SearchTHIS: Safecount Q&A

You simply can't have a discussion about measuring the value of the individual online interaction without entering the cookie debate. While privacy has always been a part of the measurement equation, site owners have begun to see a shift in the information users allow websites to collect -- and that will mean big problems for the future of web advertising and marketing.

With the widespread plague of spyware, adware and other intrusive forms of advertising, users along with consumer advocate watch dogs have cried out for help as their browsers were hijacked and their computers slowed to a halt. Software providers and hardware manufacturers answered with solutions. Some of those solutions included the wholesale removal of cookies and new data-blocking tools.

Consumer paranoia in generically removing all cookies will not only destroy the nasty violators but limit a site owner's ability to measure the value of investments in the online experience as well. Most would not consider search advertising intrusive, but search measurement will also become a victim of cookie removal collateral damage.

Enter Safecount -- an all-volunteer coalition of industry professionals who advocate safe digital measurement tools for consumers, publishers and advertisers. Safecount was launched in April 2005 by Cory Treffiletti of Carat Interactive and Nick Nyhan of Dynamic Logic.

I recently caught up with the founders of Safecount for a chat about the latest measurement dilemmas and their impact on search.

Ryan: What is Safecount's mission?

Treffiletti & Nyhan: Safecount's mission has short-term and long-term elements. Short term: educate consumers on how cookies enable websites and not to confuse them with spyware. Long term: help the industry identify pro-consumer technologies and policies that enable accurate media measurement while protecting consumer trust.

Additional Safecount goals include: 1) provide a platform for digital advertising professionals to be pro-consumer and pro-marketing; 2) help fight against spyware and other trust-eroding practices, and 3) prevent a digital arms-race mentality between consumers and advertisers.

Ryan: How many members does Safecount have?

Treffiletti & Nyhan: Currently, we have over 400 supporters who have signed up on, including leadership from the agency, publisher and research sectors.
Ryan: What has Safecount accomplished since launching on April 25, 2005?
Treffiletti & Nyhan: The short answer is: not enough. Safecount started as a platform for like-minded people in the industry to have a forum for discussion. Early on, we tried to put together a good-list approach for cookies but found there was another more fundamental step that needed to be done: getting the advertising community to understand the nuances of the challenge, and especially the consumer perceptions. 

We surveyed the landscape and respected the important work being done by groups like the NAI, CDT, CMOR, IMRO on definitions and policy. So our early efforts to create a regulatory good-list solution were turned instead to education, since we felt that was not being addressed. We created a website and have an education plan that we are trying to build support around now. 

Other impact areas are helping to initiate the ARF IAB Cookie Lifespan study, so we can understand more accurately what is happening. And, perhaps more fundamentally, we have been able to bring the agency and research community into this conversation with the publishers and policy groups.  

Ryan: Have search sites and third parties joined Safecount? Why or why not?

Treffiletti & Nyhan: Yes, they have each shown their support for this effort by agreeing that we need to establish some regulatory ideas. They all want to do what's best for the consumer, while still being able to provide consolidated reporting, targeting and the types of data that advertisers have come to expect from them.
Ryan: What specialized needs do you think search providers need to wake up to?

Treffiletti & Nyhan: If you use search, and you look in your cookie file, you will probably see cookies from the major search players as well as search analytics companies.

Cookies are very much a part of the online advertising ecosystem, and this includes search. Consumers deleting their cookies, thinking they are ridding themselves of spyware, has a negative impact on evaluating performance programs (pay-per-click, CPA) and affiliate marketing, where search can play a big role. In the absence of cookies, conversions still occur. However agencies can find themselves at a loss to define which key word or partner site is driving the activity. 

Without click-to-sale tracking, agencies could also lose the ability to optimize with confidence, running the risk of underestimating the effectiveness of a referring source and eliminating it inadvertently, which in turn has a negative impact on ROI. Nine times out of ten, paid search is the anchor of any direct response program, driving conversions at an incredibly efficient rate. As media professionals we can't afford for the ROI of performance programs to languish.
Ryan: What advice would you give the SEM space?

Treffiletti & Nyan: Get behind Safecount and join us in pushing for more consumer education. Consumers deserve to know more about cookies, what they are and how they can control them through their browser settings. To those who think the problem will just go away, that was what we heard two years ago. It may be about cookies today, but long term it is about how we build the digital media business and who wants to do it in a pro-consumer way.

Lessons learned

The short-term riches sought by a pathetic few have forced the rest of us into a dark desperate corner.
How many times have you tried to explain your role in online advertising to someone outside the industry only to hear the response, "so you're the one with those annoying pop-ups!"

One of the biggest challenges our beloved online medium faces is credibility. Collecting anonymous user information provides a means for site owners to quantify advertising expenditures and create customized user experiences.

In short, the information we collect ensures the continued growth and evolution of the online medium. It would appear that getting behind Safecount is the smartest thing an online marketer can do in the New Year.

Additional resources:

Safecount Q&A with Starcom's Mike Zeman

iMedia Search Editor Kevin Ryan's current and former client roster reads like a "who's who" in big brands; Rolex Watch, USA, State Farm Insurance, Farmers Insurance, Minolta Corporation, Samsung Electronics America, Toyota Motor Sales, USA, Panasonic Services, and the Hilton Hotels brands, to name a few. Ryan believes in sound guidance, creative thought, accountable actions and collaborative execution as applied to search, or any form of marketing. His principled approach and staunch commitment to the industry have made him one of the most sought after personalities in online marketing. Ryan volunteers his time with the Interactive Advertising Bureau, Search Engine Marketing Professional Organization, and several regional non-profit organizations.
Ryan is managing partner at
Kinetic Results.