In the Privacy War, Analytics Takes a Beating

How do you know when you are resonating with your target market? One of our personal favorites is through analyzing traffic on brands’ sites and providing them with the feedback they require to better serve their customers.

With web analytics reporting, we are able to offer brands a window into the world of their consumers, allowing them to see what drives visitors to their websites. Among other things, analytics reporting offers stats that clue companies to how their digital ads are performing and which ads are most effective at driving consumers to their site. Analytics best data shows companies which of their web pages are most interesting to users during their visit (including stats that show how often a user returns to a page, how many page-viewers are first time visitors and how long the average visitor stays on a single page).

Today, with the renewed focus on consumer privacy, we are beginning to see new proposed legislature and policy changes threatening this indispensable understanding of the target market.

When privacy is king, marketing falls to the place of interloper. Each time the spotlight shifts to focus on consumer privacy there is a fear that mounts among advertisers that their way of life is under attack; however, it is now apparent that the privacy issue has begun to turn out the digital analyst as well.

Privacy vs. the Marketer

Currently, the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) is working with Apple, Google, Microsoft and Mozilla to develop privacy standards that will satiate the “Do Not Track” movement. In an effort to curtail the implementation of more severe legislature, the top browsers have each begun to provide their own versions of DNT measures that will be left up to the general consumer to decide whether they would like to “opt-in” (default setting) or rather choose to “opt-out” of all search engine tracking measures.

While the Big Four web browsers are attempting to provide groups that advocate privacy with options that will appease them, they are reluctant to push consumers towards implementing the changes since tracking information collected by services like Google is very profitable for the company—both directly and through third-party advertisers who seek to use it to better market their products and services to the consumer.

Privacy vs. the Digital Analyst

In October of 2011, Google announced it would begin encrypting searches made by all users while they are logged into their Google account. These searches are referred to as “SSL” or Secured Sockets Layer. When conducting an SSL search, the user’s URL will contain a domain with “https” signifying this is a safe or protected search.

What this implementation means for both webmasters and analysts, like us, who utilize digital analytics reports via Google Analytics, WebTrends, Omniture, etc. is that while analysts are still able to see the number of users who searched via Google, they will not be able to track the specific keyword or phrase related to their product or service that led each of the users to their site.

Already, this change has affected keyword search data that is useful feedback we report to our clients to show them which keywords and phrases were the most effective in directing traffic to their site rather than the sites of their competitors. Whereas before an accurate ranking of the most popular searches could be conducted with great accuracy, now large segments of data coming from Google are displaying as “not provided” and the numbers of provided keywords are dropping significantly. While Avinash Kaushik, author of Web Analytics: An Hour a Day, maintains that search data from Google is still usable in spite of the “small” percentage that comes up as “not provided,” what will happen as an increasing amount of users continue to search while logged into their Google account?

These percentages that Google would like us to view as innocuous will eventually grow to sizes that are harmful to the way we conduct web analytics reports and how we provide clients with insights into advertising effectiveness.

I, for one, hope this step by Google is to be an isolated occurrence rather than the sign of things to come.

In the meantime, we must fine-tune our reports to accommodate the data that is still available to us and rely more heavily upon Google’s Webmaster Tools and AdWords, which while not as specific or ideal, can help provide useful information to marketers and analysts attempting to bridge the gap between brands and their consumers.