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Does it make me Chicken Little?

Google Analytics

by: Shawn K. Hall
Posted: November 16, 2005

Google Analytics

I stumbled across an interesting new feature of Google today. Frankly, this is one of those that makes me wish the Google staff all had their personal cell phone numbers listed on their website so I could give them a piece of my mind.

The feature is "Google Analytics" and it's based on Urchin. Basically an "Urchin on Steroids" but with scary implications.

Here's their marketing-speak:

"Google Analytics tells you everything you want to know about how your visitors found you and how they interact with your site. You'll be able to focus your marketing resources on campaigns and initiatives that deliver ROI, and improve your site to convert more visitors."

Tells "you"? Hmmm. Actually, to be more precise, tells Google, who then shares the information (portions of it, rather), with "you".

Okay, that's no big deal - Google has our best interests at heart and they couldn't possibly abuse this information. Right? I mean, how could you abuse data you collect from every single ad and search result and script fed to every single user of your services across the entire world? It's not like they're using cookies which function as web-beacons or anything, is it?

Uh, worse. A web beacon doesn't have any special abilities - it's just an image. It tracks (theoretically) the referring address (the page it's linked on). It's up to the remote site to track everything else.

If you've ever seen the capabilities of Urchin, then you know darn well that the abilities of Urchin far exceed simple cookie and session tracking across a site. It tracks everything. Bundle that with the AdWords advertising system and the many millions of people who will sign up with Google Analytics simply on the basis that it's a really powerful site tracking program, and you're going to end up with literally every other page on the internet recording information about your browsing activities, traffic patterns, purchase history, linking activities and other 'shared' data from each sites provider to develop a very comprehensive profile of you.

Alright. So we've got this multi-billion dollar (yes, billion) company with what is arguably the most comprehensive archival, search and retrieval engine at their disposal and they're already collecting information about every users activities on billions of pages across the 'net? And now they're going to "carrot" webmasters into giving them even more data collection abilities (which will quite effectively assist every site not "up to par" to have AdSense ads to give their traffic patterns to Google).

For this "free" service all you have to do is include a single line of script in your pages. If the users browser supports scripting and does not have the website blocked (this resolves to the same IPs as the rest of Adsense/Adwords, btw), their passage through your site, through ads on and off your site, and through the entire Google-linked internet will be recorded and analyzed in order to provide the best marketing and process improvement data that they don't have to buy. And we get...? Sold out.

I've added to my Common Censor service and am seriously considering adding the adsense domains to it as well. Sure, it'll cut into my own profit, but I can't see how helping them to collect this information can be the honorable thing to do.

So - does it make me "Chicken Little" to think of this as a huge breach of privacy by way of convincing honest webmasters that just don't know any better to sell out their sites traffic to Google?

Myself, I'm awed. It's one thing to do it. It's another thing to promote it as if it's the answer to buttered bread.

Sure, it's just some simple little thing. All it does is record a couple bytes. Like your browser (these are all documented facts from viewing the source code). Your IP. The page and site you're on. The referrer. The browser size. Ads on the page. Keywords to bring up the ads. The identity of the host. Document title of the page you're at. Whether your browser supports flash. Search engine preference. Search terms. 6-month cookie period (until you hit any page supporting it again and it's reset to another 6-months) for *that* site, but a 33-year cookie duration for their 'global' tracking.

Yes, some individual sites collect this information about their users. But *Google* is not "just another site" - they're *Google*! And they can change this script at any time to collect more information. Easily.

I'm probably just being paranoid. With good reason.


Shawn K. Hall

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