Don’t Freak Out about Google Analytics Opt-Outs

Google Analytics LogoOn May 25th, Google announced the availability of a browser add-on for Internet Explorer, Chrome, and Firefox that prevents a user’s browser from reporting site usage data to Google Analytics.  This plug-in has the effect of preventing visit and visitor information from being reported to any site using Google Analytics to collect clickstream data to their site.

Although I have years’ of experience implementing and using other web analytics tools, today I use Google Analytics on nearly every site that I manage.  It has become the de-facto standard web analytics tool for content and small e-commerce sites for a reason: it is easy to implement, has enterprise-grade features and a large user base, and it is FREE.  Here are the reasons why I’m not freaking out about a potential loss of visitor data from this tool:

It Isn’t about the Individual Visit

The power of clickstream analytics tools, like Google Analytics, comes from deriving actionable insights by exploring aggregate site traffic across discrete time periods and specific traffic segments.  You simply aren’t going to get very much actionable insight delivered by looking at one person’s visit to your site or even by tracking one person’s visits over a longer time period. In fact, Google Analytics’ terms of service explicitly forbids implementing it in a way that can uniquely identify individual visitors.

Aggregate Data is More about Precision than Accuracy

Here is a thought exercise: what if Google Analytics or some other clickstream analytics tool is delivering actionable insights that boost your site’s conversion rate but is only collecting data from about 95-99% of your site’s visitors?  That extra 1-5% isn’t a big deal as you can safely assume that the missing 1-5% is acting like the other 95-99% of your visitors.

Due to Javascript not loading, the mechanics of the Javascript not triggering the call back to Google fast enough, or visitors’ current use of ad-blocking and privacy tools, I generally assume that I am CURRENTLY missing about 1-5% of my sites’ pageviews.  Moreover, if you have a site with a large amount of traffic (millions of pageviews per month), Google Analytics suggests that you estimate traffic data based on sampling your site’s traffic to speed up the processing of your reports.

Back to the thought exercise: I expect adoption of this plug-in to be somewhere in the neighborhood of 1-5% of all users.  Is your traffic data fatally flawed if you are missing 2-10% of your pageviews? What about 20%?

Unless the people who install the plug-in are going to behave differently (as a group) than those that do not, Google Analytics will become somewhat less accurate with no loss in precision.  In the context of most sites’ objectives, there is not going to be a reason to question the validity of the conclusions that are drawn from Google Analytics unless there is widespread adoption of the plug-in.  This is because actionable site optimization metrics are based on rates (conversion rate, funnel exit rate), rather than on absolute numbers.

Clickstream is Only Part of the Puzzle

There is an ever-increasing amount of information that is being generated by people interacting with your brand online.  On your site, there is the potential to collect transactional data, direct voice-of-customer data, site testing data, contact us form data, etc., that is typically integrated with, but discrete from, Google Analytics.  Off site, there are interactions with your brand on social media, email marketing activities, and any offline interactions that may also be generating data.  It isn’t that your clickstream data isn’t important – it is just that there are other sources of data that may prompt action on the part of the analyst.

Allowing the Opt-out Is the Right Thing to Do

As site owners, we should never lose sight of our objectives.  There is a reason why our sites exist (sell something, provide information, display advertising) that is fundamentally more important than how we measure and improve our sites’ ability to achieve those goals.  Perhaps unfairly, some peoples’ concerns over privacy will cause them to block a tool that is likely being used to understand and improve their experiences, but we should respect their wishes and accept this as a new browsing paradigm in an environment with many other evolving browsing paradigms.

There Are Alternatives to Google Analytics

Of course, there are other web analytics packages out there if Google Analytics is no longer getting the job done.  It is pretty standard for “enterprise-level” web analytics solutions to include a clickstream tool, a CRM tool, a data warehousing tool, a testing and optimization tool, a social media monitoring and engagement tool, etc., along with their “enterprise level” cost and implementation difficulty.  There are other free tools out there with the features that you would expect with a free tool.  Google also sells Urchin, which doesn’t rely on Javascript to collect data, but instead uses server data logs as its primary data source.

In summary, I don’t think that there will be widespread adoption of the Google Analytics opt-out.  Even if there is, it won’t totally strip away the value of the tool and there are other clickstream analytics tools out there (as well as other sources of web analytics data).