Why Orbitz' sneaky web tracking is your problem, too

Why Orbitz' sneaky web tracking is your problem, too

Summary: Orbitz, the online travel site whose business model is built on the word "cheap," says it treats you differently depending on whether you're a Mac or a PC. That's just the start of a privacy problem most people never think about.


When the subject of web privacy comes up, most people only think the issue through halfway.

The obvious controversy is over collection of personally identifiable information, which can be aggregated, collated, stored, and shared. That's bad enough, but there's another, more subtle problem:

When websites profile you, they're making guesses about who you are. Those guesses are often based on tiny scraps of information that someone else has gathered, with or without your consent.

That meager dossier allows a business to paint a picture of you that is almost completely random. And if this "personalization" is done without your consent (or without disclosure), it means you end up with results that are not trustworthy on their face.

Orbitz, the discount travel site, has provided a basic example that demonstrates the problem clearly.

On its home page, Orbitz provides a 158-word pitch for itself that includes the word cheap nine times:

Sign up for deals by e-mail for special offers, discounts on hotel reservations, cheap airfare deals and more. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter to get updates on cheap hotels, giveaways, cheap tickets and promotions.

The copy urges you to "make Orbitz your only stop for travel deals," with talk of cheap hotels and cheap travel rates, followed by a promise: "We'll get you there on the cheap with hotel discounts, cheap airfare and more."

The same parent company owns the site CheapTickets.com. The entire corporate mission is built around the word "cheap."

Got that? The Orbitz customer is showing up because he or she thinks "cheap is good."

But if you use a Mac to visit Orbitz, the company decides on your behalf that you don't really want their primary service. Instead, they skew the results so you see more expensive offerings first:

According to the Wall Street Journal, travel site Orbitz has been able to segment its audience in Apple and Windows camps. The upshot: Mac users will pay $20 to $30 a night more on hotels than PC users.

The Journal noted: "The sort of targeting undertaken by Orbitz is likely to become more commonplace as online retailers scramble to identify new ways in which people’s browsing data can be used to boost online sales."

Now, let's be clear. Orbitz isn't charging Mac users more for the same room. But they are showing you more expensive options on the first page if they detect that you are using a Mac. And most people don't go past that first page when they make a buying decision. If you use a Windows PC, you'll see a result that is more in keeping with the company's mission.

On Twitter, Orbitz CEO Barney Harford says everyone's got it wrong:

That's technically true. But this undisclosed "personalization" breaks the promise that the company makes with its web site.

That link in Harford's tweet goes to a post he wrote and got USA Today to publish back in May. It conflates information that potential customers provide ("you start a hotel search and tell us you want to visit Orlando this summer with your kids") with information it sniffs without your knowledge or direct input ("We can use that information to influence which hotels we recommend to users we see searching on a Mac or an iPad versus a PC.")

And let's not kid ourselves that this is the only way Orbitz is skewing results. As the Journal notes:

Orbitz's chief executive, Barney Harford, has made data mining a priority. Shortly after joining the company in 2009, the former Expedia executive opened a small office in Sunnyvale, Calif., and recruited statisticians with backgrounds from eBay Inc. and Google Inc. for a new analytics team.

In fact, Orbitz is at least in part an advertising company.  In its latest quarterly SEC filing, Orbitz (NYSE:OWW) reported revenue of $11.4 million (6% of total revenue) from advertising and media.

Orbitz brags about its tracking and targeting capabilities in its pitch to would-be advertisers:

And the company also brags about its expertise in "re-targeting" you. If you "expressed intent" and "did not convert"—in other words, if you looked around but didn't buy—you can expect to be bombarded with ads for hours or days:

Now, you won't find these explanations or anything close to them on the customer-facing pages at Orbitz. That's deliberate. If you knew it was going to happen, you would probably say no. That's why companies like Orbitz don't ask your permission to collect and use information about you when you visit their website.

And that's why I firmly believe that privacy settings should be on by default, and that the companies we do business with should be required to establish a business relationship and ask permission before they target you.

They should also be required to disclose when their display of information is based in whole or in part on data they've collected using tracking tools. If you willingly sign up as a customer and provide information about yourself so that they can customize the display to match your expressed desires, that's great. But don't secretly push more expensive products based on random little bits of information.

My colleague Larry Dignan noted: "From an analytics perspective, targeting by operating system and pricing accordingly may not be such a bad idea. The bonehead move of the century is Orbitz yapping about it."

I disagree. I'm glad Orbitz decided to brag about its capabilities, because it gives us a solid, real-world example of why and how consumers are being secretly tracked and how that information is being used.

I'd like to hear lots more stories like this. They make great evidence in the fight for more online privacy and adequate disclosure.

See also:

Topic: Apple

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  • Ah, Orbitz.

    I still mourn the days when Orbitz.com was a site about drinks with little balls of gelatin in them. :(
  • This seems fair

    Mac users are more likely to want to pay more for the same service in order to bolster their self-esteem; Windows users are more likely to want inferior solutions.
    • no matter

      how you put it, the Windows users are the winners in this case. The rest is just your perception of the reality.
      • Not really. Mac users also get to see the

        cheaper rooms, too. However, unlike Windows users, they also get to see rooms Windows users can't afford.
      • Customers should have a right...

        to see the cheaper rooms even if they can afford it. I say everyone has the same rights, whether your rich or poor. Bragging about affordability just sets us on a path of class war. Mac users are on a bad course, if they espouse that kind of snobbery.
      • re: Not really. Mac Users. . .

        No, baggins-z, it's more like that by identifying Mac and iOS users, they know they have a subset of the population who are manifestly less frugal than the rest, regardless of anyone's actual income. I'm sure that they get commission proportional to what they sell, so they spend more effort attempting to upsell to people who have demonstrated willingness to be upsold.
        rocket ride
    • RE: Windows users are more likely to want inferior solutions.

      [b]That goes with out saying - consider what they are using for an O/S?[/b]

      (spoken by a [i]smug ass linux user here[/i])

  • How is this different from anything else?

    [i]When websites profile you, they're making guesses about who you are. Those guesses are often based on tiny scraps of information that someone else has gathered, with or without your consent.[/i]

    Advertising is targeted in TV and magazines as well. The demographics of a TV show or a magazine are taken into consideration when a company wants to buy advertising space. Tampon companies aren't likely to advertise their products on The Ultimate Fighter because they are making a guess that you are not a woman. That was done without your consent. It might also be wrong. You might be a woman who likes watching The Ultimate Fighter.

    I would be tremendously surprised if Toyota didn't advertise Lexus models more prominantly in "Yacht Quarterly" and advertise Toyota models more prominantly in "Garage Sale Weekly". In essence, that is all Orbitz is doing.

    And even if Orbitz was showing you different prices for the exact same product, so what? There is a joke that airline prices are designed to ensure that no 2 people on the same flight have paid the same price. Children pay less than adults to go see a movie. We don't have a fundamental problem in our society for paying more (or less) than someone else for the exact same product.

    Yawn, time to move on. How about we worry about Apple patenting the scrolling list? Seems like this is far more damaging than how Orbitz chooses to prioritize ads for its home page.
    • Demographics versus targeting

      You are actually making my case for me. Advertising is successful on TV even though the advertisers know nothing about the individuals they are reaching. If TV worked like the Internet, your hypothetical female fan of The Ultimate Fighter would be seeing ads for feminine hygiene products while the male fans would be seeing something completely different.

      The point is about consent. Treat me as anonymous and do not profile me UNLESS I GIVE YOU PERMISSION TO DO OTHERWISE.
      Ed Bott
      • Maybe some clarification is in order then

        You seem to have no problems then with targeted advertising, would that be correct?

        If you have no fundamental problems with the concept of targeted advertising then I don't understand why you would have an issue with using more information to make the targeting more accurate.

        I would have more sympathy if the issue was one of tracking users. While I don't personally have a problem with it, I can understand why many do. However, your browser and OS are sent to the server with every single request. There is no need to track this information with cookies. While statistical information (probably anonymized?) was clearly gathered allowing Orbitz to note that Mac users spend more, no tracking information needs to be referenced to see if the current person browsing the site is using Windows or OS X. In other words, they aren't tracking MY movements on the web to figure out how to target me.

        [i]Treat me as anonymous and do not profile me[/i]

        Like I said, please specify whether you are against targeting ads or you are against tracking users in a non anonymous way. From what I can tell, Orbitz is targeting ads (something you are okay with) they aren't tracking my behavior. You are anonymous, as anonymous as a website that looks at your user agent and figures out what level of CSS your browser supports so it can send you different HTML based on your browser.

        [i]your hypothetical female fan of The Ultimate Fighter would be seeing ads for feminine hygiene products while the male fans would be seeing something completely different.[/i]

        Yes, you are right. Now you need to explain how this is a bad thing, especially if the males get to see advertising for trucks or ninja swords instead of tampons because it seems to me that the situation you described is an improvement from the present.
      • Hmm...

        It's an interesting point of view, and in truth I'd not thought of it that way around. Ed you've given me something to ponder.

        I do sometimes purposely mislead websites about the browsing platform I'm using by sending a different "User Agent" - often when running Linux (san Flash) sending a "Safari iOS 4.3.3 - iPad" agent you can convince a site to send content into a more standard format that can be played. I'd not thought about varying the User Agent to indicate buying priority.

        Clearly there is a privacy issue here.
      • We are profiled daily

        It's not something new that sprang up with the Internet. We are profiled the moment we walk through the door of any retailer. Sure, the Internet/computer world allows new ways of profiling, but that's all.

        If you walk into a store with a 3 piece suit, hat, and gold tipped cane looking for a watch, you'll be steared towards the more expensive ones first.

        If you're dressed in ripped jeans and a Metallica shirt, you'll likely be steared towards the more rugged, less costly watches first.

        Cars, electronics, you name it, they profile you at the door. But then again, we ourselves profile others every day, without consent.
        Since they can't see you at the other end to profile you visually, they do it other ways. The internet offers different ways to achive that, thats all.

        And how do you know TV advertisers know nothing about the users at the other end?

        You don't think Comcast puts all those boxes in your house without a way to track what station you watch the most, at what time, ect. do you?

        It would be so easy for the box to send that tiny info back to Comcast HQ for them to sell to advertisers.
        William Farrel
      • What you're still not getting

        There is nothing wrong with placing ads that are appropriate for the surrounding content and for the general demographic that visits a particular site.

        There is nothing wrong with offering the visitor the option to provide information that can be used, with their consent, to change the default presentation of information.

        Targeting means changing the display of information based on your guess about who the individual is and what he or she does. Ask a woman if she's OK being pulled out from the normal population of a website and instead of being shown ads and content that match the reason she came to the site, she gets pulled off to the side and bombarded with "girly" ads. Yeah, that'll go over well.
        Ed Bott
      • We're still just talking about the browser's user agent in this case

        There's nothing sneaky here. There are many things that can be determined about website users based on simple user analytics. Mac vs. PC is just one of many. Browser could be another -- Firefox or Chrome users are probably a bit different than IE users.

        If website managers notice trends, of course they would want to optimize their site to be more profitable.
        K B
      • Actually...

        You won't see too many advertisements for Tampons during an NFL game. This is exactly the same thing -- making assumptions about your audience based on scraps of information.
      • Perspective?

        So the salesperson at the men's clothing store shouldn't attempt to assess your preferences based on your appearance upon entering and customize the assistance and recommendation you request of them unless they ask your permission first? It's human nature, it's business. Don't be naive. If you don't like it search for your own deals.
      • Stores do this...

        Ed, why not complain about how every swipe of a CC is used to track you in the real world? Target can predict a pregnant woman's due date to within a few weeks based on purchase information from their CC usage. But the info sent by the browser is bad? We shouldn't use that info to determine browser marketshare or let people know that they have an old outdated browser?

        Besides, they are treating you as anonymous. Unless they attach your name or otherwise personally identifying information to their data vaults, you're just a number to them. Granted, a number with bits of pieces known about you, but change computers or delete your cookie and see how much 'personalization' remains.
      • re: Demographics vs. Targeting. / Maybe some clarification. . .

        I find myself mostly agreeing with Jeremy. How would that not be better than what we have now on TV? There seems to be a strain of thought that advertising is somehow a form of assault. (To be fair, I too have, on occasion, felt assailed by commercials, but that's a property of the particular commercial.) Advertising is, if it's being done right, an offer, not an ultimatum. "Please consider our goods/services the next time you have need of the sort of thing that we make/do." And as such, is an offer that I may or may not take depending on whether it seems the best bargain. So, just what's so terrible about getting ads for things that I might actually need or want and not being bothered with ones for things I don't have any use for?
        rocket ride
  • So, let me get this straight. Orbitz

    tracks the purchases you make through Orbitz. They notice that Mac users tend to upgrade rooms more often and/or purchase more expensive rooms. Orbitz concludes that Mac users are more likely to be interested in more expensive rooms and so detects the browser so as to offer said Mac users a more effective match to their searches. And this is somehow a bad thing?

    Still trying to figure out where the concept that things you do in public are somehow protected by privacy (hint: the internet is a public place despite the fact you are in the town square in your pajamas in your bedroom.)
    • Here's where you're confused

      This is not "offering Mac users a more effective match." It is rigging the results to maximize the company's revenue by profiling its customers without their knowledge.

      They have no idea of what the user on the other end really wants. All they know is that the odds that the sucker will buy the first link are high and Mac users will pay more. So they skew the results instead of displaying them honestly.
      Ed Bott