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Sometimes it’s good to be a little evil

by Darin Stewart  |  February 2, 2012  |  2 Comments

The Wall Street Journal maintains a list of websites that collect information about their visitors and sell it to marketers.  The associated  “What They Know” infographic ranks the 50 most popular U.S. websites according to an "exposure index" determined by the degree to which each site exposes visitors to monitoring. The top site,, boasts 239 trackers for each visitor: 159 cookies, 23 flash, 41 beacons and 11 first party. I mentioned this to my wife who is a addict.  Her only comment pretty much sums up the reaction of most people when then learn their online activities and interests are monitored. “That is so evil.” As husbands are expected to do, I adopted a solemn expression and nodded my head in agreement.  Secretly, I was thinking about all the cool ways that information could be used to improve the online experience.

Overly aggressive and intrusive marketing is not my idea of an improved online experience. However, when I visit a news portal it should know that I’m a science junkie and have never read a sports related article in my life. When I visit a technology vendor’s website, it should remember that I’m an analyst, not a consumer. It should present me with technical and functional details rather than shill the vendor’s products.  With a little user history and the judicious use of metadata, its really not that hard. Unfortunately, this just doesn’t seem to occur to most website publishers and that treasure trove of tracking data is wasted. 

The missed opportunity is even more tragic when mobile devices enter the picture (and at this point, mobile devices ARE the picture).  A smart phone or a tablet bends over backward to tell a website where it is, what it can do and what type of content it wants.  You can and should do more with that information than simply serve up a stripped down version of your homepage.  If I visit a public transit website from my iPhone, chances are I’m not looking for annual pass options or a history of the Portland bus system.  I want to know where the nearest stop for the 96 express is located and when the next bus arrives (and I don’t want to install a dedicated app to do so!).  When I visit that same website from home, it should know that I always seem to ride the 96 and that I usually just miss it.  That little bit of tacit information, gleaned from my history and mobile habits, can facilitate a tailored online experience that goes beyond micro-segmentation to make true personalization practical.

When I access an online resource from a mobile device, I want quick, targeted information relevant to my immediate situation. When I access that same resource from my desktop, I want more details, more options and more aesthetics. Most importantly, I want the two experiences linked together into one, ongoing, conversational relationship.  If I have to reintroduce myself every time we meet, chances are we are not going to become friends. A comprehensive cross-channel strategy can leverage user history and contextual information to provide a cohesive experience across devices and across sessions. If this is the goal of your tracking cookies and beacons, its okay to be a little evil.

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Category: web-content-management  

Tags: cross-channel  microsegmentation  personalization  tracking  user-experience  web-content-management  

Darin Stewart
Research Vice President
6 years with Gartner
21 years IT industry

Darin Stewart is a research vice president for Gartner in the Collaboration and Content Strategies service. He covers search, knowledge management, semantic technologies and enterprise content management. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on Sometimes it’s good to be a little evil

  1. Sagar says:

    Sounds rather harmless and in fact useful when put this way. The trouble is you can’t separate such use cases from the larger picture – websites like Facebook and Google are increasingly adopting such ideas to show users filtered search results or selective comments based on their demographics, usage patterns etc – websites want to willingly or unwillingly show you what you want to see before you make up your own mind. IMO a huge mistake …

    • Darin Stewart says:

      Yes, that is what I was trying to get at in my last post “Searching the Echo Chamber“. It’s a hard balance to strike and most providers tend to err on the side of manipulation rather than service. One way to potentially ameliorate the problem is transparency. Let me see the profile you have created on me and let me edit as I see fit. This could be akin to tuning my “user preference” settings.

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