The word ‘privacy’ gets used a lot when it comes to the web. Depending on context it can mean many different things. For some, it means being able to access your bank account without fear of someone stealing your bank details. For others it’s about being able to visit a website without that website knowing who you are.
There seems to be a general consensus that we all need more privacy, and that we fear losing it.
We blogged previously about the Government’s plans to hold information on every website you visit and every email you send. And Yahoo recently got a big round of applause when they announced that they were going to significantly cut down the amount of data they keep on people’s searching habits.
But what many privacy evangelists don’t take into account is that if users give up a little bit of privacy about who they are and what websites they visit, their overall Internet experience can be significantly enhanced.
Websites track user behaviour with ‘cookies’. These are little packets of information that the website attaches to your browser as you look at the website. The cookies contain information about which pages you looked at, how long you spent on the website, where you arrived from (EG Google.co.uk) and whether you bought anything.
At any one time you will have many hundreds of cookies on your browser, from all the websites you’ve visited. Cookies can last anywhere between a day and 20 years, although they’re generally ‘set’ to last for 30 days. So if you visit a website and that website attaches a cookie to you, and you come back 31 days, the website won’t realise that you’ve been there before.
What’s great about cookies is that if the website ‘reads’ your cookie from a previous visit, they can then give you content that will be more relevant to your current visit.
An example of a website that does this really well is Amazon. Amazon shows you products based on your previous purchases and previous considerations. And so often that really works – I end up buying an album even though I didn’t go looking for it, simply because they know that based on my previous tastes I would like it. I always do.
And as for Yahoo, if it knows more about you and the type of content you search for, its going to be able to make the Search Engine Results Page far more relevant to you. You’ll find the information faster, and have a better experience of their service.
For me, this is a great use of supposedly ‘private’ data. My experience on Amazon.co.uk and Yahoo.com is more fruitful for both them and me because they’re able to give me content based on my previous habits,
Have you heard of ‘Phorm’? This is a company who is working with some ISPs in order to deliver targeted advertising to that ISP’s users. The ISP supplies information about each users’ surfing habits, and Phorm matches that with adverts promoting products and services that are relevant.
Privacy groups have made a huge objection to Phorm, so much so that many of the ISPs who originally planned to use them have got cold feet and decided not to go ahead. But for you, the user, surely its more useful to see adverts for products that you’re interested in, rather than ones that you’re not?
When you’re setting up a website, you want to make the information is as easy as possible to find and navigate for your users. That’s one of the key ways you can get users to engage with your website, and not leave straight away. This is made a whole lot easier of you know what the user is looking for, even as they arrive. Cookies can do this for you.
Would you like to be able to use that information? Or would you prefer privacy at all costs? Leave a comment below.