How Google's Ad Planner May Affect User Privacy

Hey, remember when a report from comScore caused a dip in Google’s stocks? Well, irony is a cruel maiden. This shouldn’t come as a shock: Google stepping into the web analytics industry is like a fat man flopping into a kiddie pool.

OK, all jokes aside, Google’s recent announcement of Ad Planner is an interesting development for online marketers. Obviously, there’s some business sense for Google, the most popular search engine, to offer up web analytics services.

At this point, some of you may be wondering about the exact nature and purpose of web analytics. It’s an important part of online marketing as it helps you track many types of online behavior, thus enabling you to predict trends and assess ROIs. Common trends that are measured include the number of unique visitors to a site, average duration of a time that a visitor has spent, the average number of pageviews per visitor, and bounce/exit rates.

Obtaining web stats can be a difficult ordeal. Results are never absolutely precise due to various factors, including:

  • Misleading IP addresses. The variable “unique visitors” is usually defined by a user agent and an IP address. Unfortunately, an organization or company can set up their network so that all employees share the same IP address. Thus, a company of over a hundred employees may be seen as one unique visitor by mistake.
  • Weird metrics. Unique visitors + Repeat visitors = All visitors? NOPE. If a new user visited a website twice in one day, that user may be counted as both a new and repeat visitor. Understanding metrics can be a little tricky for newcomers.
  • The analytics firm itself may be the problem, using a methodology or software program with limitations. (Here’s an interesting quick look at several different web analytics firms.)
  • Privacy problems and suspicious users. A lot of web tracking is done with cookies. Many users are understandably worried about their privacy on the Internet; in 2005, one study reported that almost 40% of users deleted cookies once a month. Analytics firms like comScore and HitWise install “researchware” on computers to follow user behavior. Critics have derided this method, calling it another form of spyware. Today numerous applications block third-party cookies and tracking software. Needless to say, these apps, on top of cookie deletions, affect the accuracy of analytics results.

If you were wondering whether Google’s Ad Planner can potentially create an invasion of privacy, the answer is a reluctant “yes.” They’re a little bit secretive and vague about how they will retrieve stats, which is feeding speculation that user data will be collected wherever someone downloads Google Toolbar. But as long as Google Toolbar informs the user of tracking software installation, there should be no problem. Right, Google?!

Well, we’ll defer putting on our aluminum foil hats… for now.


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