Google Analytics Is Preparing Plug-in to Protect User Privacy

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-03-22

Google is working on a browser plug-in to let users opt out of being tracked by Google Analytics, a move that could mollify privacy watchdogs concerned about the company's ravenous appetite for collecting data about users.  

Google Analytics is the search engine's suite of business intelligence software to help advertisers determine whether their AdWords and AdSense campaigns are effective.

The Analytics suite tracks Website traffic, telling site publishers how many users are visiting their site and from where. This information helps advertisers make their ads more relevant for users who visit their Websites.

However, one of the knocks on the suite has been that it also threatens users' privacy because it tracks them, not by personally identifiable information, but by their browser cookies and IP addresses tethered to their personal computers.

That will change soon, according to a March 18 blog post from Amy Chang, group product manager for Google Analytics.

"Over the past year, we have been exploring ways to offer users more choice on how their data is collected by Google Analytics," Chan wrote. "We concluded that the best approach would be to develop a global browser based plug-in to allow users to opt out of being tracked by Google Analytics."

Google is testing the opt-out tool and will make it available for users in the coming weeks.

Questions remain about this tool, which may only be answered upon its implementation. Will opting out limit the effectiveness of Google Analytics? If so, how might Google mitigate the loss of fidelity?

Forrester Research analyst Joseph Stanhope expects minimal impact because most users won't use the opt-out plug-in.

"And even if the numbers drop a bit, the trending data will remain valuable and Web analytics experts will learn to quantify and manage any resulting bias," Stanhope wrote on his blog March 18. "This may be analogous to cookie deletion and enabling JavaScript on browsers; Web analytics has survived despite the fact these things can be easily deactivated because relatively few consumers actually take advantage of those options."

Moreover, Stanhope said, Google Analytics adoption may actually increase in the wake of the opt-out plug-in because it shows good faith to regulators and paves the way for Google Analytics to work in Europe, where privacy regulations tend to be more stringent. This may boost GA usage and ultimately drive more advertising revenue, he said. 

The opt-out effort may be welcomed by privacy advocates who fear Google, which has taken several steps in the last several months to be more open in the face of increased regulatory scrutiny in the United States and overseas.

For example, the Google Dashboard provides a summary of the application data associated with Google accounts to provide people with transparency and control over their data.

However, Google has also trampled on user privacy with Google Buzz, a social service that exposed users' contacts in their Google profiles. The company is still trying to recover from that misstep. An opt-out for Google Analytics may be another olive branch.

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