What the “opt-out” option means for Google Analytics

March 19, 2010

This morning I noticed a short post on the Google Analytics blog quietly announcing a forthcoming (i.e., yet to be released – this IS still Google right, and they’re talking about something not yet released??) way for users to opt-out of being tracked by Google Analytics.  The feature will be a “global browser based plug-in to allow users to opt out of being tracked by Google Analytics”.  What does this mean for the future of Google Analytics?

What Does this Opt-Out Feature Mean for Google Analytics Users?

First of all, I commend Google on pursuing privacy protection for users at large, however I have to step out and say my initial reaction to this announcement is skepticism.  Here’s why:

  • It is extremely rare that Google will talk about a yet-to-be-released feature, and the brevity of the post stands out to me as almost strange
  • Is a browser plug-in based opt-out featurereally that useful for the average user?  Will this plug-in be for all browsers, or only for Google’s Chrome?  Will it include Firefox?  Safari?  Internet Explorer?  Others?
  • Users can already opt-out of being tracked by GA through blocking cookies.  Yes, this renders makes many site features unusable, but that’s the point of blocking cookies, and you can always choose to enable them on a per-site basis.
  • Assuming this browser plug-in is released for all major browsers, and not just then thin slice of browser share held by Chrome, users will still have to a) learn about it, and b) install it.  How many users will really do this?
  • Furthermore, is opting out of Google Analytics even an important thing?  GA already prevents collection of Personally Identifiable Information through its Terms of Service.
  • Lastly, if you block GA, that doesn’t mean that a website can’t measure your interactions with other Web Analytics tools, server-side logfile processing tools, or an internal system.

I recognize I probably sound pretty negative about this announcement, and to be honest, I am.  I don’t see how a browser plug-in furthers true privacy online, nor do I see how this will help to dispel the many myths about online privacy that the average person hears and believes.

How Does Google Analytics Currently Support Privacy?

Without an opt-out browser plug-in, GA is already a very strong supporter of privacy in its default state.  First, the Terms of Service, as I noted above, state that users of GA may not collect personally identifiable information about users.  So, for example, if I could determine your email address and pushed that into my Google Analytics account, it would breach the terms of service and I could have my GA account terminated.

Second, Google Analytics’s browser cookies are exclusively 1st party, meaning they are set to the domain from which the scripts are called and can’t be used to track users from site to site to site unless several sites are tediously “linked” together, something that site owners struggle to do, and something that is impossible to do if you don’t control all the sites you want to link together.  So, could GA be used to track an individual’s path across the Internet at large?  Nope.  Because the cookies used by GA are unique to each domain visited that has GA installed.  Furthermore, the account number used in the GA tag is specific to the account holder, and data isn’t mixed between accounts.

Third, if you don’t want to be tracked by GA, you can block all cookies, or modify your browser to selectively block cookies using the Google Analytics cookie names, or get one of the existing plug-ins to block GA and other measurement and ad serving systems out there.

Compare this to solutions that rely on 3rd party cookies and you’ll see that Google Analytics is engineered around privacy.  Browser plug-in or not, GA already goes to great lengths to support privacy.

Is Online Privacy Important?

Yes!  Website owners must protect privacy of their customers or face the consequences of breaching customer trust.  But that is self-evident.  Is preventing Google Analytics from tracking you going to further online privacy?  Before the world chases after blocking website operators from measuring the usage of their own website, what is being done to prevent the collection and sale of Internet usage information by Internet Service Providers?  What is being done to curb the collection of user data by Browser providers?  Or by the purveyors of Toolbars, “security” software, and other “enhancements” offered in exchange for free smiley’s or quick-links to search or write an email?

Let’s Have Real Privacy, Please

I advocate for online privacy, but in a reasonable fashion, one that truly supports privacy rather that creating an illusion of privacy and a false-sense that you’re not being tracked.  I doubt many people know how many retailers can track their movements through malls and stores using cameras connected to huge computer systems and artificial intelligence systems that identify shoplifters automatically, measure the paths customers take through aisles, identify if in-store signage is being looked at, and conduct facial recognition for “demographics and segmentation”.  There are many more examples of this technology out there (like this, and this).

In the physical world most people are either oblivious to the level of surviellance, monitoring, and “analytics” that is being done, or they accept it and don’t care.  The Internet has developed with a notion of privacy being a right even when you’re browsing the web at large or another company’s website, which when compared to the real-world is foreign.  If I’m in my home I expect privacy.  If I’m in a shopping mall, is it reasonable to accept that the store employees observe where I go in the store, or for that matter, that the store uses an automated system to do this?  I think so.  If I don’t like being watched, I shouldn’t shop there.

There is the very real and important question of should we measure just because we can.  Physical-world or online-world.  Because technology enables automated monitoring and analysis of a shopping mall, does that mean it is right to do?  Perhaps the best judge will be consumers.  If the level of monitoring becomes too uncomfortable and trust is broken, customers will react with their wallets.  Protecting customer trust should be key.

What Does this Mean for Web Analysts?

So, is Google’s forthcoming opt-out feature a good thing?  We will see.  What does it mean for Web Analysts and businesses that need to optimize their online marketing and websites?  A few things stand out to me:

  • Web Analytics should be about aggregate data, so even if a percentage of your site users use an opt-out feature or by some other means are not measured, that’s OK if your aggregate data retains integrity.
  • We may see a resurgence of server-side tracking technologies.  Products like Urchin that can analyze logfiles, not relying on cookies or script tags, or solutions like Pion Lite, Tealeaf, or Coradiant‘s offerings provide a means of measuring site usage that is immune to blocking, unless a user chooses not to visit the site entirely.

What Do You Think?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this – let the commenting begin!