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TRUSTe: Are cookies storing up trouble?

October 5, 2013

(Published in TTG 07.08.13)

With the rise of online behavioural advertising and growing numbers of cookies used, travel companies are being warned about the harm they could unwittingly be doing to their customers, and their own brand. Matthew Parsons reports

Ever wondered how that dress, or pair of shoes, you were looking at buying online, is now following you on your screen everywhere? Or how websites are now second-guessing future purchases for you? Welcome to the world of cookies and behaviourial advertising.

In ecommerce, online travel agents and airlines are notorious for tracking their customers’ online behaviour, often “retargeting” potential customers with hotel and flight deals on other websites once they’ve left their own website.

This, coupled with the growing number of banner ads hosted by third parties, means high levels of tracking are taking place, and travel companies are being warned to be more transparent about the way they mine visitors’ details.

The EU Cookie Law, an e-Privacy Directive that came into action in May last year, means consumers have the right to choose to have their web browsing behaviour tracked. They must also be told how to opt out of tracking and give consent if they wish to have cookies – which can track the whole course of their web use (see box) – installed.
However, not everyone is playing ball. Since October 2012, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office has written to 235 organisations about compliance with the cookie rules. The ICO can also name and shame companies that do not comply and damage their reputation.

“All websites collect data – they always have, always will do, but the levels are increasing,” says Dave Deasy, head of marketing at data privacy management solutions firm TRUSTe.

In July TRUSTe, which is based in San Francisco, scanned 25 top global travel industry websites (as ranked by alexa.com) and on those websites uncovered 373 companies responsible for 1,187 tracking occurrences.

It found EU airline websites had more third-party trackers (66) than US airline websites (40). Global travel portals had an average of 65. This data reflects “a growing and unstoppable shift toward online behavioural advertising”.

The benefits
Website tracking can provide businesses with valuable data on their consumers. It helps them to offer personalised content, adverts and pricing deals. “More and more companies need customer data, but consumers are becoming wary. Cookies are common practice. You could argue it is a great consumer convenience, and firms use them to track page visits [via Google Analytics]. But they to need do it in a way that complies legally, but also inspires trust and engagement.”

Deasy warns many companies are unaware of all of the activity taking place. “In a large organisation, lots of different people can add to the website’s content, knowingly or unknowingly. A lot of things happen.”

Banner adverts can even be hijacked by external advertisers, with data being “mined” without the user’s authorisation; in some cases the consumer leaves that travel website with a slower performance speed, as the number of cookies weigh down their PC or tablet.

“Piggybacking can cause harm. It does impact on page download performance, aside from privacy issues,” says Deasy.

One of TRUSTe’s tools lets companies monitor who is accessing its customers’ details via cookies, and provides a means for those companies to be transparent about cookie use.

“Retargeting is legal, but companies should do it transparently. Are they allowing people to control this? Our research shows people buy into it, it makes the internet experience better,” he adds.

Trust the triangle
In July, TRUSTe was approved by the European Interactive Digital Advertising Alliance as an official certification provider for the EU Self-Regulatory Programme for online behavioural advertising. It means that third-party adverts can appear with a clickable blue triangle, which tells the user about cookie usage.

“Businesses that are fully transparent about the tracking on their sites and provide consumers with ways to opt out have been shown to have the most success in behavioral advertising,” says Deasy.

“Our research has consistently shown that consumers want clear notice and choice regarding online tracking. By giving consumers options to support their privacy preferences, businesses can help to maintain the confidence of consumers when browsing and booking travel plans online.”

TRUSTe is already working with Expedia, Orbit and major hotel chains, but is looking to the UK, and Deasy is “excited about growing in Europe”.

So with unauthorised tracking there are consequences, including lack of consumer confidence, lost revenue and poor site performance. The challenge for OTAs is to ensure they can manage any third-party tracking on their websites.

And with online sales expected to account for 66% of the travel market by 2017 in the UK, according to Euromonitor, that extra layer of transparency could give you the edge.

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