Google Analytics Allows Users to Opt Out — Should You Panic?

By Janet Driscoll Miller | May 26, 2010
More Articles by Janet

About two months ago, Google announced that it would begin allowing website visitors to opt out of Google Analytics tracking in the near term.

Why Now?Google Analytics Logo
What Google wasn’t so clear about was WHY it chose to implement this new direction in user privacy now. The blog post simply stated that the move was made because:

As an enterprise-class web analytics solution, Google Analytics not only provides site owners with information on their website traffic and marketing effectiveness, it also does so with high regard for protecting user data privacy.

OK, sorry, not buying it.

Of all of the products Google offers, why choose Google Analytics, where data is essentially anonymous, to crack down on privacy and security. Think about it. Google tracks your search history, your social circle (who you know and are connected to), your location (via Google Maps, Latitude and GPS-enabled phones), and much, much more. Want to see a more complete list of what Google tracks about you? Check out this post by Courtney Phillips. Want to find out a portion of what Google knows about you now? Try out Google Dashboard.

Baffled by the “why now?” question, I mentioned the impending opt-out at my panel with Alan K’necht on analytics at Pubcon a few weeks ago in Dallas. Alan informed me that a law had recently been passed in the EU that grossly restricts the use of cookies on websites. So I did some investigating on the new law, and here’s what I found:

  • The law was passed October 26, 2009 by the Council of the EU.
  • The law will begin being enforced on April 25, 2011 across the EU.
  • The law indicates that a cookie can be stored on a user’s computer, or accessed from that computer, only if the user “has given his or her consent, having been provided with clear and comprehensive information”.

Essentially, this cookie restriction will make all server-side detection analytics packages, like Google Analytics and Omniture SiteCatalyst, force website owners to break the law to gather data — unless they change analytics packages or offer a clear way to opt out of tracking.

International law firm Pinsent Masons has a history of IT and e-commerce cases and runs a website called  Their editorial comment on the new law:

EDITORIAL: A law that demands consent to internet cookies has been approved and will be in force across the EU within 18 months. It is so breathtakingly stupid that the normally law-abiding business may be tempted to bend the rules to breaking point.

The go on to say how the law will severely inhibit tracking for all forms of online advertising as well.

What’s Were EU Website Owners’ Alternatives?

If Google had not created a workaround to allow site visitors to opt out of tracking, website owners, fearful of the new law and its implications (up to a £5,000 fine), would naturally turn to client-side tracking. Client-side tracking, more popular in the early days of the web, involves reading server log files, which doesn’t require adding a cookie to visitors. While client-side tracking originally was popular, these tools were not as robust as what server-side analytics packages could offer, and they also could take a very long time to get results as the software had to read through mounds of extra log file data just to index certain data, like referrers.

While not ideal for most site owners, client-side analytics still are an option to get some data rather than none. If Google had NOT developed an opt-out solution, website owners in the EU would essentially been forced to pursue a client-side analytics option, since they themselves might not be able to easily code an opt-out solution for those that did not want their cookies tracked.

Should You Panic?

So even if you’re not an EU-based website owner, the change in Google Analytics obviously affects you. And likely, given the new law, expect that Omniture and other server-side tracking packages will have to make similar changes.  But how will this affect your tracking if visitors actually download the plugin? What do you have to fear, realistically?

As Google themselves will tell you, no analytics package is 100% exact in its tracking. There are many reasons for this, which you can learn more about in this video from Google. So already to start, Google Analytics tracking has never been exact, but many website owners use it anyways.

And how many people will truly opt-out of tracking? That’s also debatable. Ideally, I’d like Google to at least tell me how many site visitors were NOT tracked. In other words, of all of the visitors to my site, what percentage are being tracked vs. not tracked? How many who visited had the opt-out plugin activated? If, as a marketer, I know how many are opting out, I can at least make an informed judgment on whether or not I feel the sample size that is tracked is representative of the total visitors to my site.

For instance, what sample size would be respectable — 90%? 80%? 70%? For each website owner, that line may be different.

So should you panic? Not yet. Google Analytics, like all analytics packages, has never given us 100% of the true data, so is this really all that different? I guess it really comes down to how many choose to opt-out. Given the lack of promotion about the plugin, I think that the impact will be fairly minimal. But plugin or not, marketers need to be aware that no analytics package will ever have all of the data. Perhaps, even with the plugin out there, Google Analytics won’t change that much. What do you think?

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  • Chris

    The law comes into force on May 25th, not April 25th. Also you have got client side and server side tracking the wrong way around. Server side tracking involves crunching logfiles on the server, client side is around cookies in the client (browser).

    Server side tracking can actually be more accurate than client side tracking and gives more information than client side tracking. Client side is innacurate at best and a combination of both is required to give a true representation of analytics.

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