Web Techniques Magazine
February 1997
Volume 2, Issue 12

The Way the Cookie Crumbles

Since the Internet was embraced by the commercial world some three years ago, public-domain programs have given way to "beta" software, anonymous access is being augmented with packet sniffers and cookies, and the community that once developed collaborative projects such as FreeBSD and the Portable Network Graphics (PNG) standard seems all but lost in the relentless pounding of Web... Web... Web...

The reason the drums beat so loudly is that the Web may represent the greatest opportunity in the history of marketing. For the first time, the bidirectional nature of a mass medium allows marketers to gather demographic data directly from the "viewers." The most popular method is through cookies.

As Lincoln Stein describes in this issue, cookies allow you to preserve state between sessions, and in the process create and maintain an anonymous identity for you. Cookies are often used to present a version of a site customized to your preferences. Now, I don't mind handing over my operating system and browser information so that Web sites can offer a richer experience based on my configuration. Nor do I mind someone tracking my click trail so they can offer customized pages based on my browsing habits. But I would prefer to do it knowingly and willingly. Setting aside the obvious security and abuse issues, I find it disquieting that marketers can "quietly" lift details of my patterns and behaviors so that they can be used to sell me something.

Even more alarming than a server offering you a batch of cookies is online journalism's embracement of advertising. For a publication (online or otherwise) to appear credible, it must be free to report objectively and to offer opinions (like this one) that are not biased by advertisers or other special interests. Thus, print-media journalists generally uphold an editorial standard that distances them from advertisers, and publications are careful not to endorse particular products. This is one reason you don't see advertising on the covers of print publications.

Unfortunately, the only questions online advertisers currently ask of Webmasters are, "How many views of our ad are being displayed on your site?" and "How many of those views resulted in a click on the ad?" (thus redirecting the viewer to the advertiser's site). To gain advertising dollars, Web sites are under pressure to produce high "view rates" on their sites. So, advertising is appearing on the page that gets the most hits at any site-the home page. For online publications, the home page is the electronic equivalent of a cover. Sites like the Web Techniques-supported Webzine, Web Review (http://webreview.com), are looking for innovative ways to increase view rates. In this case, Web Review places banners within a frame at the top of each page and rotates ads every few seconds, thus increasing the number of views (and potential clicks). But the pressure is on, and Web Review, like many Webzines, places advertising on its cover to keep view rates high.

It's an alarming trend not only because it lowers the editorial standards that journalists in traditional media hold dear, but because advertisers will eventually realize that the sheer number of page views is not very useful. When advertisers eventually request demographics and retreat to online publications targeting their audiences, they will abandon the shotgun approach of advertising on high-volume sites like Yahoo. But the home-page legacy will be left behind.

When you visit WebTechniques.com, it's safe to say that you won't see a dialog box asking you to take a cookie. The subscription model is still the best way to gather demographics because it allows you to decide what information you give up. And for the same reasons you won't see advertising on the cover of this publication, neither will you find a rotating banner ad on our home page. Journalists, reporters, writers, and editors must hold high the torch of editorial ethics and standards. And they must resist the embracing arms of advertising and marketing, even for the sake of paying the light bill.

Michael Floyd

Michael Floyd
editor in chief

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Last modified: 2/5/97