Do you know who tracks your movements online and why?

When you visit a website, tracking software registers where you came from and what you do. Sites ask you to accept cookies but you might not know what they are. Then you discover adverts appearing that match your search habits and wonder why.

This article examines how companies track users on websites. And why not all tracking data methods are negative.

We highlight the tracking software used to keep tabs on your actions. You'll learn how to monitor site traffic without becoming intrusive. We also share the legalities of website monitoring that aim to keep everyone safe online.

Read on to see if Big Brother really is watching and the reasons behind it.

Why Track Users on a Website?

Every business that spends a dime on marketing needs to know if their advert worked.

Spending money on Google Ads, pay-per-click, and SEO must show a return on investment. That can come through an increase in sales or form submissions but those results lack transparency.

To really understand who visits a website means tracking user information. Unfortunately, some site owners sell this tracking data to third-party agencies.

Third-Party Advertising

A single website visit can extend to others without your knowledge.

The first site creates a profile of your actions then shares it online. When you enter another site on the network you'll notice adverts appear that match your behavior.

This is the 'Big Brother' aspect of online tracking which is a concern for most Internet users. However, not all website monitoring tools and methods are harmful and can actually benefit both parties.

Positive User Tracking

Analytics tools like Google Analytics enable you to see who visited your site and where users came from.

You can view search keywords and audience acquisition on these platforms. Data isn't shared with rogue ad networks and comply with data regulation bodies.

Other tools like session replays and recordings offer insight into customer's interactions. Site owners can evaluate if their campaigns worked while all visitor data remains anonymous.

These types of user tracking techniques provide a better experience for the customer in the long run.

Managers are able to learn from visitors' behavior and improve their sites. They can develop new features and fix bugs making the customer's journey more enjoyable. That leads to better retention and a higher degree of engagement.

How to Track Users on Websites

Most website tracking software uses a technology called cookies to follow users online.

A cookie is a small text file that's stored on your computer or phone. It contains a unique identification number that's tied to your activity.

Many cookies provide a useful service. For example, when you return to the site, the cookie recognizes you and logs you in automatically.

Third-Party Cookies

A cookie's limited to the site that creates it. However, third-party cookies have no such constraints.

Almost all thirty-party cookies show targeted advertising. They can work with other cookies to build your profile further and share it with multiple agencies.

Some of these cookies also try to hide their origins.

So-called trojan horse cookies spy on your online habits. They can also change their code and are very difficult to spot.

Types of Tracking Software

As mentioned earlier, not all online tracking software is negative.

Site owners who want to provide the best user experience possible need to review their customer journeys. One excellent tool that provides this service is session replay software.

Session replay saves all interactions on a website but does it anonymously.

When a visitor moves their mouse, taps the screen, or scrolls down the page, it gets recorded. The data is then sent securely to a software provider like Decibel.com for processing.

The end result is a full video recording of exactly what the user did without sharing their personal details.

It's easy to get started as the software integrates with any type of site. It also works with top analytic tools. AI and machine learning even help to highlight issues and suggest improvements.

Importance of User Tracking

If conducted in a legal and moral way, tracking user data can profit site owners and visitors.

Benefits include:

  • Analyzing seasonal trends - saved statistics highlight slow or busy periods throughout the year
  • Improving landing pages - track main entry points and tie landing page content with search keywords
  • Geographic optimization - offer content in a different locale to attract a new audience
  • Fixing glitches - discover areas of the site that don't work and repair them

Websites should only track users and consumer behavior to improve customer experience (CX). If they remain transparent, visitors will buy-in to the benefits.

Yet the process must remain legal and comply with all relevant statutory regulations.

What rules affect user tracking online? Do they cover all websites? And how can a site become compliant?

Website Monitoring and the Law

Major data privacy laws like GDPR, CCPA, and the ePrivacy Directive require websites to:

  1. Track and store data only with strong user consent
  2. Agree to be bound by data protection obligations

Tracking data is only legal if it ensures the end-users privacy protection is in accordance with regional law.

Compliant Website Monitoring

In Europe, the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) are now in effect. They ensure websites obtain explicit customer consent before tracking them.

Users in California are covered by the California Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA).

This empowers them to opt-out of data sharing and selling to third-parties. They have the right to know what data has been collected and the right to delete it.

The South African Protection of Personal Information Act (POPIA) is modeled after GDPR to protect South Africans. It broadens the definition of personal data and will enforce the law in July 2021.

Websites must ensure they meet the requirements of their region's data privacy laws. Otherwise, they could face a hefty fine or worse.

Learn About Consumer Behavior

This article has highlighted the pros and cons of online tracking software.

Some companies track users on website platforms to simply monitor their marketing spend. Others use rogue cookies to collect data that they shouldn't have access to.

Those that comply with regulations can actually benefit the customer experience. Sites become more user friendly through the likes of session replay software.

That's not Big Brother intrusion – it's digital evolution.

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Written by
Ricky Wolff
Ricky's North Star is growth. He is the founder of Markletic, a blog about growth hacking and demand generation in marketing.