Making sense of the Cookie Law!

In 2011 a new European e-Privacy directive came into law dictating how websites can use “cookies” to track what a user does on the Internet. In essence it affects every website owner in Europe, but the lack of action by almost every major website to comply with the directive, and ambiguity in the law itself is leading to mass confusion and even profiteering by some companies offering overpriced “cookie audits”.

To help bring some clarification to the “cookie law”, here’s The Design Mechanics’ guide to what the law means to you.

1. OK – what are cookies anyway?

Cookies are small text files that a browser saves to your computer when you visit a website. Every time you visit Google, Amazon and every major commercial website, new cookies will be added to your computer so that website can remember you. In the majority, they are completely harmless and downright useful. How does a shopping site remember what you have put into your basket before you reach the checkout? How come you don’t have to log-in to Facebook every time you visit it? Because the website remembers you by storing information in a cookie.

Although cookies can’t contain viruses, it’s this remembering your behaviour on the Internet that has caused unease with some Internet users. Have you ever searched for something on Google, only to then start seeing adverts for that what you were searching for on other websites? This isn’t a coincidence, it’s because cookies are remembering your activity – usually without you being aware.

2. What is the new “cookie law” I keep hearing about?

The “cookie law” is part of the European e-Privacy directive and became law in this country in May 2011, however the UK government deferred the law by one year saying that they needed to find a “business-friendly” solution to implementing it. As of yet, this “business-friendly” solution has not appeared leaving ambiguity in both the web-design and business communities.

The law says that a website should explicitly obtain the permission of a visitor to save any cookie on their computer that isn’t “strictly necessary for a service requested by a user”. So for instance, a website that needs to use a cookie to remember what’s in your virtual shopping basket while you navigate around an e-commerce site doesn’t need to gain your permission. A website that remembers if you are logged-in or not, tracks your behaviour or plugs into social networking sites needs to tell you it is doing this and ask you to confirm it is OK – most likely by presenting you with a pop-up that you need to confirm when visiting a website, or a landing page that asks you to give your permission before entering.

Ironically, for a website to then remember if you have given your permission or not, it would have to use a cookie – meaning if you do not give your permission then the site has no way of saving this information and would have to ask you every time you visited!

3. Does my website use cookies?

If you ordered a standard website from The Design Mechanics, then it is very unlikely that it will use cookies. The only case where we may have used cookies is if you have asked for Google Analytics to be installed which tracks users to your site, a Facebook or social media plug-in, or an e-commerce site which only uses cookies for remembering a user’s ordering data, and so does not fall under the cookie law.

If you didn’t order your website from us then you need to talk to your web design company to be completely certain.

4. I’ve received a letter / email saying that my website may be breaking the law – what should I do?

Most likely it will be a web design company or consultancy “fishing” for business by using scare tactics or profiteering by trying to sell you a “cookie audit”. At the worst it may be a scam by a company looking to get access to your server – remember, never hand over your website, email or FTP details to a third party company that you do not know and trust explicitly.

As of yet, no action has been taken against website owners so any “official” letters purporting to be from the police, Nominet, the government or your Internet service provider saying your website is breaking the law is almost certainly a scam or hoax.

5. So how do I comply with the law – should I even bother?

If your website does use cookies that are not explicitly necessary for your website to operate (such as to track behaviour, make money from online advertising etc), then to comply with the law you need to gain visitors’ permission to use cookie technology. How you gain this permission is open to some interpretation, but it cannot be “implied permission” – so a user has to actually click on something saying “yes – you may save a cookie on my computer” before they can use your site or cookies can be enabled.

An example of this can be seen on the government’s own Information Commissioner’s Office here: ico.org.uk – not really what people want to put on their websites! Unfortunately, this has been introduced as a blanket-law against all non-essential cookies, so even harmless cookies such as used in Google Analytics to monitor how many people visit your website, or a website remembering your preferences from visit to visit have also been outlawed without explicit permission.

It is unlikely that this law will simply disappear but many people think that in its current form it is unworkable. The government’s own admission that a more business-friendly solution needed to be found has only added to the uncertainty. Combined with the fact that, as yet, the only people to have complied with the law are the ICO’s office and people selling cookie audits it is safe to assume that if you are a normal business, and your website is just an online “brochure” of your services then this directive is not aimed at you. It is aimed at websites that collect, in bulk, information on where people go on the Internet and use this to target adverts and services at them based on their online behaviour.

David Evans, group manager of the Information Commissioner’s Office has already said that they don’t initially intend to go after companies whose websites don’t comply with the law, but rather will investigate companies that they have received complaints against. However, when the first high-profile cases are brought against Google, Facebook, Amazon and the like to try and make them comply with the law – then it’s worth sitting up and listening to the outcome and evaluating if that affects your business.

Internet Marketing – The Facts

Ten years ago, everyone had to have a website. Today, you not only have to have a website, but now it has to be SEO’d and Linked In to Facebook while you Tweet about your company’s latest App.

With an entirely new language to learn on top of all the technology, it’s not always easy to know where or how to start marketing your company online.

Our series of Fact Sheets offer more information about internet marketing. They’re designed to arm you with the knowledge to decide whether or not internet marketing is suitable for your company, and if so, the best approach to take.

This sheet deals with the basics by translating some of the commonly used words and phrases relating to internet marketing.

What is a Search Engine?

A web search engine is used when you search for information on the internet. Google is the most widely used search engine worldwide, with over 90% of internet browsers using Google to search for information. Yahoo! has approximately 4% share of the market and Bing (previously MSN Search) around 3%. Other search engines, such as Ask.com, mop up the remaining search enquiries.

What is SEO?

SEO stands for search engine optimisation. It’s the phrase used to describe the techniques and processes used to improve your website’s ranking on search engines through ‘organic’ (or unpaid for) search results.

What is SEM?

SEM stands for search engine marketing. This phrase refers to all types of paid and unpaid marketing used to increase your website’s visibility on search engines.

What is internet marketing?

Internet marketing – also known as digital marketing – is an all-encompassing term used to describe all types of marketing and promotion of products and service, over the internet. It includes web marketing, online marketing, search engine marketing and email marketing.

What is email marketing?

Email marketing is a form of online direct marketing. It uses emails instead of postal letters or flyers to send out a marketing message to targeted audiences.

What are keywords and keyword phrases?

Keywords and keyword phrases are words and groups of words that people will use to search for your products and services. Taking The Design Mechanics as an example, keyword phrases that people looking for our services might use include, ‘design agency Huddersfield’ ‘Huddersfield design agencies’ ‘graphic designers West Yorkshire’ etc.

There are any number of keywords and keyword phrases that might be used to search for your company’s products and services. The skill is identifying the most relevant keyword phrases for your organisation.

Why is Google so important?

Google is an American company that provides a range of internet services. One of the most common is Google’s search engine, which allows people to search for answers and information on the internet. It is the most widely used search engine in the world, with a worldwide market share of over 90%. Google logs a reputed 2 billion searches a day, in other words, an estimated 300 million people use Google to search for the products/services/information they’re looking for, every day. That’s why a number one spot on Google is so coveted.

How does Google’s search work?

When you type a keyword or keyword phrase into Google, it scans the internet for sites that contain those words and phrases. In a fraction of a second, it ranks the sites depending on the number of times the words are used, where the words are used, how the site links to others and the site’s quality. For an excellent explanation, visit www.google.com/howgoogleworks/

What is Google AdWords?

Google AdWords is the advertising arm of Google. It allows you to advertise on the pages that appear when certain keywords or keyword phrases are entered into Google’s search engine. See www.google.com for more information.

What is PPC and how does it work?

PPC stands for ‘pay per click’. It’s a method commonly used to charge for internet adverts. The advertising pays a set amount every time a browser clicks on the advert. As you only pay a few pence when (and only when) someone clicks on your advert, it can be a very efficient form of advertising.

Buyer beware:costs can soon add up as you also pay if someone clicks on your advert by mistake or clicks through and then leaves your site within seconds.

PPC is no guarantee that someone will purchase your products and services. That’s why it’s crucial that you’ve researched thoroughly the relevant key words and have an effective, professional looking website that is easy to navigate and encourages the browser to take the action you want them to take (i.e. call you/purchase your products).

How to Market your Business Online

Once you’ve established that potential customers are searching for your products and services online, you can start thinking about an internet marketing strategy.

The principles of internet marketing assume that your website should be the central focus of your business marketing activity and that all other marketing activity should drive potential clients to your website.

But, it’s important use your common sense – if you’re a business that can only service local customers eg. town centre sandwich shop, then you’ll only want to attract local visitors to your website.

As the above example illustrates, internet marketing is like any other promotional strategy – it must be targeted, measurable and professional. It’s a process that takes hard work, time and sustained effort.

How search engines ‘find’ your website

Search engines use an algorithm (in Google’s case a closely guarded secret) that takes a snapshot of your website and compares it to the search request. In simple terms the algorithm is based on two main areas:

  • Your website’s content
  • The links to and from your website to other sites

Google assesses your website and builds its own keyword list based on what it sees (the words) on your site.

Get the basics right

Before you even contemplate an internet marketing campaign, make sure that your website is capable of converting browsers into customers.

As a test, use Google to search for your own products or services and take a good look at the top ten websites that appear in the results – these are competing for the browser’s attention. How does your website compare to their website? Remember, it’s in your interests to be honest with yourself.

1. Design:

Your website should look professional, be easy to navigate, clearly identify what your business does and include a call to action (i.e. ‘call today’ / ‘buy now’) that converts interest into enquiries and sales.

2. Keywords:

Refine and confirm your keywords and keyword phrases – the words that potential customers will probably use when searching online for your products and services (see Fact Sheet 2 for more about generating keywords).

3. Text:

As Google and other search engines interrogate your site for particular keywords, it’s important that you litter your site with the words and phrases that people are using to search for your products. See below for more about SEO copywriting.

It’s generally accepted that your website will need refreshing or redesigning every 2-3 years to make sure that it remains up to date with your business, industry and the latest technology. For instance, any website using Flash elements needs to be re-designed as iPhone and iPad users can’t see Flash in their browser.

Is Search Engine Marketing right for you?

The internet provides a wealth of marketing opportunity – just think the entire world sitting at their computers, waiting to hear about your products and services.

Or are they?

Cyberspace is a huge place – billions of searches taking place on hundreds of millions (maybe more) websites by tens of millions of users. While your customers will be out there somewhere, how will they ever come across your website? And that’s assuming they’re actually searching for your products or services.

So if it’s such a hopeless case, why are so many people investing large percentages of their promotional budgets on internet marketing?

The truth is, for many companies the internet offers huge potential for them to connect with people who are looking for and want their products and services.

But, before you embark on the time-consuming (and possibly, expensive) quest to get your company to number one on Google, find out if anyone is actually searching for your products or services – you might be surprised by the results.

Buyer beware: this is a point that many SEO companies gloss over. While thousands of people daily might be searching for florists, books and DVDs, it’s not necessarily the case for rubber roller manufacturers in Yorkshire, or Design Agencies in Marsden!

Where are they looking for you?

The first thing to establish is whether or not your potential customers are using the internet to search for your products or services online.

It’s relatively easy to find out how many internet searches are taking place each month for your products and services by following the steps below:

Step 1 Choose your keywords

Decide which words or phrases your customers or potential customers would type into Google to search for you. These are your keywords or keyword phrases.

Using The Design Mechanics as an example, we might choose ‘design agency’ or ‘graphic design agency’ or even ‘logo designers’ as keyword phrases. If you’re unsure as to which words are most relevant, it’s worth asking your existing customers which words or phrases they would use to search for your services.

Step 2 Add a geographical phrase (if relevant)

Decide whether your customer would include a geographical phrase to narrow the field. In our example, clients usually want to work with someone local, so it’s probably worthwhile adding ‘Yorkshire’ or ‘West Yorkshire’ to our keyword phrase. Certain businesses, such as restaurants, will need to be even more geographically relevant by using the name of a town or city, eg. ‘Italian restaurants Leeds’.

Step 3 Check your phrases on Google adwords

To access Google adwords, type in the following web address: https://adwords.google.com/select/KeywordToolExternal

In the central section, where it says ‘Find keywords’ and below ‘Word or phrase’ type your keywords or keyword phrases into the box (one per line)

Click on the grey ‘search’ button .

After a few seconds, a list of keywords will appear with two columns of figures. ‘Global Monthly Searches’ and ‘Local Monthly Searches’.