Another Reason for Spider-Man to Dislike Cookies

Another Reason for Spider-Man to Dislike Cookies



BY Jason Ciment | May 10, 2002

Sometimes when I'm wearing my affiliate hat, I feel like Spider-Man. I sit down to write an online marketing program with a tantalizing offer, and I put on my virtual costume. When I press the "send" button to submit the latest deal to my client list, I can practically feel the spider web streaming out of my wrist as it journeys into cyberspace, looking for customers to entangle in its strands.

After a recent conversation with Craig Belcher, the chief operating officer at TrackingSoft (formerly, I learned one thing is missing from this fantasy — my spider sense. It's failing to warn me of a new danger on the Web that could cost me huge commissions. Apparently, my spider webs aren't sticking to my customers, and I'm not being rewarded for sales they are transacting. The reason, it seems, is something you probably never heard of — P3P compliance.

I know what you're thinking — what the heck is P3P and how is it affecting my web-slinging ability (i.e., my affiliate program commissions)?

The P3P, or Platform for Privacy Preferences, Project is designed as a technical solution enabling individuals to make informed decisions about the collection and use of their personal data by Web sites. It restricts the setting of cookies on a user's system based on the person's preferences and the site's privacy policies.

Still scratching your head trying to understand why you should care? If the affiliate program you are running or participating in uses cookies to track sales and is not P3P compliant, then your sales are not being recorded properly because the cookies are "failing" — that is, your spider webs aren't getting through. The results are staggeringly sinister. If you're an affiliate, you may miss out on commissions. For merchants, that result may eventually cause you to lose affiliates.

The changes in the marketplace have been brought about by Microsoft's introduction of the Internet Explorer (IE) 6.0 browser and its privacy features. IE 6.0 uses the P3P standard to block or accept cookies based on the Web site's current privacy policy. In its default setting — "medium" — the browser will reject some third-party cookies and will even restrict some cookies from the site the user is browsing. Cookies (read: spider webs) are even harder to get through when the user settings are stricter.

The upshot is these privacy features make it advisable for marketers to deploy the compact (machine-readable) policies as defined by the P3P and developed by the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C).

TrackingSoft, an affiliate tracking service provider, helped me do some research for this article; its surveys found IE 6.0 has already captured 30 to 35 percent of the browser market. That 30 to 35 percent could cost you thousands of dollars in commissions or a loss of affiliates from your program.

With that in mind, what can you do about it? As an administrator of an affiliate program, you must take the steps to become compliant. Numerous resources can aid in this effort. You can even subcontract this out to a company that specializes in P3P policies for as little as $225.00 — not a huge outlay of cash considering the loss you may avoid.

The most important thing to remember is to prevent getting so aggravated that you start shouting profanities at your computer screen. You will have to comply eventually, and with the IE 6.0 market share growing daily it's better that you do this ASAP.

Here's where to get help:

Merchants. An introduction to the platform, uses, and implementation how-to can be found at the P3P official site.

There, you'll find an article on creating and publishing your company's P3P policy (in six easy steps). As a nonprogrammer, it doesn't look so simple to me; but the article does well outlining what needs to be done.

These should get you headed in the right direction. If you have read the information and instructions on implementation and are more confused than when you first started, then you might try subcontracting the project out to a reliable company specializing in P3P implementation.

Customer Paradigm Solutions claims to be able to help you get your Web site P3P compliant for only $225.00. I have never contacted this company nor do I know of anyone who has, so be careful and ask for references.

Affiliates. Contact the Web sites you are partnered with. Ask if they are P3P compliant and whether the tracking they use is compliant. If they have no clue about what you're asking, then that is definitely not a good sign.

You can also use an online P3P validation tool to check for yourself. Make sure, though, that you validate the proper URL. For example, if you try to use the main URL of a third-party tracking service, you are likely to get errors. That's probably because the service doesn't cookie someone coming directly into its Web site from a search engine or by some other method. Cookies are mostly used to track someone following the affiliate URLs. When doing your homework, you need to use the URL the Web site issued you.

If they are not compliant, then simply contact the Web sites, notifying them of your findings and asking when they will become compliant. It is still not clear how well this platform will perform for Web sites and consumers concerned about privacy. It is a step in the right direction, though.

By the way, this whole P3P-compliance concept is another reason why MagMall's corporate magazine subscription service and thousands of other e-commerce sites are using a system that doesn't use cookies to track affiliate sales. The main reason is users continuously turn off cookies (which prevents sales from getting tracked on cookie-based programs), but now there are P3P issues, as well.

All I can say is I've got too much on my plate already to worry about P3P; but if you are using a cookie-based tracking program, then I hope the resources above help you make sure your spider webs are, indeed, sticking to your customers.

If you have comments on this relatively new topic, please share them.


Jason Ciment is CEO of MagMall, which he founded 1997. He designed, programmed, and developed the fully interactive java and perl-based magazine subscription Web site that has more than 10,000 individual and corporate partners. He has also worked with manufacturing companies such as Liz Claiborne and Jones New York to maintain quality standards and prompt order fulfillment.


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