What To Do When Everyone's Tossing Their Cookies

If you're like most Internet Marketers, you fully understand the importance of accurately tracking visitor behavior, and probably base most of your online marketing decisions from the information collected in your analytics.

Much of that essential data is derived from HTTP cookies placed on your visitor's hard drive during their visits to your site. These cookies are especially vital to measuring the number of times your visitors have been to your site, as well as attributing the visit or sale to the correct marketing source.

There's a tendency for the public to think that cookies are bad. Well, in truth, too many of the ones you eat can be dangerous to your well-being, however despite the hype about PC cookies, the ones found on your hard drive are not a security risk and instead can actually improve your web experience by remembering your preferences.

The Real Info On Cookies

As a review, and to clear up any misconceptions, here's some information you can digest about HTTP cookies:

  • Cookies are small scripts placed on the hard drive of your computer when you visit certain web sites and are used to identify certain aspects of your browsing behavior.
  • Cookies cannot disclose any confidential information the user didn’t voluntarily disclose at the site, and web browsers do not allow other sites to read cookies not belonging to their domain.
  • Cookies do not generate pop-ups and cannot erase data from a user’s drive.
  • Cookies are not spyware - the information in the cookie is the info the visitor entered into the web site.
  • Cookies cannot run apps.

Although users can set their browser to not accept cookies, that'll probably severely limit their online shopping as many shopping cart applications require the use of cookies to track their shopping session.

So instead of blocking cookies, growing numbers of web users have decided to go on a diet by deleting their cookies on a regular basis.

In fact, according to a 2005 study by JupiterResearch, almost 40 percent of web users delete cookies from their computer on at least a monthly basis, with over half of those folks deleting cookies on a daily or weekly basis. Ironically, the motivating forces driving these removals are the many common misconceptions about cookies among the public.

What It Means When Your Visitors Remove or Block Cookies

The unfortunate reality is that the deletion of cookies will materially effect your web metrics and could lead you down the path of bad decision-making. Here's a list of what to look out for:

  1. The visitor is counted as a new visitor no matter how many times they previously visited your site - This will lead to an overstatement of new visitors and an understatement of repeat visitors.
    • You’ll need to be aware that the metric of average number of visits to become a customer will be understated. Also if you segment your key performance indicators (like cost per action) between your new and returning visitors, the real variance between those two values may not be quite as high as shown.
  2. Erroneous conclusions on the behavior of new versus repeat visitors are possible – Many web analytics applications allow you to study the paths of your new versus repeat visitors. This can be especially helpful when trying to determine the aggregate behavior of first time visitors as they explore your products or services.
  3. Metrics not applied to correct campaign – When a visitor deletes cookies, your site has no knowledge of his previous visits and will consider him a first time visitor. For example, let’s assume the visitor’s first visit is from your Google AdWords campaign, and the visitor’s second visit, which leads to a sale is by direct access. If he had deleted his cookies, the sale will be not be attributed to the Google campaign and will understate the real performance of that campaign.
    • Also, if you measure your AdWords performance by using the “Campaign Summary” screen within your AdWords account, you need to know that your conversion data may still be inaccurate even if your visitor doesn’t eliminate his cookies, since the AdWords cookie expires 30 days after that last visit.
  4. The longer your sales cycle, the more inaccurate your statistics will tend to be – As the amount of time increases between that first visit and the actual sale, the greater the likelihood that more visitors will have deleted their cookies.
  5. Google AdWords ad testing - Google has a nice tool for testing different ad creative within your Ad Groups. If your typical prospect requires more than 30 days to become a customer, though, the 30-day life of Google's cookie will tend to lead to inaccurate measurements in ad creative productivity.

A Cookie-Cutter Approach to Accurate Visitor Tracking

There are a couple strategies you can use to minimize the impact on your metrics of cookie removal.

First, using your analytics, cross-reference all 1st time visitors that show no referring URL against your list of historical visitors, by matching the IP addresses. You should be able to do this by downloading a visitor report and exporting to MS Excel. Then sort on IP address.

Now, see if the IP address of any of those 1st time visitors appears in the historical list of visitors that arrived from a campaign. Where you find a match, you can conclude that it's quite possible that the visitor associated with that IP address is the same person from the historical list and deleted their cookies. You should then update your metrics to reflect that finding.

Be careful with this method for these reasons:

  • In situations where more than one person uses the same computer, it's possible that the subsequent visit is actually a different person using that same PC, who indeed may be visiting your site for the first time.
  • Many users do not have a static IP address. If the computer's IP changes between visits and the visitor deletes their cookies, you won't be able to determine they are a repeat visitor.

An Easier & Better Solution

Some analytics programs can automatically report their metrics based on the analysis described on page two. For instance, both the eBusiness and Enterprise versions of Conversion Analyst have a default report type called "Intelligent" that can measure and report your metrics even when visitors delete their cookies.

By looking back through your historical analytics, Conversion Analyst ensures that your campaigns receive full credit for their sales by following these rules:

  1. The current visit is attributed to the source that generated it, regardless of its history, unless there is not a specific campaign source for this visit
  2. Then, if the visit was as a result of direct access or bookmark, or via organic search, the visit is attributed to the source that generated the first visit.

Along with campaign source, Conversion Analyst also will apply the above rules to the following data types:

  • Traffic sources
  • Referring Domain
  • Referring URL
  • Search Engines
  • Search Listings
  • Search Phrases

Applying the rules above ensures that the reporting for all of our key performance indicators is corrected for those visitors who deleted their cookies.

The Bottom Line

Whether your analytics solution reports "Intelligently" or you setup your own in-house data comparison program, it's vital to ensure that you have systems in place to measure and attribute your visitor behavior and sales activity to the proper source. As an increasing number of users regularly remove their cookies, any lack of "Intelligent" reporting will surely lead you down a path to un-intelligent decision making.

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