Recent reports that Google and Mozilla, the creators of the browsers Chrome and Firefox, respectively, are implementing ‘Do Not Track’ features in their browsers have the potential to really freak out the web analytics and measurement community. On closer examination, it looks like these measures really are no threat, and shouldn’t be a threat, to what we’re doing.
Web Analytics Data is Not the Target
When we hear vague terms like ‘Do Not Track’, it’s quite reasonable to make any number of assumptions, including the assumption that the end of useful web analytics is nigh and that all of our precious data sources will soon be silenced.
This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The solution to the privacy concerns of the average consumer proposed by Google and Mozilla do not block cookies set by the website the visitor is viewing at any given moment1. This makes sense, as a single website viewed by a single user cannot collect information about any cookies which were not set by that same website and can only collect the URL of the page the user viewed just before that website.
Behavioural Advertising Cookies Under Fire
Instead, the Google Chrome extension and the Mozilla Firefox ‘Do Not Track’ feature target third-party behavioural advertising cookies2. These cookies collect information about a user’s browsing habits across multiple websites, and then send that information back to the advertiser’s servers. This information is processed and used to predict the sorts of things you would be interested in and show you advertisements relevant to your particular desires based on your browsing history. This makes things a lot more efficient for the advertiser, because the chances of the user buying or converting have now skyrocketed because the buyer is only being shown advertisements for things they would like to purchase anyway.
The issue is that the average person doesn’t want people (or machines) they’ve never met collecting and poking around in their browsing history for any reason, least of all to sell them something.
What Does it Mean?
As of yet, these changes mean nothing. Google has yet to build up a database of co-operating online advertisers to tap into with its Chrome extension. Mozilla is waiting for these same advertisers to build mechanisms into their code which will allow them to recognize and act accordingly in response to the signal Firefox will send to their servers, letting them know that the person behind the browser doesn’t want to be served advertisements based on tracking data. Until the web-advertising industry adopts these standards, or lawmakers force them to, “Do Not Track” is a wet paper tiger.
If these standards are recognized and become ubiquitous across the Internet, Google and Mozilla will have arrived upon solutions that work toward addressing the issue of advertising based on behavioural tracking without harming the fundamental ability of those who audit, build, design and maintain websites to find insights in the usage patterns of users on their own sites.
Either way, Google Analytics users can breathe a sigh of relief.
1. “Keep My Opt-Outs – Chrome Web Store”, http://bit.ly/hF0sTV; In the description of this first-party Google Chrome extension, a brief Q&A is given in which the question “Will this persistently opt me out of every cookie on the web?” is asked. The reply is “No, this will not opt you out of cookies that are not related to personalized online ads.”
2. “Privacy/Jan2011 DoNotTrack FAQ – MozillaWiki”, http://mzl.la/hb4aQc; “What exactly is Mozilla proposing? Mozilla is proposing a feature in Firefox that will allow the user to let a website know when they would like to opt-out of third-party tracking for behavioral advertising by transmitting a Do Not Track HTTP header every time their data is requested from the Web. When the feature is enabled, advertising networks will be told by Firefox that the user has asked to opt-out of behavioral advertising.”