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FEATURE1 December 2006

Online marketing

As attention focuses on online consumer surveillance, MR must stay whiter than white, reports Robert Bain

For years, websites have benefited from the ignorance of their average visitor to track and collect data from them without their knowledge, so they can target them in ever more sophisticated ways.

Much of this is routine and harmless. But the web's two-way mirrors can be used to take advantage of consumers, as well as for legitimate research.

Dozens of firms offer techniques like user tracking, web analytics and behavioural targeting. Their claims include the ability to record "a complete history of visits by any visitor to analyse past purchases and interests", and to "identify and communicate with specific users based on their past web browsing behaviour".

Even if a consumer's name and address is protected, websites can and do assign each visitor a number, tracking their every click, and building up a detailed profile over time.

Ed Mierzwinski of the US Public Interest Research Group ( US PIRG ) is concerned – not just about the idea of being watched, but about online consumers getting a bad deal. "Online stores will offer different prices based on what they think you will pay," Mierzwinski told Research.

"A transaction involves equal parties who have equal information about each other. If one side has amassed a digital dossier that it uses to treat the buyer unfairly then the result is you'll pay more and get fewer choices."

"People have no idea," says Mierzwinski. But he hopes this won't be the case for much longer. Together with the Center for Digital Democracy, US PIRG has called on the Federal Trade Commission to conduct what it sees as a long overdue investigation into online marketing.

Researchers have welcomed the move, believing that educating consumers can only be a good thing. But if a public backlash against online surveillance does come about, researchers will have to be very careful not to be tarred with the same brush. In the face of the internet's dizzying complexity, many consumers will err on the side of caution, resisting any tracking of their activities by anyone.

This kind of "cold war" with consumers is what campaign group is trying to avoid, by seeking ways to gather data without threatening people's privacy or security. founder Nick Nyhan told Research: "The concern for the research community is: Does research and analytics get swept into a negative perception of online advertising and digital data collection?"

To avoid being frozen out from invaluable sources of information, online researchers need to stay whiter than white, and take the initiative in making sure people understand what they are doing and why.

December | 2006