Google is rolling out an opt-out browser add-on to allow any web user to block their data from being shared with websites using Google Analytics. This goes beyond the requisite privacy policies and disclosure on websites using Google tracking tools, and seems to get ahead of most possible forms of policy regulation on user privacy. In other words, Google has chosen the rights of users over the wishes of marketers. They have a long history of doing so. It’s not purely selfless: it’s also turned out to be the right stance to take on a wide variety of issues. Despite whatever controversies Google may have faced in recent years, overall their reputation has been along the lines of “pretty mature and respectful, for a company of this size”.
What? Google interested in privacy?
The casual observer might not associate Google with a forward-thinking approach to privacy, given recent controversies and given that you inherently give up a significant chunk of your personal privacy if you use many Google tools and services. That’s by dint of their overwhelming scale and scope in many walks of digital life; many of those worlds overlap and collide.
But for years, discussions of user data and opt-outs were virtually nonexistent in the traditional marketing world, and at some of Google’s competitors. That world has made rumblings of someday “pushing” the Googles and Yahoos of the world into a more marketer-friendly stance when it comes to sharing user data.
Google pushed back in many small ways. For example, using the Google AdWords Conversion Tracker used to require advertisers to display a prominent logo that led to more information about data collection. Not exactly the kind of thing you’d want prospective purchasers to pore through while perusing your landing page, but Google made advertisers do it anyway. (That got sort of relaxed later.)
By comparison with competitors and the mainstream thinking in direct marketing, in their core offering to advertisers, Google didn’t even budge, didn’t even dabble, in areas like demographic targeting. That’s begun to change, of course. But it took them a lot longer than many would have expected to loosen up on that front.
Again, I’m not saying that your privacy is safe in a Google-centric world. But Google should be rightly recognized for taking a strong position here and going beyond what might be forced on them. If you use a major browser (Chrome, IE, or Firefox, with Safari coming soon), you can simply set it so no website ever gets your session data to use with Google Analytics. That data loss is a major threat to marketers trying to attribute their spending efforts, or to otherwise make sense of user behavior.
Now Google knows that probably only 2% max of users will bother, so at this stage it’s the same as various security settings in the browsers that 90% of users don’t play with. But if that’s the case, then why don’t other analytics vendors come out with a similar plug-in? The answer seems clear: Google has made a point of always getting ahead of the curve on these issues, so they don’t run into a backlash. Other vendors have generally taken a more short-sighted (or simply unethical) view of users’ privacy rights and concerns.
Is a self-interested other shoe likely to drop? Possibly. Once the opt-out functionality is firmly in place, what’s to say that Google won’t move forward more aggressively with demographic and behavioral targeting? It’s quite possible that in taking care of users and regulatory concerns first, Google can more confidently offer more data to marketers. It will be interesting to watch.
And here I almost got through this whole post without saying “Facebook”.