Should You Trust Google with Your Audience Data?
Google Analytics is efficient but marketers are still paying a price to use it.
Google is best known for its hegemony over the pay-per-click marketplace powered by Google Adwords, but increasingly they are getting attention further down in the ranks for their audience measurement product, Google Analytics. Analytics is a direct competitor to often-costly solutions provided by companies like Adobe, Coremetrics, and Webtrends, except, like many of Google’s offerings, Google Analytics is totally free.
According to Gartner, Google Analytics is currently used by over 1 million people worldwide making it the most widely deployed Web analytics solution by several orders of magnitude. Arising from a well-liked but poorly known software product from San Diego, Google Analytics has become the proverbial 800-pound gorilla in the digital measurement sector in just a few short years.
The good news about Google Analytics is that it is a phenomenal product. Forget the price tag, the current version has one of the best user interfaces seen in the measurement sector and is—in most users’ view—a delight to use. “Delight” may seem strong given the subject matter—it takes a certain geeky nature to think about analysis in this context—but Google’s programmers have done an amazing job making complex tasks seem simple.
The bad news about Google Analytics is that by deploying the service, millions of marketing executives around the world are perhaps inadvertently giving Google information about their visitors, customers and prospects that they may not really want Google to have. If you’re using Google Analytics on your Web site, you’re telling Google where your visitors come from, what they look at on your site, how long they visit, what they buy and how much they spend and an awful lot more.
It’s not as if I believe that Google would use this information against their advertisers—that would be incredibly foolish given the amount of money it already makes juxtaposed against the inevitable backlash were it to get caught doing that. But the amount of data we all generate continues to increase, few doubt that the real power lies in the hands of those who have all the data—and increasingly that is Google.
Now, Google has been incredibly smart about how it talks about data. Its terms of service make it clear that without a court order, nobody is getting their hands on your Google Analytics-collected data, and that Google themselves are only collecting and storing your data to present it back to you. That is unless you’re using its “benchmarking” feature, in which case you are required to share your data with its benchmarking service, and are asked to share your data with other Google products on an opt-in basis.
My gut feeling is that most marketers and site owners that are using Google Analytics aren’t aware of their sharing status. To find out, from Google Analytics click “Analytics Settings” and then “Edit account settings” near the top of your accounts page. When you do this, you will see the “Google Analytics Data Sharing Settings.”
All of this is not to say that there is anything wrong with Google using this data to improve its product offerings. Like many people, I am very much appreciative of Google’s willingness to make great applications available for free. As a small business owner, there are simply some things I’d rather not pay for (email, calendaring, chat, collaboration tools) and Google makes these all available at the best possible price: Free.
I am certainly not advocating dumping Google Analytics, far from it. The same fundamental challenges with cookies and data privacy exist in all competing offerings. But I would encourage readers to determine what they are sharing with Google, whether that sharing is appropriate, and whether they are getting a reasonable trade in return. Most companies will still benefit, but will yours?