Why trackers? What purpose do they serve?

Imagine this…

You open a coffee shop. You are excited, but you’re just getting started! You probably want to know two things:

  1. How is my business doing?
  2. How can my business do better?

Answering the first one usually involves counting customers, sales, or expenses. The second one is harder. You talk with your customers and seek feedback, or you learn what other businesses like yours are doing. Maybe you need to attract more customers. Maybe you want to encourage people to stay longer and spend more.

Now imagine you can’t talk to your customers at all. In fact, you can barely see them; you only see the orders coming in. Weird? Well, that’s what selling an internet-based product or service is like. 

“Coffee shops” on the internet...

Businesses on the internet want to know the same two things: “How is my business doing?” and “How can my business do better?” Answering the first one is similar to real-life coffee shops: count things like customers, orders, sales, etc. 

Answering the second one is where we start to see some differences.

  • Both online and in real life, some business owners recruit customers and non-customers to complete surveys or participate in focus groups. This is called User Research.
  • Others tweak certain parts of their business and experiment with these conditions. For example, internet-based businesses might show a shorter menu to half of the customers and show an expanded menu to the other half. After a while, they compare the number of sales (or some other metric) and decide whether one approach is better. This is called A/B testing.
  • Most businesses want more information about what customers are doing. In your coffee shop, you could count how many and how long people sit on each of the chairs. If you find the best type of chair, or arrangement of chairs, then customers might stay longer. Or maybe you install a bunch of cameras and see what activities people do while at the coffee shop, e.g., do they come to read? You could then use that information to create an atmosphere more suitable for reading. To get more information about their customers, internet-based businesses embed “sensors” on their sites. These sensors look at all kinds of behaviors and in fact, all kinds of sites, not just e-commerce ones, want to know more about who is visiting their pages and what they’re doing. People refer to these sensors as Trackers. 

About those cameras…

Those cameras sound like they can be a bit intrusive. I don’t know how comfortable I would feel trying to enjoy my cup of coffee. A similar thing happens with trackers on websites. They can become quite intrusive depending on the type of information they collect and how they are used. The word “tracker” is problematic, because it has a lot of different connotations. In some cases, trackers are “bad,” especially if you don’t know they are there. And in some cases, they are helpful. Whether the business is online or in real life, customers should know how they’re being observed and why. They should be able to prevent it from happening if they want (“privacy”), and be able to change their minds (“agency”). 

Back to online trackers…

Answering the question “How can my business do better?” is challenging whether operating online or in real life. Talking to customers takes time and is costly. However, online, there are many cheap and easy ways for businesses to gather and collect information about customers, so these sensors — known as trackers — have proliferated. Businesses try to learn as much as they can, even beyond what customers do on their site or with their product. For example, they may want to know who you are connected to online, what you do for work, what other sites you visit, as well as where you go in the physical world and what your  friends and family do. Sure, trackers offer potentially-valuable information to make your business better, but like those cameras, they can be extremely intrusive. 

In many cases, once that data is collected, it is shared with others, often without our knowledge. If businesses are using trackers to learn more about you, they should not only let you know, but they should also make it easy for you to find out. In some places like California or Europe, there are laws that allow you to have a say in how businesses use your data. In other words, a business should be up front about trackers instead of burying their practices in a privacy policy. We’ll talk more about how this happens in another post. 

So what can we do…

Now you know why there are trackers, and that they aren’t necessarily bad or malicious. They can help businesses! At the same time, they can also intrude on your life. In our next post, we’ll answer, What can I do about trackers? 

Thanks to Cassia Artanegara