Blog

Cookies, privacy and Germany: The future of web stats

February 11, 2011

Statistics are a boon to online advertising. They allow us to gauge the effectiveness of campaigns, diagnose issues with content and answer the big question, “How popular is my site?” Without statistics, site owners (and advertisers) would be blind.

Unfortunately, there is a growing movement that wants statistics tracking to be an opt-in/opt-out affair for users. Privacy is the cited concern, and much of this backlash has to do with recent innovations in user tracking technology.

If, for instance, you visit an online store and search for “winter gloves,” there is a good chance that after you leave that site you’ll begin seeing ads featuring winter gloves or things people-who-shop-for-winter-gloves-also-like on other, seemingly unrelated sites.

This is thanks to the prevalence of third-party advertising networks that save information on your computer called a “cookie” each time you visit a site (not the delicious kind, but we’re hungry, so we included a picture).

The ad networks use these cookies to figure out where you’ve been, which in turn allows them to serve you ads based on your browsing history.

Kinda cool? Yes. Kinda creepy? Yes.

A much more benign form of web tracking is on-site analytics. This type of analytics allows site owners to see how users behave on their website but doesn’t track them after they’ve left the site.

Right now, the only way to avoid cookie-based tracking is to manually disable Javascript in you browser and delete your cookies every time you leave a website. Sounds fun?

Instead of this, privacy advocates are suggesting an “opt-out” feature available right in the browser. Activating it would tell advertisers and analytics trackers not to follow you. The effectiveness of this of course relies on the complicity of the ad networks to obey the request.

Germany has recently taken a legal stance against web analytics providers, citing Google Analytics in particular. The German government has deemed that Google is not doing enough to protect the privacy of its citizens and is threatening to issue fines against Germain companies who use Google’s analytics tool on their websites. This leaves many German web companies with few options.

Hopefully, privacy advocates, advertisers and browser developers can reach a compromise on this issue. Both sides have valid concerns, but it shouldn’t escalate to the point where we can’t run legitimate, anonymous analytics on our sites.

What do you think? Will visitors to your site opt-out of being tracked if given the choice?

Photo: Jordan Polizzi