Should We Be Worried about Privacy Trends in Web Analytics?

Big changes are afoot in the availability of web analytics data. Some are already happening, and some are on the horizon:

  1. Google has stopped providing organic search term keywords for visitors who are logged into their Google account while browsing (these now show as “not provided” in your reports).

    Although when this was announced, Google predicted that this would affect only about 10% of site visitors, I’m already seeing over 30% of incoming keyword searches blocked, both on my website and those of my clients. Not knowing the keywords that attract our visitors has major implications for our ability to evaluate how well we’re meeting users’ needs and expectations.

    Avinash Kaushik provides some great advice, and some workarounds in a recent blog post. Yet even he talks about “impossible analysis . . . in the complete absence of data :) And his suggestions are wonderful for web analytics gurus, but I’m concerned that many small business owners simply won’t have the time or the mindspace to dive into custom reports at the level that he’s talking about.

  2. In Europe, the European Commission cookie directive requiring that all sites allow users to opt out of cookies completely is being implemented. The UK Information Commissioner’s Office website includes a link to the Google page where people can opt out of being tracked by any Google Analytics implementation. If this is widely adopted, many site owners will no longer be able to obtain accurate visitor numbers, making it very difficult to evaluate the return on their online investment.

Both of these measures are ostensibly being driven by privacy concerns, although it’s not clear to me how much of the expressed fear is legitimate, and how much is largely driven by hype.

Obviously, since we’ve come to expect good and useful analytics information, some alternatives and other solutions will need to be created. Perhaps in Google’s case that will require business owners to pay for data that was previously free to them. Perhaps we’ll find some way to distinguish unique visitors that is more acceptable than cookies.

Either way, 2012 is going to be interesting to watch for developments in web analytics, both in data developments and in regulatory trends. I’ll be interested to see what the analytics world looks like this time next year.

2 Responses to “Should We Be Worried about Privacy Trends in Web Analytics?”

  • The biggest problem we’re finding, as a local authority, is a lack of clarity around the EU directive and what it does actually mean to our web users. Some of the points are so open to interpretation that I’ve seen articles saying Google Analytics is an issue because there’s no ‘opt-out’, and others saying the cookie directive does not really apply to it sufficiently to warrant concern!

  • I find it slightly ironic that people opt out of being tracked by Google Analytics whilst many will happily post all sorts of personal details on an unsecured Facebook site, or have limited knowledge/resiliance to phishing techniques, for example! I’d support the view that many concerns are driven by media hype. However, people need to be educated and direct their fear towards the actual threats rather than perceived ones.

    The EU Directive has been roundly criticised in the UK for being poorly thought out and difficult (impossible) to implement for those legitimately collecting anonymised visitor data.

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