Privacy Tactics Complicate Ecommerce Marketing

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Leading web browsers and email clients are doing more to stop user tracking, effectively reducing or eliminating the conversion signals many marketers depend on.

Advertisers love connecting ads with sales. That’s how they measure return on advertising spend, a key metric.

The same goes for ecommerce affiliate marketers, who need to know which affiliate partner drove a specific sale, to pay the commission. Simple.

What’s not simple is how individuals feel about being tracked. For years, consumers, legislators, and software makers have prioritized privacy. Those efforts have resulted in the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation, the California Consumer Privacy Act, Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection, and more.

Now the fight over tracking has moved to advertising links in email newsletters and websites.

Browsers

Initially released in 2022 for Apple devices, the Arc browser has been called the “Chrome killer.” This free web browser has a slew of features that have led many reviewers to call it the best in the market. Arc is coming to Windows in 2024, bringing “clean” URL copying and tracking warnings that will interrupt some of the most basic marketing metrics.

The Arc browser has little market share but has received positive reviews.

Clean URL copying removes tracking parameters in a URL string when an Arc user copies it. Here is an example.

Imagine you were an Amazon affiliate. You write an article about the 10 best science fiction television shows and link to several box sets on the Amazon marketplace. The link would end something like this.

...&tag=affiliate-20&ref=affiliate_site

A consumer using the Arc browser could read the article, copy the URL, and click through to Amazon, removing all the tracking parameters.

Screenshot of an Arc browser showing the "copy" icon.Screenshot of an Arc browser showing the "copy" icon.

The Arc browser has an icon for copying the current URL.

Amazon could lose valuable conversion data if someone followed the clean link, and the affiliate would not get paid.

Screenshot of an Arc browser showing the message "Copied a clean link without trackers :)"Screenshot of an Arc browser showing the message "Copied a clean link without trackers :)"

The Arc browser removes all URL tracking code when copied.

If browser review articles are believed, Arc users love clean URL copying. Arc makes this feature the default; it’s available via extensions in other browsers.

The Arc browser, via the uBlock Origin extension, also warns users when links pass through known tracking servers, similar to how Chrome warns users of an invalid or missing SSL certificate.

For example, think about affiliate marketing again. ButcherBox is an ecommerce subscription service that uses Impact, a popular affiliate platform, for its links. Typical Impact tracking will look like the following:


When you click on this link in Arc, the browser warns you, letting you know that the domain (pxf.io) was found on Peter Lowe’s ad and tracking server list, a popular collection of known tracking parameters.

Screenshot of a uBlock Orgin warning of a tracking parameter from ButcherBlock.Screenshot of a uBlock Orgin warning of a tracking parameter from ButcherBlock.

The uBlock Origin extension is installed by default in the Arc browser, prompting warnings of many affiliate and advertising links.

A shopper using Arc could still click through to ButcherBox, but many will not.

Arc uses several lists of tracking parameters. Even many website display ads generate this warning.

Email Clients

Arc is not alone in taking on tracking. Apple announced last year that it would remove tracking parameters from links in Messages and Mail, as did Proton Mail, a leading privacy-first mail client.

Proton Mail, like Arc, is not widely used, but it may reveal coming privacy features in mainstream email clients.

Proton’s feature works similarly to Arc’s clean URLs, striping away the parameters that tell marketers where a click came from.

Ecommerce Marketing

At first glance, consumers may value these new anti-tracking features. Yet the privacy they protect is minimal. An advertiser deploys URL parameters to track the performance of a channel — such as email or Google Adsnot an individual consumer.

Moreover, an advertiser can still place cookies on the browsers of visiting consumers. Thus a consumer could strip tracking parameters, land on an advertiser’s site, and end up with a cookie.

Nonetheless, eliminating URL parameters means marketers will lose signal, complicating their ability to know a channel’s performance.

Perhaps the hardest hit would be affiliate marketers, who presumably could not link a sale to a specific affiliate partner or even the entire channel.

In short, the actions of Arc, Proton Mail, and others may foretell a new era wherein marketers rethink attribution to find new and better promotional channels.

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