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3 Ways The iPad Pits Consumer Privacy Against Advertising Measurability

Apple’s iOS platform, which powers the iPad, iTouch and iPhone, is currently used by 130 million consumers. The latest iOS device, the iPad (now into second generation sales of the iPad2), has already sold over 15 million units since its April 2010 launch.

As iOS-based devices become more popular, advertisers should be asking critical questions about marketing on this new platform, including:

  1. Can marketers reliably gauge traffic and conversions originating from iOS devices?
  2. Do iOS users behave differently than typical Internet users?
  3. Given the proliferation of iOS devices, what should marketers be doing differently?

While these questions may be straightforward in principle, the devil is in the details. One challenge, in particular, is that the primary browser on iOS devices, Safari, blocks third-party cookies by default.

Since many ad servers, tracking systems, and ad management tools rely on third-party redirects to associate converting visitors to the ads that brought them in, the growth of iOS represents a threat to some advertisers’ ability to accurately measure and optimize performance. With that background, let us now examine each of the above questions in turn.

Can Marketers Reliably Gauge Traffic & Conversions From iOS Devices?

For some advertisers, the answer to this question appears to be no. In a recent study of advertiser performance, Marin found that on average 38% of all paid-search conversions were not counted when third-party cookie tracking was used.

On the mobile and tablet computing front, however, advertisers weren’t able to count 80% of all paid-search conversions on the Apple iOS platform.

Windows vs iOS conversion tracking

Though it is a well-known fact that third-party cookies lead to measurement challenges, most advertisers using third-party cookies have assumed that the degree of undercounting is uniform across all browsers.

Our research shows that this is not the case. Third-party cookie blocking on the iPad can result in advertisers undercounting conversions by as much as 80%. As such, marketers who rely on third-party tracking cookies are effectively blind when it comes to measuring performance on the iPad and other iOS devices. 

Do iOS Users Behave Differently Than Typical Internet Users?

If measured correctly, the answer to this question appears to be yes. As illustrated below, advertisers who track using third-party cookies are likely to see lower conversion rates on the iOS platform. However, when those same advertisers start tracking via first-party cookies, they would see the iOS platform outperform Windows by 23%.

iOS Paid Search Conversion Rates

The above results notwithstanding, conversion rates can vary across advertisers and industries, so the real issue here isn’t whether iOS users always convert at a higher rate.

Rather, online marketers should ensure that they can consistently and accurately track paid-search conversions across multiple platforms.

Should Marketers Treat iOS Differently?

Here again, the short answer is yes. Across Marin’s clients, up to 5% of converting traffic originated from an iOS device. While these numbers aren’t necessarily significant yet, in 2011 sales of mobile devices is expected to outstrip sales of desktop and laptop computers. Given the iPad and iPhone’s high-quality browsing experience and growth rates, the iOS family of devices is likely to achieve a meaningful share of overall website conversions in just a few years.

When they do, the tracking challenge associated with third-party cookies is likely to become an even bigger issue than it is today. Clearly, advertisers using vendor solutions that rely on third-party cookies should evaluate whether conversion undercounting is impacting paid-search revenue, ROI, and bid calculations.

In fact, this issue isn’t just limited to third-party vendor solutions. Publisher tracking tools such as the AdWords and Bing conversion counters also face this challenge. At the end of the day, budgeting and bid optimization decisions are only as good as the data behind the decisions. In this case, undercounting conversions will result in under-investment, and ultimately lost revenue.

Advertisers should look to actively transition away from using third-party cookies wherever possible. If transitioning to a first-party cookie solution is not an option, advertisers should look to analytical tools that can help them adjust metrics to account for unattributed conversions.

Author Postscript:

In in the conclusions of our original article, we occasionally referred to tracking solutions that rely on redirects and third party cookies interchangeably, and we’ve made a slight correction to that. Many advertising solutions that rely on third-party cookies also rely on redirects, however, redirects do not require the use of third party cookies. Some tracking solutions, for example, use redirects to deploy a first-party cookie from the vendor’s domain which is later read on the confirmation page of the advertiser.

We’ve updated our research brief to more accurately reflect this. Special thanks to George Michie of the Rimm-Kaufman Group for pointing this out.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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