Why Google is really offering an opt-out …
When I first saw the news of Google’s opt-out browser plug-in spread around Twitter I thought “hmm, I wondered when we’d see this” and moved on since opt-out is more or less an non-issue — basically because in the grand scheme of things nobody really opts-out. For all the hand-wringing and navel-gazing people do on the subject of privacy online, I have never, ever seen any data that indicates that web users actively opt-out of tracking in significant numbers.
If you have it, bring it on as I’d love to see it. But in my experience the only people really truly and actively interested in browser- or URL-based opt-out for tracking are privacy wonks, extreme bit-heads, and some Europeans. The privacy wonks and bit-heads are who they are and are unlikely to ever change; the Europeans have privacy concerns for other reasons but I will defer to Aurelie to try and make heads or tails of what those reasons are.
Still, it has been interesting to see some bright folks like Forrester’s Joe Stanhope offer some explanations about why Google might be doing this and what the ramifications might be. And it has been less interesting to see some of the fear mongering and hyperbole offered by Marketing Pilgrim’s Andy Beal in his post “Why your web traffic is going to nosedive thanks to Google” although I found Econsultancy balances things out with their straightforward and tactful post “Will opt-out threaten Google Analytics?”
What Andy, Patricio, and to some extent Joe, apparently didn’t notice is that Google Analytics is about to make a big, big push into Federal Government web sites, and this browser-based opt-out is just a check-box requirement to satisfy the needs of said privacy wonks who for better or worse have the Administration’s ear (or some body part, you choose!)
Yep, the browser opt-out isn’t actually for anyone … except for perhaps the Electronic Freedom (sic) Foundation and their ilk. Google is somewhat brilliantly checking a box now so that when the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) releases all new Federal guidelines for browser cookie usage later this year any Federal site operator who wants can immediately dump their existing solution and go directly to Google Analytics.
You do remember that Google Analytics comes at the amazing deficit reducing price of ABSOLUTELY FREE. Even a Republican can get his or her arms around that price tag, huh?
“Hey wait,” you say, “what about the fact that Federal web sites will probably never get permission to track visitors over multiple sessions?” Good point, except did you know you can override Google Analytics _setVisitorCookieTimeout() and_setCampaignCookieTimeout() variables and set their values to zero (“0”) which effectively converts all Google Analytics tracking cookies to session-only cookies?
Not to mention that the little birds who sing songs in only hushed tones suggest that OMB is about to take a much more reasonable stance on visitor tracking anyway. This is not a done deal, but the situation that most Federal site managers work under today — one where many sites are more or less forced to use out-of-date log file analyzers and most are hamstrung in their ability to analyze multi-session behavior — seems to fly directly in the face of President Obama’s efforts to make government more transparent and effective.
I said as much just after he was elected, and then I said it again when I pointed out that Barack Obama should not fear browser cookies! Federal managers need modern, easy-to-use tools to improve the overall quality of government web sites.
Now, I could be wrong about all of this — I am human, and like Joe Stanhope I have not heard word-one from Google about the opt-out app — but I am pretty good at connecting dots and these are big, obvious dots:
- Google loves data
- Feds have tons of data
- Feds have requirements necessitating privacy controls
- Google builds privacy controls
- Google gets Feds data
This is actually pretty brilliant of Google if you think about it. Assuming you’re with me in my belief that Google Analytics isn’t about AdWords or Analytics or anything other than Google’s desire to have all the world’s data, then you’ll surely see that providing Federal web site operators a web analytics solution that simultaneously solves a multitude of analysis problems AND saves money is, well, pretty freaking brilliant.
Don’t take my word for it. Here’s a list of sites in the .gov domain that people are tracking using our free, browser agnostic web analytics solution discovery tool. We have about 100 sites total, the majority of which don’t appear to have any kind of tracking code at all, and of these:
- 12% are using Google Analytics exclusively already
- Another 3% are using Google Analytics with Omniture (1%) or Webtrends (2%)
- 6% are using Omniture (one, GSA.gov in tandem with Webtrends)
- 15% are using Webtrends (including GSA.gov in tandem with Omniture)
- 63% appear to have no hosted analytics of any kind
If I’m right the evidence will be obvious as more of these “no hosted analytics” sites begin to have Google Analytics tags. Sites like Census.gov, the EPA, FCC, FEMA, HUD, and even FTC might all start to take advantage of Google’s largesse (and willingness to provide a browser-based opt-out, don’t forget that!)
What do you think?
As always I welcome your thoughts, observations, reaction, and even anti-tracking-pro-privacy rants. If you are you a Federal site manager with insight to share but unable to voice your position publicly then out of respect I am happy to have you post anonymously as long as you provide a valid email address that I will confirm and then convert to “firstname.lastname@example.org” to protect your identity.