Unloving the #SearchLove cookie monster

If there is one aspect that really surprised me this week at the SearchLove Distilled event in London this week, it certainly was not the:

  • quality of the speakers' insights, or the
  • diversity of online marketing subjects related to SEO, or the
  • high level of skill among the audience, or
  • the general excellence of the event

Infact I don't pretend here to offer comprehensive coverage of SearchLove like Samuel Crocker magically served up moments after each talk ended.

And I cannot compete with the superhuman Human Level's Fernando Macía's prolific tweet rate, or fellow visiting spanish speakers such as the charming Aleyda or the affable Gian Luca, aka the Moz Oracle, or indeed the succint actionable roundup blog posts of Koozai's Mike Essex.

The speakers' discourse was peppered with fashionable references to Bamboo and ingenious ways to combat Pandalization, leaving a vocabulalry legacy of bewliderement to possibly many a marketeer who does not breathe the daily nuances of the Search industry. Hey, every vertical has it's own lexicon, right?

I certainly found myself nodding and quietly yaying in awe of Wil Reynolds nail on the hammer delivery and admiring the pragmatic link-building competitive success of Branded3's Patrick Altoft.

And yes whilst I applaud and signed Martin MacDonald's keyword transparency initiative (he continues to bask in the afterglow of tweet chit-chat with MCHammer), I still cannot but help think it's somewhat crying over spilt milk.

new era of freemiunsation of search...

Distilled did indeed accommodate the audience's interest in hearing a panel discuss the freshly vexed issue of Google's defacto keyword search query removal. This effectively is regarded by the industry as Google's thin edge of the wedge of a new era of freemiumisation of search data.

If you're interested in the background of this, Go Google Paloma Gaos for a litigation lowdown.

All that said, the real elephant in the room this time, was neither, the oh so last year's issue of hat colour and SEO ethics, nor was it the effects of Google's latest iteration of a search quality algorithms affectionaly labelled as Panda by the search community, or indeed the ritual announcement of the deathknell (or not) of the efficacy of exact match domains.

No, that looming metaphorical elephant in the room, at least for me, was the cookie monster - yes, the wider issue of the implications of the impending EU privacy legislation that without intending to sound dramatic, threatens the very existence of the internet economy.

As Ciarán Norris explained in his introduction to his deck: "if you don't pay for the service you are using on the internet, you are effectively the product"

Ciarán cogently argued how our collective usage of the services effectively surrenders our privacy so the mega sites can monetise them for advertisers prepared to pay for audience access. He also exemplified interactive gesture controlled TV services that personalise the viewing experience and ultimately how compelling this is for the end user and advertiser alike. He's touched on this before.

And the reliance on cookies, perma-logged in social services, javascript tracking and more, are the essential ingredients in the mega internet economy and the real enablers of for the personalisation bandwagon to roll on.

site owners are stymied to monetize...

However, if site owners are compelled to display landing page explicit opt in notices interstital nuisance style, then as Ciarán rightly argued, they may as well thereafter display a blank screen to users who decline to opt in to data collection, because without consent, site owners are effectively stymied to monetize and it's Game Over for everyone.

Ever wondered how some services recoup the massive effort it takes to offer a global service?

For example, the AddThis button, installed on some 1 billion domains and 9 million users?

Ever mused for a moment how they make money, without charging you; the widget installer who happily benefits from the enhanced site functionality it offers?

Well, AddThis happily drop you a cookie which allows adverts to be displayed to you, on other sites you visit thereafter. You get the widget, they get you targeted, advertisers sell more stuff, no one gets hurt and it's a good deal allround right?

Except some people don't like it or just don't get it and lobbying of the legislators is where the real battles are being fought right now.

Fast forward to a time if/when such EU cookie legislation comes into force in 2012 and such services would not work so silently: your user experience might become a journey through optin hell, with endless repeat questions each time you opened a tab and so much as looked at anything interactive.

Don't even think of cookie cleaning, you'll probably make it even worse for yourself ultimately. Oh and want to casually Like something? Well before you do, step this way, let me read you your rights and confirm you might want to like something before you Like something. Go figure.

So when the SearchLove audience was polled for a show of hands about their awareness or action taken on this issue, the reaction seemed to be one of nonchalance at best and resigned ignorance at worst.

what surprised me was how unbothered people seem to feel..

OK, so maybe I got the wrong end of the mood stick, please correct me if so, but the impression I got was as if SEOers were instead itchily awaiting some golden insider nugget of ...ok, so now do this neat little tweak and you'll get page one rankings in 3 days...

And that's what surprised me: just how unbothered people seem to feel about the cookie monster.

Joanna Lord from SEOMoz also presented a fascinating look at how retargeting worked for SEOMoz at SearchLove. It's a whole marketing discipline that the cookie monster issue threatens omniously.

I raised the issue in person with @JoannaLord during the Mozcation in Barcelona and she confessed that at worst it would manifest itself at the browser vendor level, if at all.

So if SEO community truly want to earn the respect of the wider marketing community, it's time to collectively articulate the cookie monster concerns, query and challenge thought leaders on the subject, and support efforts to lobby for a functioning internet economy that benefits everyone.

And people, this is more important than your Klout score. Really.

If only we saw that same passion that was applied by SearchLovers to engaging MC Hammer, gently goading him to attend London or NYC SearchLove, now applied to this critical cookie issue, then it's the best chance over the coming months that we have to influence the outcome.

The message to send to policy makers is, mess with the internet economy at your political peril.

put another way, this is the internet, you can't touch this.

In New York? You should go to NYC SearchLove. Check out the #searchlove vibe or Follow the London searchlovers on this unofficial Twitter list: http://mmkt.in/searchlovers

Postscript: Econsultancy have published an in depth article about the EU cookie directive. Monday, 31st October.

8 responses
Paul, I was standing next to you with Joanna last night but only caught the end of your conversation so didn't fully understand. you raise some hugely important points and I hope it brings to light the attention it deserves - it certainly resonates with me.

Great to chat if only briefly last night. Hope to meet up again on another occasion.

Dave.

Fascinating post and I agree with the level of interest - I think that the UK's year of grace has bred some sort of apathy on the issue - then again, it is so ambiguous and convoluted it's hard not to wish it would just go away.

I'd love to hear what Joanna said but I know that the hope that it will all be solved by the browser manufacturers is a vain one - they will play a part but it's hard to see how they'll be able to create a nuanced enough interface to please the legislators.

Thanks @BCN_Dave good to meet you briefly in Barna, I have to revisit the place more often, great city.

Ciarán - I asked Jo about your pres. and she confessed to be asleep during it - as in jetlagged, not in the room asleep, and not House of Lords type asleep during your speech!

The browser solution does seem like it would not ultimately exonerate the site owner. Brainache indeed.

Good to meet you in London Paul. I came away from Ciarán's presentation feeling somewhat ashamed of my previous opinion on the matter - I don't know if it was nonchalance but there was certainly a feeling of 'they'd never push that through, it would be ridiculous.'

So what is the user experience like when browsing in Spain? Have site owners responded? Is it being policed?

Hi Patrick, that's my beef, we all possibly think such a scheme
couldn't get approved but some sort of fudge appeasement is still
probable at this rate. The issue is still too much of a non headline,
and yes overseas aswell, it just makes the whole https google search
concern pale in comparison although its not unrelated. The worst thing
is the lack of sufficient clarification on the practicalities of
matter even from the policymakers, hence the specualtion around the
issue.
Although right now it is impossible to predict how heavilt the cookie law will be enforced, it has been made clear that it will be.

The law is here now and won't go away. In the UK, the Information Commissioner has stated in public events that he has both the resources and the will to start enforcing in May next year.

The industry has put its head in the sand to a large extent, and hoped that browsers would somehow come to the rescue. This is not going to happen, as I have blogged previously: http://www.cookielaw.org/cookie-news/2011/10/20/browsers-to-the-rescue.aspx

I think it is going to change the landscape, although it won't happen over night. Data gathering will become much more transparent for users, and this means those sites that rely on data for their revenues, are probably going ot have to step up and start offering better incentives in terms of content and services - so that people will be willing to make the trade.

That change of landscape you refer to, will it be similar to when sites were obliged to become Accessible with their design, in practice many are still not and thus liable to prosecution. The thing is this is a more explicit change that will require specific optin.
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