Friday, March 19, 2010

Google to Let Users Opt Out of Analytics Tracking

Google Analytics Logo

Given all the flak Google has taken recently (see my post yesterday, More Social Media Privacy News), I wasn't too surprised to see this headline come through from ReadWriteWeb: Google Will Soon Allow You to Opt Out of Google Analytics Tracking.

In a blog post from yesterday (More choice for users: browser-based opt-out for Google Analytics on the way), Google announced that it will be offering a browser plug-in to opt out of having their data tracked by Google Analytics. From the blog post:

...[W]e have been exploring ways to offer users more choice on how their data is collected by Google Analytics. We concluded that the best approach would be to develop a global browser based plug-in to allow users to opt out of being tracked by Google Analytics. Our engineers are now hard at work finalizing and testing this opt-out functionality.

I suspect this is more of a PR move than anything. Google Analytics is really just a method to track how anonymous users access your site — from what search terms or related site they came, what pages they visited, how long they spent, their click path, etc. None of this information exposes personal details and is even forbidden by their privacy policies. Check out the Google Analytics product tour for a quick overview.

What Google Analytics offers is not much different than what you get from a WebTrends report. And that data already exists in your own web server logs. In fact, Google Analytics cannot track anything if you don't have JavaScript enabled on your browser, making it impossible to track many mobile devices. Granted, you can get an overlay view of a page showing where users clicked in Google Analytics, which you cannot get in products that rely solely on the web server logs, but that isn't necessarily the key selling point. The fact that it is free is its strongest point. It also has swell reports.

The user who cares enough to download and install the plug-in may come from one of two camps:

  1. He/she is already concerned about privacy and may even use anonymous proxy services to surf with an alternate IP address;
  2. He/she has been told that Google is tracking his/her every move (again, recent press) and perhaps grabs this as a response (or has it installed by a friend or family member).

These users make up such a small portion of the surfing world that it probably won't impact the typical site. I doubt there will be a noticeable drop in data points in the Analytics reports of many sites. Others have posited that this move might make it easier to block internal users data from a company site (which can skew results) as opposed to blocking the IP range in the Analytics configuration screen. They fail to take into account how unpleasant it will be to administer (install and support) all those random plug-ins. No IT guy should be interested in that model at all.

The paranoid out there may feel that Google is tracking enough information about everybody, and while I don't disagree, trusting Google to release a plug-in to stop Google in Google's tracks seems like a flawed and circular argument. The truly paranoid shouldn't trust the plug-in to do what it says. I genuinely hope those conspiracy theorists aren't running Google Chrome, because the same argument applies.

If you really want to surf anonymously, run Netscape Navigator 2 or version 3 with JavaScript disabled through an anonymous proxy. From a cave. Perhaps Google will release a plug-in for those browsers?

ReadWriteWeb included this Onion parody in their story, and I just had to steal it to post here. It's too good to pass up (sorry about the scaling).


Google Opt Out Feature Lets Users Protect Privacy By Moving To Remote Village

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