Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Why Microsoft's default Do Not Track setting is bad

This is a cross-post from the Simplare website.

There has recently been much debate over the tracking of users browsing the Internet. Many advertisement platforms such as Google's AdSense track users across multiple websites in order to customize the ads shown to the user. By learning more about the behavior of users it is possible to show ads that the user will more likely be interested in and thus more likely click on.

There are however a large group of users who does not like to be tracked and would prefer more generic ads. Their only way of preventing advertisers to track them has so far been to install software such as AdBlock, NoScript and FlashBlock. These solutions will remove ads entirely which is why advertisers are looking for a better solution which can cater to the privacy minded minority while still serving up ads for most of them (some will of course still remove ads altogether).

Enter, Do Not Track (DNT). This is a new header that the browsers can send to the websites, telling them to not track the user. The websites (and advertisement platforms) then need to look for this header and honor it. Since the system has so far been opt-in (you need to activate it yourself) most advertisers has decided to actually honor the setting.

But now Microsoft has decided to make the Internet Explorer 10 browser send out the DNT value of 1 (meaning users should not be tracked) by default. This is bad. Mostly because it will make it tougher for advertisers. But also for me.

On the Stoffi website I have put in place a few lines of code which looks for the DNT header and if the value exist and is set to 1 it will not include the Google Analytics code. I use Google Analytics to know how many people visit the website, where they go, which browsers they use, how they found us, etc. This information is very valuable to me as it helps me know how to best improve the website. I can easily find pages where users get stuck. I can see when someone wrote about us and starts to send us users, thus allowing me to visit that website and perhaps engage in a conversation by leaving a comment. I could see which languages we should focus on, and so on.

But if the majority of users will have the DNT header turned on I might be forced to ignore it as I will no longer be getting information about what is going on on my own website. I still can't track individual users, I can't follow a single person around on the website. However I felt that honoring the DNT header by removing the Analytics code was a great feature. I would love for Microsoft to reconsider and have the setting be opt-in, but it's starting to look doubtful.

Also, most advertisers will probably also start to ignore the header, thus defeating the whole purpose and rendering the effort moot.