Your Right to Anonymity?

March 18th, 2010

Google announced today that they will be adding an option to their popular Google Analytics service that will allow people to opt out of having their web surfing behavior tracked by the application. This move is likely motivated by Google taking heat from data privacy groups, and sounds great on the surface. For marketers and website owners, it has definite implications.

The thing we really like about Google Analytics is that it’s free, it works extremely well, and it’s always improving. The amount of information you can get out of a simple-to-deploy tool like Google Analytics is amazing. It dramatically aids the analysis that helps us understand user behavior, marketing effectiveness and a tremendous number of other metrics. It’s also completely anonymous on an individual-person level. I simply can’t find out that Bob Smith from Toledo, OH visited my site on Thursday and has three kids. That is, unless Bob Smith actually gave me that information.

Google Analytics tracks things like behavior and resources accessed on a web site. We use both Google Analytics and another enterprise-level traffic reporting package for our hosted sites’ analytics. The package we use runs within our hosting environment and parses the actual server log files. It generates very similar information about visitors, search engines, popular times of day, navigation funnels, and all the other goodies we like to review. It is also anonymous.

The value of the information collected is in watching and learning about user behavior patterns. These patterns rely less on what Bob Smith did than on what 1,000 Bob Smiths did. Opting out of Google Analytics presents a challenge then. Bob Smith feels like he’s either “protected” more than before or he’s feeling good about sticking it to The Man by not letting Google or anyone else get his behavior info. But we’re no longer able to learn anything about Bob Smith’s behavior style and therefore can’t improve our sites and systems based on the collective insights we get from the now-anonymous Bob Smiths of the world. At least, we can’t do it through Google Analytics.

The thing is, we’re still getting that visitor’s behavior information. Via our other analytics software. Just like everyone else will be. If people are running any one of the multitude of log file parsing packages or other hosted analytics services, all of Bob Smith’s behavior patterns are still there. We know what links were clicked, the first and last page visited, and can estimate how long he was on each page. Nice things to know. It helps us make better user experiences and more effective websites. But we’re still not getting any more information about Bob Smith, on a personal level, than he gives us.

Will opting out of Google Analytics protect the average Internet user any more than before? No. It won’t.

So do you have a right to anonymity? If you’re visiting my website, on my server, accessing my files and using my resources, I would argue that I can collect information about your behavior. Most websites have a Terms of Use page and a Privacy Policy page. These pages typically explain what data gets collected and how it might be used. They are all basically the same, and they are all pretty much ignored by everyone except the legal department.

Now back to Google. Will this spell the end of Google Analytics’ reign as the go-to service for visitor behavior insights? I sure hope not. All we can do is see, and also watch to see if Google has anything up their sleeve that will tell us how many people visited the site with tracking disabled.

As a big fan of Google Analytics, I’m immediately thinking of what this might do to general usage statistics. Will we need to re-do all of the reporting and analysis for our clients where we integrate data from Google Analytics? Will we need to identify another tool to complement our own reporting software? I hope not – I’ve grown to like our setup. But we can definitely adapt if necessary.

We’ll be keeping tabs on developments here. I will wait and see what happens with the opt-out option. If it does become a browser plug-in it may see a lower adoption rate than if it were implemented in another fashion. Regardless, we will be watching to see if it impacts our own data analysis.

We take privacy and security VERY seriously. Our clients are extremely important to us. Their sites are very important to us. We do our best to protect them and their visitors. We use the data about behavior to create more effective marketing solutions and help engineer better experiences for site visitors.

The best way for you to protect yourself is to be up to date on what all this stuff means. To learn more about what information can be found about you online and online privacy in general, you can: