NEWS4 July 2011

Cookie refusal leads to 90% drop in measured visits to ICO site

Data analytics UK

UK— The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has seen a 90% drop in the number of tracked visits to its website since it started asking web users for explicit permission to place a cookie, as required by new European Union rules.

Figures show that in the three weeks leading up to 24 May – the day before the ICO introduced the new cookie arrangements – average daily visits were 8,237. In the three weeks after the change there were 883 (see chart).

In the 2010/11 financial year the ICO website had 2.4m total visits, meaning average daily visits were 6,575 – not far off the average seen during what would have been a period of heightened interest in the organisation, as companies looked to see how the EU rules would be interpreted and enforced.

The May/June data was released under a Freedom of Information request from web analytics consultant Vicky Brock of Highland Business Research. Brock, who is also a board director of the Web Analytics Association, said the figures were “really scary”.

“For the last decade I have worked with page-tagging technology [which uses cookies to count and record which pages are accessed by web users],” says Brock. “If other business see that same trend as the ICO, that renders that form of measurement meaningless.”

Page-tagging, Brock says, is often used by sites to understand things like traffic flow and user experience – fairly innocuous and anonymous forms of measurement compared to something like behavioural tracking, which has caused most consternation among legislators and privacy-conscious web users. But they are also the types of measures where seeing only a tenth of your total visitor activity “is not very helpful at all”, she says.

Companies may find themselves having to look back to older methods of web analytics – things like log-file analysis, Brock says, which won’t provide website owners with the same “wealth of intelligence they are used to”.

Websites have until next May to comply with the new European cookie rules, after which the ICO will fine companies for breaches.

For its own website the ICO sought consent to place cookies on visitors’ machines through a notice at the top of its homepage. Clicking on the notice led users to an information page which stated that: “The ICO would like to use cookies to store information on your computer, to improve our website. One of the cookies we use is essential for parts of the site to operate and has already been set. You may delete and block all cookies from this site, but parts of the site will not work.”

Brock thinks information providers like ICO as well as business-to-business sites will be particularly disadvantaged when it comes to securing user consent for the use of cookies because visitors may not see the value in doing so. “If you are asking a user to take an action, it’s fairly normal for that user to ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ On a site like Amazon it works because the user can see what they are getting pretty clearly, but on a site like the ICO’s nothing really changes if you do or don’t accept cookies,” says Brock. “These kinds of sites are the ones that are going to suffer.”