher yet to understand what the words actually meant for you. Facebook is a website built around user’s ability and willingness to voluntarily contribute their personal information, and once the site starts letting users in on how their information is being used, there are undoubtedly going to be protests. Organizations across the world banded together to object against facebook’s murky terms, and, according to, claimed that this policy was “designed to confuse users and to frustrate attempts to limit the public disclosure of personal information that many Facebook users choose to share only with family and friends.” Overall, the feelings about facebook’s Terms and Conditions were not of a positive nature.

When human rights groups and individuals alike caused an uproar over the privacy issues that facebook’s terms brought about, the social media site decided to make a change. On September 23, 2011 and again on March 15, 2012, facebook released privacy policy revisions that were easier for the Average Joe to understand, and the policies themselves were considerably shorter. But with the new “Data Use Policy,” facebook did not really change the way they are using your data, just the language that describes how they are using it. This is not the solution that privacy groups aimed for; facebook shrunk the Terms and Conditions but forgot to protect our data better!

Facebook has taken the privacy out of its policy. In an attempt to clarify data usage for users, facebook has dwindled down the size of its’ Terms and Conditions but failed to appease the user’s right to privacy. According to an article in the Huffington Post, facebook prefers to be more straightforward with their new Data Use Policy, since the purpose of that document is not about protecting user privacy but instead about articulating how the company uses your data. Facebook has long been brought into the limelight about privacy concerns, and although they claim they are shrinking their policies to be more transparent to users, don’t let them fool you: the Terms and Conditions may be shrinking, but the threats to your privacy remain.

Facebook Open Graph

Users have agreed to authorizations, but understanding how to use Open Graph is critical to enhancing the experience of the user. By authorizing third party applications to retrieve personal data, access to post on a user’s timeline and specific actions the user takes through Facebook Connect the application can better understand the user. However, Open Graph is specific and the data authorized to code must be exact in determining what actions to code before posting onto the users timeline.

For Open Graph to reach its full potential, it’s important for the users to agree to the correct permissions so the right data can be recorded. These permissions include the content that the third party app has access to and what actions the app can make on a user’s site. Whether the app is interested in basic information, likes, locations, photos, interests or information about a users friends, these authorizations are the foundation of gathering data from the user. Facebook Developers present a full list along with the coding specifics on the permissions that an app can grant to users.

Facebook Open Graph is the cornerstone of understanding the user. Without Open Graph the idea of data efficiency is too simple. However, Open Graph allows third-party applications, such as Rotten Tomatoes, to display and post information on your Facebook Timeline. The specific information posted on Timeline depends on the type of data needed to understand the constituent.


Facebook Open Graph relies on actions. The third party application must record an action from the user and then post information on the timeline for the user’s friends to see or interact with.

Facebook Developers cites three steps of operation of Facebook Open Graph.

1-User takes an action in your app

2-App POSTS the action to Facebook

3-Facebook GETS your object’s metadata.


So what exactly is an action or the process you might be asking? It’s simplethe user’s action might be to read something. Reading is the action and what they are reading is the object. The user, action and object are all key ingredients to Facebook Open Graph.


Enrique Gutierrez, in What Facebook OpenGraph means For You, describes actions that can be recorded as what a user is reading, clicking,  typing, commenting on, sharing, visiting, mouse scrolling and many other actions.

Overall, actions are determined by both what the user does and what the app wants to record and publish on Timeline. This could be watching, reading, listening to or anything else that the app could possibly think of recording.


            Facebook developers describe the Metadata as “tags to describe the type of the object, the name of the object and other key information.” These tags are the technical features necessary to code the users data to post on the timeline. The Open Graph Protocol describes four required properties for every page as the following.

Og:title – title of the object,

og:type – the TYPE of object,

og:image- image URL, or the image within the graph,

og:url – the URL that will be associated with the site.

A meta data tag might look like this:

<meta property = “og:title”content=”website”/>

The coded actions would be put into the various sections of the metatag and then the information would be posted onto the users timeline.


While the actual code required for Open Graph is much more in-depth and detailed, the code above is the type required to code the data users produce. It’s important to determine beforehand what type of data should be authorized to code, because it’s not efficient to code information that is not needed for the sake of the application or constituent.


So how does Open Graph work into the business model you might be asking? Third parties can utilize Facebook Connect for users to connect their Facebook profile to that of the website or application of the third party company. In comes Open Graph. Open Graph gives the third party the ability to take the data, actions, activity, interests, etc. and apply them to understand the constituent. If the data is coded correctly, then the data the user contributes will be able to enhance the experience for the constituent, the third party and the users friends. Finally, the actions the user takes are posted on Facebook for all to see. The general idea of how third party applications can take advantage of Open Graph is through data efficiency.

Public Pressure

There is a considerable amount of public pressure that arises with utilizing Open Graph. Users are hesitant to accept authorizations for an app that asks for too much information, but it’s also important to limit the nature of what data Open Graph uses and what information is posted in Facebook Timeline. There is a line between enhancing the Facebook experience for the user and posting person information. When using Facebook Open Graph to enhance the experience of user and use the data efficiently, the third party app must determine how the information posted and data retrieved can understand the constituent. The third party application will receive the users data, specifics on friends and other valuable information; therefore, the app must provide a valuable service to the constituent. Finding the medium is a small price to pay for the incredible amount of data available for both the app developer and in understanding and enhancing the experience for the constituent.



Opt Out

One click and you are done. One click and you are saved from the pop-ups, the banners, and the data tracking…or so you think. With the growing awareness of advertisers and companies using personal data and individual online activities, there has also been a growing misunderstanding that the one-click opt out option on websites and digital ads results in total protection.

The Network Advertising Initiative (NAI) has created an Opt-out tool that has been developed with input from NAI members with the “purpose of allowing consumers to ‘opt out’ of the behavioral advertising” delivered by the NAI member companies. As stated by the organization’s website, the NAI is a coalition of over 80 online advertising companies committed to complying with tough self-regulatory standards that establish and reward responsible business and data management practices.

In the words of the NAI (and please note the carefully crafted language):

The NAI Opt-out Tool replaces a network advertiser’s unique online preference marketing cookie on your browser with a general opt-out cookie. It does not delete individual cookies nor does it necessarily replace other cookies delivered by network advertisers, such as those that are used for aggregate ad reporting or mere ad serving purposes. Such cookies allow network advertisers to change the sequence of ad banners, as well as track the aggregate number of ads delivered (impressions).

So what does this actually mean for the everyday user? Rumor has it that opting out may stop physically seeing the individual tailored digital advertisements, but the tracking may still be continuing. All of this has become confusing for users and has caused the opt out option to be highly misunderstood.

According to a 2011 Carnegie Mellon University study, tools, such as the NAI Opt-out Tool, were either ineffective or too confusing for the average user; this included those tools of third-party blockers, browser tool options, and the opt-out tools from advertisers. Their results have shown that:

The current approach for advertising industry self-regulation through opt-out mechanisms is fundamentally flawed. There are significant challenges in providing easy-to-use tools that give users meaningful control without interfering with their use of the web. Even with additional education and better user interfaces, it is not clear whether users are capable of making meaningful choices about trackers

All is not lost when choosing the opt-out options. First, it’s a good start. But users have other privacy options besides changing privacy browser settings or clicking on the privacy icon on digital ads. The company PrivacyChoice has developed a system which will score company websites on a 0 to 100 scaled based on how the site collects and uses personal data.

 In a statement, founder of PrivacyChoice, Jim Brock said, “For the first time, Web publishers and their users have a way to easily compare privacy practices across the Web…This transparency not only allows people to make smarter decisions about their own data, it also will spur more protective privacy practices by sites and tracking companies, which is long overdue.”

Although the one click opt-out tool may not save us all, there are other options available and dedicated to individual user data protection.