Cross Device Session Stitching and User Identification: Big Brother or More Accountability?

What is Cross Device Tracking?

In the course of a single day, most people interact with the internet through multiple devices. They might use a laptop at home, their smartphone on the go, and then a desktop at work. If the same person visits a website from each of these devices, it is seen as three separate visits.

But not for long. At the recent Google Analytics Summit, they discussed a plan for “cross device session stitching.” Put simply: they will begin tracking a single user across multiple devices.

How will Google accomplish this feat? They’ll track the logged-in state of users across their various devices, including the Android phone, where logging in is part of the operating system itself. It’s likely that iPhones and other smartphones will be included as well, though the accuracy on these devices will be lower since not as many users will take the step to log in.

This is an interesting development for marketers. With the rise of multi-device usage, metrics related to visits are incredibly inaccurate. In the scenario above, we’re working with data that would lead us to believe that we had visits from 3 separate people, when instead it was a single person who can only convert or purchase a single time (excluding repeat business, of course).

This can dilute our efforts and lead us to make incorrect conclusions. After all, why didn’t those other two “people” convert? Improving data gives us a more accurate picture of the conversion process and the true cost per acquisition of a new customer, which, in turn, is good for Google because they want you to spend more on advertising.

As web marketing expert Avinash Kaushik mentioned in a recent session, the end result is that we, as an industry, will move away from the idea of tracking visits and visitors. Instead, we should think in terms of tracking individuals.

This fits in with other trends to move towards tying internet activities to individuals. With the new Google+ Authorship system, Google aims to tie content to the author’s verified online profile. Verified content will rank higher than content without verification. This echoes what Google’s chairman Eric Schmidt said in his recent book, New Digital Age: “The true cost of remaining anonymous, then, might be irrelevance.”

This is invaluable from a marketing perspective. The closer we get to true conversion numbers, the more reliable attribution tracking will become. We’ll truly be able to understand who converts and why. This, I believe, is the true Holy Grail of marketing.

But the benefits don’t end with marketing. A less anonymous internet will make people more accountable for their actions online, which could reduce instances of flaming, spamming, and other bad internet behavior that up until now we’ve been forced to accept as a sort of “toll” for all of the benefits the internet brings. It will also mean more relevant, accurate, and quality content and less keyword-stuffed marketing nonsense appearing in search results. And the internet will be more and more personalized for individual users, making users more efficient and productive.

For some, this trend will have an air of Big Brother, but I believe it just further closes the gap between the physical world and the digital one. After all, you don’t expect privacy if you pull up to a pet store and go shopping there; anyone can see you to it. Now you may be “seen” if you visit that same pet shop online to shop. If you don’t want to be spotted, you can simply not go out to the store or unplug.

Instead, I view the increased identification of individuals on the internet as another exciting way to be “plugged in” and a glimpse at a future with ever-increasing access to knowledge in an instant.

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