If you thought that cookies came from the oven, think again. A cookie is data created by a web server and stored on a user’s computer – the perfect way for the web site to track a user’s preferences and store them on the user’s own hard disk.
The cookies, powerful online tracking devices, contain a range of addresses or URLs, and when the browser meets a familiar URL, it send it to the web server. If, for example, your ID is stored as a cookie, you don’t need to type in the same information twice for the same service.
There is valuable insight in this consumer data, in knowing just how visitors move around your sites and ads, and General Motors, Procter & Gamble, and Ford Motor Co. are blocking internet ad services from keeping their data.
DoubleClick, Real Media and MatchLogic are the main players in the internet ad war. They store all the ads on central computers, and place them around the internet on behalf of their clients. In doing so, they learn the habits of millions of people as they click from the ad to the manufacturer of the product, or whatever.
The files typically contain a unique tracking number, which can be read by the site and ad servers on all subsequent visits. The ad servers can use that data to track you, predicting your needs from your previous visits, and making appropriate offers.
You innocently type in your address and the ages of your children to receive a newsletter on child care, and they have you on file. Your are now a cookie.
Even without collecting identifiable personal data, companies can gauge what works on its sites by tracking viewers' cookies. Just a crumb of information, and they can tell which topics are most interesting to users, and then change a site to suit your interests.
Visitors to the General Motors site can create a personal page to store information about financing and prices on the Cadillac coupe they fancy. The visitor is asked to type in his or her name and e-mail address. With that information, GM can then send special offers about that coupe they have been coveting.
Ford’s potential car buyers can design their dream car on site. Visitors enter the ‘buyer garage’ where they can ‘park’ their virtual vehicle while they contact a dealer for a quote, secure financing or ‘simply decide if you're ready to buy’. By signing in, customers can store any 10 vehicles for 30 days, and Ford can contact them online about their choices.
Just watch that cookie crumble!