The Internet cookie crumbles: Companies explore alternatives to traditional online tracking

Posted on Apr 17 2014 - 7:54am by Kelli Breland

The Internet cookie has crumbled, and market researchers are scrambling for alternatives.

This isn’t the kind of cookie you buy online and eat, it’s the name for the technique researchers have used for years to track your online data.

When you visit a website, the site will attach a “cookie” to your computer.

This little line of code provides the website with the means to recognize your computer when you visit the site again. This is often how email sites remember your login name and password, shopping sites bring up recently viewed items and how weather sites recall the zip code you entered the last time.

Cookies may sound useful and harmless, at least until advertisers enter the picture. According to BBC News, advertisers and marketing firms have been found to implant “third party cookies” or “tracking cookies” into web browsers.

These cookies keep track of every site you visit, and then the data is used to create tailored advertisements based on your visited websites and searches.

For example, if you search Amazon.com for hiking boots and then log onto Facebook and see advertisements for hiking gear, it’s because a third-party cookie was placed onto your computer.

According to The Daily Mail, researchers found that “During one 15-minute surfing period, one investigator’s computer was inundated with 600 cookies, 350 of which were the tracking variety.”

Many consumers have recognized the advertiser’s enthusiastic use for the cookie — a variety of web browsers, such as Safari, Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome now offer an easy option to turn off cookies.

As a result, the cookie is beginning to die out.

According to The Wall Street Journal, the slow death of the cookie has not led marketers to give up on Internet tracking. Instead, they are exploring new options.

One of these new options is called “device identification.” This method would mean that instead of attaching a cookie to the web browser, a tracking mechanism would be implanted in the device itself.

Manufacturing companies themselves would implant tracking devices on computers, smartphones, tablets and other Internet accessing equipment. Thus, manufacturers would have the power to obtain the information first, and then they could sell what they gather to third party marketing firms.

There is no word on whether consumers will be able to “opt out” of device identification if it is implemented.

A second option, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau, is to use cloud targeting. It is unclear whether this method will be successful.

It would mean that instead of trying to collect the data on one device or web browser, companies would try to target the consumer’s entire “cloud” of information.

A “cloud” is when a group of computers or devices use the Internet to store all of their information in the same location instead of storing it on their hard drives.

On a commercial scale, many companies use cloud computing to store massive amounts of data, which can be accessed by all employees. On a personal level, you can use cloud computing to be able to access data on all of your devices.

For instance, Apple offers a cloud option in which all data saved on your iPhone, iPad and Mac computer goes to a cloud, and then can be accessed from any of your Apple devices.

If marketers choose to target the cloud, they may run into problems with storing the huge amounts of data they can collect.

Additionally, there is no indication of how consumers will be able to protect their information from those who target the cloud.

The method companies will ultimately choose to continue tracking consumers online is unknown.

But one thing is clear — the cookie is dying out.