Mmm, mmm delicious – the crunchy data you can get from cookies


…and we don’t mean the edible type (although those are good, too!).

These days a consumer’s online experience is all about personalisation. In many ways, you should want your website to function like an in-store sales assistant: your website visitors expect to be catered to in similar ways, with targeted recommendations based on their demographics –gender, age, location – as well as their psychographic preferences. Salespeople can look a potential customer up and down and come away with some of these things in a glance – and when all else fails, they can ask. Your website can’t do the same…or can it?

Enter the cookie. The data it can provide to you is as delicious – if not more so – than it sounds. A cookie is simply a small ID tag in the form of a text file placed on your computer by a website. In the EU, websites that use cookies are required to disclose that fact to website users, and give them a choice as to whether they want to have cookies installed on their computer from the site. Once a cookie is installed, a website can start collecting data regarding your on-site activities with a view to improve the user experience.

So what kinds of data can cookies give you access to? Let’s give some practical examples:

  • Traffic referral channels: cookies can tell you where your site traffic is coming from. Are most visitors finding you via organic search? Paid ads? Social media? Your cookies collect data that can help you attribute where your traffic is coming from, which can help you determine where to spend your inbound budget.
  • Number of pages viewed (which can help with lead scoring): Ever wondered how many pages your visitors are looking at? Cookies can give you a detailed breakdown of how many pages visitors look at on each visit. And, because it tracks by IP address (although good data sources such as Mojn data will hash or mask those IP addresses so you can get the data, but not the IP address), you can get visit-on-visit data so you can see viewing data for individual visitors over time, or aggregate the data for larger samples.
  • Past viewing history: not only can you see how many pages were viewed, but what pages were viewed, thanks to cookies. This is helpful when you want to know more about what is appealing to your visitors, as well as when undertaking retargeting activities.

Note that many users nowadays are sophisticated or just more privacy conscious and clear their browsers and cookies, or reject cookies completely. Some websites note that if a user blocks cookies, they cannot use the site. It is up to each individual marketer and webmaster to determine whether or not to give users the opportunity to view your site without cookies.

Another option, without the delicious name, is fingerprinting. Fingerprinting is a more recent technology that collects data about your computer’s features – plugins, time zone, screen size, fonts and other features, to generate a unique identity for your computer. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has found that 94% of computers that use Java and Flash have unique enough traits to be given these types of identities. Fingerprinting is more durable than cookie data; after all, users can erase cookies but not fingerprints. If you’re curious about what kind of data your computer is transmitting at the moment – and therefore what kinds of information would go in to your computer’s unique fingerprint – you can find out on Panopticlick.

Fingerprinting still has a way to go yet, especially when it comes to being publicly accepted due to privacy concerns. However, between cookies and fingerprinting, there are numerous ways to gather information about your website users and use them for your future marketing efforts.

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