These days, it’s not enough for an online retailer to sell you merchandise – now it feels the need to gather intelligence on you while you’re there, and then follow you out of the virtual store to beg you to come back.
Online retailers are among the many websites that gather their users’ personal data and track browsing habits for their own purposes, and most also make use of third-party tracking software that uses your browsing habits on one website to create targeted ads on another. When it comes to retail, that often takes the form of “retargeting” – a tracker on a retail site will set a cookie when you leave the site, and suddenly ads for that website will appear everywhere you go. (In some cases the ads will be product-specific – do a search for flash drives on the site, and suddenly you’ll see ads all over the Web encouraging you to go back to the website and buy some flash drives.)
But every website, retail or otherwise, is different: Some have more consumer-friendly privacy policies than others, and some use third-party tracking software that does a better job of keeping user data anonymous and honoring opt-out requests. To keep them all straight, a new site, privacyscore.com, has devised a metric to rate hundreds of websites across the Web on 0-100 scale.
Here are the major online retailers that attained the best scores based on privacyscore’s methodology.
The Most Respectful Online Retailer: Lowes.com
Privacy Score: 95
Interestingly, that’s an area where even the best websites tend to fall short – it seems that very few sites will tell you if the government wants a peek at your data.
“We think it's reasonable for users to expect to be told if the government comes asking for personal data,” says Jim Brock, founder of privacyscore parent company PrivacyChoice. “Of course, a user can't expect a site to violate the law in doing so, but a site can and should promise to keep them informed when they can do so legally.”
2nd Most Respectful: Etsy.com
Privacy Score: 90
Like Zazzle, Etsy is another site aimed at creative types, serving as a marketplace for art and other homemade wares. According to privacyscore, it does not appear to use third-party trackers to gather users’ browsing data, earning it a coveted perfect 50 on that end of the equation.
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3rd Most Respectful: Zazzle.com
Privacy Score: 89
4th Most Respectful: Kay.com
Privacy Score: 87
5th Most Respectful: RadioShack.com
Privacy Score: 86
RadioShack uses a dozen different trackers on its site, but only one, Media Innovation Group, is a very prominent presence. Fortunately, MIG is one of the good guys, itself receiving 49 out of 50 possible points in privacyscore’s assessment of the company.
6th Most Respectful: AutoPartsWarehouse.com
Privacy Score: 85
Like Costco, there’s very little in the way of third-party tracking on this site. Only two trackers, SpecificMedia and Google Display Network, showed up in the privacyscore scans, and neither was a prominent presence on the site. And given that both services get high marks for their data practices, AutoPartsWarehouse.com gets a perfect 50 on that side of the equation.
7th Most Respectful: Costco.com
Privacy Score: 83
Costco distinguishes itself by doing very little in the way of third-party tracking. Only one company, CoreMetrics, was found to be engaging in such tracking on Costco.com. And while CoreMetrics gets middling grades from privacyscore for holding onto data for more than 48 months and not being subject to industry oversight, its presence isn’t felt much on the site: It showed up just 9% of the time in privacyscore’s tests.
8th Most Respectful: BestBuy.com
Privacy score: 83
While it loses some points for failing to confirm vendor confidentiality (that is, promising that their service providers will behave when they have access to your data), BestBuy.com makes up for it by sticking primarily with consumer-friendly third-party trackers like the Google Display Network.
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9th Most Respectful: Gap.com
Privacy score: 81
One third-party tracking service, Akamai, shows up on 99% of the website’s pages. But the service gets high marks across the board: It protects user anonymity, gives consumers the option to opt out, retains data for just 12 months, and adheres to the privacy guidelines of both the Network Advertising Initiative and the Digital Advertising Alliance. In other words, the third-party trackers on the Gap.com generally go about their business in a responsible way.
10th Most Respectful: RalphLauren.com
Privacy score: 80