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Darren Guarnaccia Posted by Darren Guarnaccia August 08, 2019

A Review of Ofcom's Online Nation 2019 Report

We're all aware our data is farmed as we browse online. It would be hard not to notice that a search for kitchen appliances immediately results in ads from electronic suppliers being served.

We're all aware. But how much do we know about how this is done? Do we care about how tags from third-party marketing vendors are incorporated into websites to enable them to collect and share data? About how many pieces of technology, called tags, are vying for our data on any particular site? Do we care about how much control we have to protect our privacy? Perhaps we would feel differently if we knew the full extent of the "game of tag" that's being played around us.

In its quest to make communications work for everyone, the UK's communications regulator Ofcom recently launched a new annual report – Online Nation – looking at what people are doing online, how they are served by online content providers and platforms, and their attitudes to and experiences of using the internet. Research took place during May 2019 and Crownpeak's technology was used to analyse use of tags on the most popular UK sites – including Google sites, Amazon sites, Facebook, BBC sites, Microsoft sites, and Sky sites – to gain a picture of how user behavior is recorded. Since trust and transparency is a key component to our philosophy, we were delighted to be involved.

Online advertising – more than double the revenue of TV advertising

Perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the extent of online behaviour tracking. After all, advertising is the primary source of revenue for most online sectors. Online advertising generated £13.4bn in the UK in 2018, representing 57% of total UK advertising revenue (television was the second largest sector at £5.1bn – 22% of total advertising revenue), according to Ofcom's report.

In line with this, the research showed almost nine in ten (87%) UK households have internet access, and 70% of people use a 4G mobile service to get online, while children and young adults spend much more time online than watching television.

But despite time spent online rising year on year – average for connected adults in September 2018 was 3 hours 15 minutes a day – eight in ten adults have concerns about some aspects of internet use. Headlines in the press throw up issues about data leaks, data-sharing and mis-use of data, but how concerned are people about data sharing?

The great data exchange

The research showed seven in ten (71%) adults are aware of cookies being used to collect information through websites, and a similar number (69%) accept terms and conditions without reading them. With only 39% saying they are not happy for companies to collect and use their personal information, it seems the majority of people are happy for companies to collect personal information under certain conditions.

Trust levels vary, however, from site to site.

Who do you trust?

Facebook's bad press has resulted in reduced use in the past two years and just 31% of users trust the platform to protect personal data and use it responsibly. YouTube fares only slightly better at 34%. On the flip side, trust is highest (67%) for the BBC News site, closely followed by Amazon (66%).

But what are consumer trust levels based on? Do they have a proper understanding of how the sites they visit use and share their data?

The results of this survey would suggest "no."

The truth about tags

Crownpeak was approached by Ofcom to help reveal the truth about how tags are used on the most popular websites. Crownpeak's Trackermap tool scans URLs and identifies the tags present in a website's HTML code (including pixels and other tags). It simulates a user accessing a page for the first time on a desktop computer.

Ofcom analyzed the web tags present on the top ten news, entertainment, search, social media, and e-commerce sites in the UK. All sites were scanned on May 6-7, 2019. The number of tags on desktop sites across the categories ranged from an average of three to an average of 77 – and you'd be surprised by those at each end of the scale.

News sites host most tags

Despite enjoying high levels of trust from consumers, news sites in fact host more tags on average than any other category of site – averaging 77 unique tags. Perhaps this is reflective of the difficulties in the sector, with publications relying on selling page views and user data to stay afloat.

chart: average number of unique tags on popular sites in the UK

Conversely, it is the search and social media sites that use the least number of tags – 12 on average for social media and three for search. Although this does not mean they collect the least data – far from it. As well as the data they collect directly, they use tags on other sites to collect vast amounts of data. You have to see the full picture to understand the extent of the data exchange.

Piggybacking in the game of tag

To add further complexity, in all types of site, most of the tags were "piggybacked " – in other words, they are chained together as a redirect leads to a second tag, from a separate company, being included. The second tag can also redirect, leading to further piggybacking from other vendors – and so it goes on. These are the tags most commonly used for advertising, and the multitude of layers involved adds increasing opacity to the data journey.

Turning trust on its head

The take-home message is that perceptions of trust may be ill-founded, and there is limited understanding among consumers about how their data is collected and used. Not great in a post-GDPR era. And as brands are increasingly recognizing that using privacy and trust to differentiate themselves from the competition ultimately builds customer lifetime value, there are some important lessons in transparency to be learned here. To achieve this lifetime value, marketers need to start recognizing that trust isn't a one-time, one-click solution or based on false pretences. It needs to be consistently developed, with consumers understanding that the brands they interact with value and respect their personal choices, rather than use them in standalone campaigns.

Of course, not all tags are used for advertising and this research was only a snapshot in time – and did not reflect a returning, logged-in, or mobile user's experiences. But what is clear is the gap between perceptions and reality. It's a complex playing field, further confused by piggybacking – and many businesses are unaware they could be culpable for data breaches as a result.

The Ofcom survey has highlighted an important gap in understanding of data use. In an era when transparency and trust are key, businesses who take control of this game of tag – and are open with consumers – will be the winners.

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