Can US Government agencies really use Google Analytics?

  • 24-Feb-2010

Does Google Analytics' new availability on apps.gov mean unfettered availability of the free analytics tool for US federal government agencies? A story in SearchEngineWatch might lead you to think so, but key leaders in the Federal web analytics community point out that using GA still requires a "cookie waiver" under existing Office of Management and Budget (OMB) policy.

While some web managers in the Federal Government might wish to use Google Analytics, historically that solution has been more hamstrung than others because of Google's use of persistent cookies.

If you practice web analytics in the Federal government you know that persistent cookies are verboten by order of OMB -- unless you get approval from the director of your agency. In the real world of agency politics, that's like reaching the Mt. Everest summit. While other analytics solutions (such as Omniture and WebTrends) will certainly provide more accurate visitor data if they use persistent cookies, they aren't dependent on persistent cookies for data collection.

While Washington has seen some debate about loosening up the persistent cookie restriction, there has been no public movement since a flurry of activity and public comment during the summer of 2009. I expect that this will get resolved at some point before the end of 2010, but no one knows for sure.

Meanwhile, Google has issued a work-around.  According to the company, you can virtually eliminate the persistence in the GA cookie by using built-in tracking code functions to set the cookie time out to "0" in the two parameters below: 

_setVisitorCookieTimeout(cookieTimeoutMillis)
_setCampaignCookieTimeout(cookieTimeoutMillis)


Of course, this raises an interesting existential question: is a persistent cookie with time-to-live set to zero still a persistent cookie? Functionally, it becomes a session cookie, expiring when the browser closes.

Federal web managers have a more practical question: Why bother approving Google Analytics unless there was the possibility of being able to use it?  As for whether a non-persisting persistent cookie is acceptable to OMB...well, we'll have to await guidance on that.

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