Cookies are small text files used to store information on user computers’ local hard drives. They fall into two broad categories — transient and persistent.

A transient cookie is one that is created at the start of every session, and deleted at the end of the session.

A persistent cookie, on the other hand, outlasts the user session. It is created when the user first enters the server’s website, and is updated each time the user re-enters the site using the same computer.

Cookies are primarily intended to improve the user’s on-site experience. For instance, cookies can store information to allow users to re-enter sites without having to log in. The stored data usually includes unique user IDs and user preferences.

Cookies are also used for tracking of users via their devices, and determining how many user computers actually visited the site.

Drawbacks of using Cookies for Tracking Users (Visitors)

Exhibit 20.5   Deletion of cookies inflates user count (source: Lessons learned in Digital Advertising, comScore).

Users are classified as “New” or “Repeat”. The most common method of tracking these users is via persistent cookies. This approach however suffers from numerous drawbacks.

Users periodically delete cookies. When they do so, there is no way of identifying them by their original ID. On return to the site, they are assigned a new ID, and counted as a new user. This, according to ComScore (Exhibit 20.5), can exaggerate user count by 2.5 to 3 times. The analytics firm estimates, in Asia Pacific, 30 to 40% of net users delete cookies, as often as 4 to 5 times per month.

Cookies essentially count devices, not people. Users who access site from various devices, either owned or shared, are counted multiple times, inflating the new user count, and deflating the repeat user count.

A small (not very significant) proportion of users disable cookies. Cookies can also become outdated.

The alternative IP-based method deflates user count due to page caching and proxy servers, and inflates user count due to when dynamic IP addresses are changed.

Google’s Universal Analytics is able to connect multiple devices, sessions, and engagement data with user ID, so that user behaviours are accurately tracked. BUT, for this to work, you need to assign IDs to users and send related engagement data to Google Analytics. This requires an authentication system where users login with their ID and password.

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