Google opt-out -- another blow to web analysts?

  • 7-Jun-2010

A few months ago, Google promised to make it easier for website visitors to opt out of tracking by websites that employ their free Google Analytics service. Their announced solution last week strikes me as a bit of grandstanding on one hand, and potentially damaging to the future value of web analytics on the other.

In the context of the debate around a new U.S. Federal government OMB policy on the use of persistent cookies, as well as other national governments' interest in enabling site visitors to opt out of web analytics tracking, Google's stated goal is to make opting-out "easier."  The company has responded by developing a downloadable browser plug-in that disables Google Analytics data collection from all sites using Google Analytics.

Why is downloading a plug-in considered any easier than disabling cookies from within your browser options? Or adding websites to your exclusion lists? 

I can understand why some people may want to opt out -- especially for particular websites -- but it's important to understand that Google has selected the "nuclear" option here in lieu of using its market authority to promote a more modest, site-specific approach. (Competitor Omniture, now part of Adobe, provides a site-specific opt-out service, but doesn't promote it heavily.)  Adopted widely, the nuclear option will add to the myriad difficulties that already compromise web analytics accuracy. The impact will be magnified if Google's approach gets endorsed through the new Federal cookie policy and other government policies.

To be clear: I understand reasonable privacy concerns.  My alternative would be to provide site visitors with the option to use their browser to opt out of tracking from the specific website they are visiting, or opt out of all tracking from the particular web analytics solution, but not automatically default to the latter, as Google has done.

Why would Google promote the all-encompassing opt out? After all, it's the biggest web analytics service provider in the world by a large margin.  Global opt-outs hurt its customers.  Except that its customers don't pay anything for the service, whereas government goodwill is critical to Google's success in many other lucrative areas.  For Google Analytics customers, it's just another reminder: there's no free lunch.