A broad group of Web sites and Web advertisers is discussing a way to consistently collect visitor information so advertisers can compare data from different sites.
The working group, which met last week in New York for the first time, hopes that data in consistent formats might also be used for targeted advertising and personalized editorial content.
The move stems in part from an effort by Internet Profiles (I/Pro). The company, which measures and audits traffic on Web sites, has put its own universal registration system, called I/Code, on the back burner.
"Today many sites have registration and all ask different questions," Mark Ashida, I/Pro's president and CEO, told CNET. "Advertisers want comparability; they want everyone to ask the question in the same way."
Launched in March, I/Code has been used by 40 sites and generated 700,000 registrations from Web surfers. With an I/Code, a user could register once and then give that registration data to any participating Web site, but the system has been shelved. I/Pro laid off employees in its I/Code division in September.
The working group has looked at an "extended log format" for Web servers that would compile data on user profiles, ad banners seen, navigation through a Web site, as well as server performance data.
I/Pro's foray into user registration had put it potentially in conflict with VeriSign, which issues individual certificates to vouch for the identity of an individual, and companies like Firefly that use agent technologies to learn a user's preferences and personalize content.
"We are looking for an industry solution for profiles," Ashida said. "We want to say, 'Let's work with everybody collecting these profiles.' It's not going to be just one person but many."
But tracking information could raise privacy concerns. Ashida said privacy issues were a key topic in last week's discussion.
"As long as information is gathered with people's consent, if they know the type of information and purposes, it could be in line with eTrust principles and the Electronic Freedom Foundation," Lori Fena, EFF executive director, told CNET. eTrust is a EFF-backed program designed to establish consumer trust and confidence in electronic transactions.
Brad Husick, vice president at ad server software firm NetGravity, questions whether log files are the proper technical approach to take. He believes that data warehousing technology, widely used in large companies to analyze trends among their customers, might work better.