March 6, 2000-- Newsletter #70

By Joe Burns

Goodies to Go (tm)
March 6, 2000--Newsletter #70
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Please visit http://www.htmlgoodies.com
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Greetings, Weekend Silicon Warriors,

Did you hear...

eCommerce! eCommerce! Rah! Rah! Rah! Apparently after three good years of business on the Web, colleges and universities have decided it's here to stay and have begun offering degrees specifically geared to cyber-business. The University of South Alabama in Mobile, Old Dominion University in Norfolk, VA, Carnegie Mellon in Pittsburgh, and Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, TX, all are offering degrees. From what I've seen they'll have no trouble filling classrooms. Each of the schools reports good attendance and even waiting lists.

I'm offering my HTML class both in class and online this semester and will again in the fall. Both classes generate waiting lists as long as the actual enrolment. Right now, the Web is what students want to know.

A variant of the Trin00 hacking tool that brought down CNN.com, Yahoo! and various other Web sites was found on 16 student computers at James Madison University. The "zombie code" is disturbing because it was found working inside Windows98 operating systems. Up until now, only Solaris- and Linux-based servers have been infected. Apparently someone mutated the code and presumably a new rash of "denial-of-service" attacks could possibly be launched through personal PCs.

This one didn't get as much play in the media, but National Discount Brokers Group Online was hit with a denial-of-service attack last week. It put them offline for a good 70 minutes.

Funerals online? Before you suggest it's morbid, think about the benefits for those who cannot come to the actual service but wish to pay their respects. Fred Ferguson owns www.FergersonFuneralHome.com and plans to offer video of funerals online. He doesn't want to do it as a pay-per-view event for weird viewers. It would be for friends and family of the deceased. If you can get past the initial macabre concept, it actually sounds like a pretty good idea.

Now onto today's topic...

You watch TV, right? I mean, in amongst your frequent trips into cyberspace, you turn on the set now and again.

What do you think of the commercials? If you're like most people, you have a general understanding that it's those commercials that keep the television stations afloat. They show commercials in exchange for providing you with free programming. According to just about every survey I've read on the subject, most consumers get that commercial/free programming relationship.

Too bad Web surfers don't see the same relationship between ad banners and free content. The people at DoubleClick, the Web's largest advertising banner server have announced that now Web surfers are clicking on less than one percent of all banners displayed.

That's a very low number. I remember back in the mid-1990s when click-throughs were so prevalent that you could sell advertising packages based on clicks alone. I remember one distinctly that paid me 35 cents for each click up to a certain number of clicks. I don't remember the advertiser though. I just remember the banner had a lizard on it. It was a type of software I think.

This is nothing new. DoubleClick knew that click-throughs were dropping so they put their research team into action. The answer? Tailor the ads to the consumer.

It's not exactly a stunning revelation. Advertising has been doing it since, well, forever. Radio stations have been measuring and describing audiences since their inception in the 1920s. The U.S. government paid for the first nationwide audience survey. I own a first printing of the book describing the results. Television started describing its audiences both through government surveys and the Hooper ratings, a forerunner to today's well-known Arbitron and Nielsen ratings.

DoubleClick thought this would be the way to go. They purchased a large database of consumer habits and began to track those who viewed their banners through cookies. From DoubleClick's point of view, this was brilliant. Now, consumers can be shown banner advertisements that actually apply to them.

If I am a big software buyer, show me more banners regarding software. If I visit Amazon.com a great deal, show me Amazon's monthly specials. If I search for a good deal in New Orleans, show me banners that promote Mardi Gras and beads.

This is a great idea. It does exactly what other advertising mediums do. Look at the audience, find out their habits, their likes and dislikes, and tailor advertising to those parameters.

It's a win/win situation, right?

Wrong. "It's invasion of privacy", some say.

Huh? But...but...it's the same thing that other advertising mediums have been doing for years. What's the difference?

"No one asked me. They just took the information from me."

Ah! I think we've hit it.

If you're a long-time reader of HTML Goodies, you probably know my thoughts on advertising. I like it. I have no trouble whatsoever with a person making a legal, ethical buck on the Web. I think banner ads are great. They allow me to keep my site free, yet still make enough profit to pay for the hardware, upkeep, and service work I provide.

Since the beginning of advertising on the Web, I never understood people proclaiming everything should be free. It can't be. This stuff costs money. I have to pay server fees and pay myself a profit or I can't make a mortgage payment.

I knew DoubleClick and others were tracking consumers just about from the start of the process and I never really found it a horrible thing. I saw it as what they wanted it to be, a help to the consumer.

I would get into big arguments with colleagues about why television, radio, and print can track an audience, but the Web cannot. Then, last Friday, a student said the line I printed above.

"No one asked me. They just took the information from me."

I still don't think setting cookies and tracking habits is such a bad thing, but now I might actually see a bit of the opposing argument.

Television, radio, and print ask their audience for info. Ratings are done through audience meters, diaries, phone calls. Print often asks their audience to fill out questionnaires. Yes, each medium can track consumers through feedback from their audience through advertiser's reports, but it's not the same.

My thinking is that people who don't mind the "traditional" media tracking habit, but dislike the Web doing it, feel that way because the traditional media tracks "out in the open". The audience knows it's being tracked. Ratings are reported. People are asked before information is gathered.

Yes? Do I have it? Am I at least on the correct track?

I am asked about my thoughts on this topic all the time. In fact, I've headed up several academic seminars on just this. Apparently I'm invited because I will boldly stand as an opposing viewpoint.

Here's my real problem when I get into an argument regarding tracking and advertising on the Web. Many people that argue with me stand on the reasoning, "my privacy" alone.

Well, what is it specifically about privacy? There simply has to be more to it than "my privacy, my privacy".

(Don't get angry with me just yet, I'm actually starting to get to the opposing side of the argument. Keep reading.)

During every seminar I've attended, someone always claims the "my privacy" argument. Someone else immediately jumps on the pat response, "are you going into sites that you'd rather others don't know about"? The implication, rightly so, infuriates the person concerned about their privacy.

So, let's, again, look at the future. If the privacy issue wins out and all forms of tracking are eliminated, the best advertisers can hope to do is randomly post banners or make educated guesses about what people want to see.

The click-throughs will drop farther down than they are right now and advertisers will possibly stop coming to the Web in such great numbers.

Continuing the domino effect, those who own sites will not be able to garnish enough cash to keep their site online. They will either have to start asking for a fee to view, sell something, or go offline.

This is bad. If this scenario occurs, don't think the Web will once again become a free place where great ideas are exchanged and everyone's happy. It won't. Those who have the cash, or garnish the cash, to run a site through sales or fees will rule the Web.

We, those who use and promote the Web, must find a balance between advertising banners and privacy. So, allow me to suggest a solution.

Would you feel better if cookie tracking was eliminated in favor of self-tracking? Hear me out. What if tomorrow, the business sites you visited popped up a questionnaire that you had to answer to get in? You only had to answer it once or twice a year, but you had to answer it to get in.

Now, we have self-submitted information that can be used to help sites sell advertising that targets the customer.

Yes, I know it would be a pain in the yazoo twice a year, but a greater piece of your privacy might be protected and you'd know who has information regarding your Web habits. I also know some would fill in bogus information. I've done a ton of surveys in my academic research, and bogus information is part of the process. Most respondents actually do fill in good information.

Yes, the information gathered might be sold around the Web, but remember that it's general information. It's not specifically you. It's information about an audience en masse. That's a great deal like the method used by the traditional media.

No, this isn't a perfect idea, but think about it. Can an agreement be made that allows both privacy and general audience tracking? I would suggest, yes. Maybe this isn't the way to go, but are you at least open to such an idea?

Think about it. I'd actually be interested in hearing suggestions about how privacy could be protected and advertisers could still gather information. Talk to someone who you know has a viewpoint different than your own.

Can you both reach an agreement or will you both stand so firm on your views that nothing will happen? Hopefully you can reach an agreement. Hopefully everyone can reach an agreement. If we don't, the decisions will be made for us. The banner advertisement companies will plod forward and Web users will continue to proclaim, "my privacy, my privacy".

In the end, banners will stay, people's privacy will continue to be argued, and no one will feel like they've been heard.

Think about it. Is there a method of having it all? I think there is. I just don't quite know what it is yet.

>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>

That's that. Thanks for reading. I really enjoyed writing this one.

Joe Burns, Ph.D.

And Remember: Have you ever seen a map that has an arrow pointing where you're standing? The arrow usually reads "You Are Here". Did you know there's a technical name for that arrow? It's called an ideo locator.

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