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Why Mozilla Needs To Look Beyond Users Alone

Posted by Alex White on April 16th, 2013 at 5:17 am

We are all aware of the uproar incited when Mozilla announced that it was releasing a patch that would effectively block third party cookies for their users. Mozilla is doing this, it claims, because users are scared of companies tracking their whereabouts and are crying out for better privacy protection.

But a browser company that owns 30 percent of the browser market has a greater responsibility to the industry they operate in than to just the user. Mozilla is ignoring a huge portion of these parties. I really believe that the company feels that they are working on behalf of their users, but I also don’t think Mozilla realizes all of the touch points that they are operating within. The user is the main party they interface with, but the Firefox browser interfaces with the web, and there are a number of parties involved beyond just the User. Let’s take a look at those parties.

Meet the surfer: The surfer, or “the user,” as many like to call this constituent, is the innocent person who traverses the web, day in and day out, reading this and purchasing that, watching that video and looking at this friend’s latest pictures or update. The surfer is the consumer of content and experiences offered by the internet, and the best part is that the majority of content online is free. Sure, there are some pieces so good that they’re worth paying for, but the majority of online content and activity is free of charge.

Meet the publisher: The publisher produces content and information for surfers and users to consume. In some cases they do this for free, or what would appear to be free, and in other cases there may be a payment collected in the form of a subscription. In all cases, there is value created by those who publish, produce, and distribute content online.

Meet the advertiser: Thank goodness for the advertisers, for without them, there would be no one to pay for all this great stuff online. Advertisers are typically companies that are looking to connect surfers with their brands, inspire them to buy their products or services, or consume their information.  Many advertisers also produce sites or catalogs of all sorts of things that surfers want. Think of Amazon or J. Crew, where a surfer can browse thousands of items and see what others have bought or looked at.

All three of these parties enable the online experience to develop, mature, grow, and produce wonderful experiences.  You cannot remove one of them and continue to grow and evolve in the same way. It’s just not possible.

Hurting Multiple Parties to “Protect” One
Unfortunately, that’s what Mozilla is attempting. By blocking third party cookies in the Firefox browser, the company is essentially eliminating the appeal of online advertising. Without cookies, it’s impossible to track ad placements and measure the reach of ads to a relevant audience – advertisers would be better off investing in print or direct mail, as those channels would offer better audience control. If the advertiser goes away, this strips a publisher of the ability to make money and recover costs of maintaining its site, thereby affecting the publisher’s ability to deliver free content.
The damage to two parties is supposedly all in the name of protecting the surfer, but the situation is comparable to a three-legged stool were two legs are being removed. In the larger context of how the internet operates, it just doesn’t make sense.

Mozilla recently published a post where an executive evaluated his daily ritual of surfing, both with the blocking and without. Of course, this demonstrated a drastic reduction in the number of cookies from third parties that were set on his computer. In the eyes of the surfer, this may seem preferable, as no company can track their movement online[A1] .

But this point is made without proper context, ignoring the fact that surfers rely on cookies to maintain their internet experience. A surfer visits his favorite publisher – maybe themorningnews.com -- to check out the day’s weather and what is happening locally. Without cookies, the surfer sees the same ad with every impression, on every page, in every size possible. Unfortunately for that surfer, it’s an annoying, irrelevant ad. And they see it over and over, all day, on their favorite site. Why? Because this publisher is not big enough to maintain an in-house sales force, and relies on third parties to generate ad revenue. Mozilla has removed this publisher’s ability to use these third parties to maximize revenue.

The Affects on advertising
Let’s turn back to the advertiser for a minute. Frequency capping is a mechanism that ensures users aren’t bombarded with the same ad on every page. High-frequency ads annoy users, and advertisers don’t like sending repeat ads either, as it’s a waste of impressions. Killing frequency capping makes an advertiser’s buys less effective (or, even more concerning, annoying to their customers), which makes them angry, and that ineffectiveness (and anger) eliminates the publisher’s means of monetizing content. Content which, keep in mind, is free to the surfer because advertisers pay for it.

Blocking third party cookies not only eliminates the ability to buy reach or frequency, but it kills attribution for conversions or sales as well, making it impossible for advertisers to measure whether or not ads are effective and how much they should pay the publishers and partners who drove the sales.

Advertisers have invested in services and technology to buy measurable, efficient and effective advertising. These strategies are not limited to targeting users based on behaviors or preferences, but also include the simple act of putting an ad in front of a user at the right time, or in the right context. If publishers can’t help, and technology has no real use, then advertisers have no incentive to buy online media.

This change will effect large publishers very little, as they will maintain their understanding of their visitors and remain in a good position to target that base. Small and medium sized publishers that rely heavily on third parties will not fare so well, and neither will their partners. Networks, exchanges, and other technology companies that provide value to the publisher will be most affected at first, but the effects will ripple throughout the internet economy. Advertisers will soon lose efficiency with their advertising, publishers will lose significant revenue, and surfers will be left with the bill at the end of the evening.

Considering that chain of events, it’s difficult to understand how Mozilla feels this decision even helps the user. Industry self-regulation efforts has made it easy for consumers to educate themselves on how their data is used and opt out of first- or third-party cookies. Mozilla was formerly in favor of this self-regulation effort, but now seems to have reversed its stance. Rather than empower users to make their own decisions around cookies, Mozilla is saying that browsers should dictate cookie policy on users’ behalf.

Cookies and third parties are not the enemy. They are not something to be scared of and block. Companies have made tremendous progress in using them more responsibly, and they are vital to the continued expansion and prosperity of the internet. Cookies are the current standard distinguishing one user from another, for everything from website personalization to making sure that advertising is more effective for all parties. Including the user. The user is important, and we should ensure they are educated and can easily make choices on this topic, but by no means are they the only player in this game. Without publishers and advertisers, there would be no online environment for the surfer to consume.

One Response to “Why Mozilla Needs To Look Beyond Users Alone”

  1. Wouter Hulst says:

    Alex, great article. But i belief Mozilla IS about the users, their "assets" are the users and you could aslo look at it as a customer centric customer first approach. Let's move over this issue, users claim back their privacy and this already massivly happening on mobile (with apple's cookie policies). So instead of focussing on data and metrics, lets focus on creativity, quality and great user experiences ... Much more fun as well.

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