What You Need to Know About Google Analytics and Privacy

The best way to improve your online sales and increase your share of the online marketplace is to know exactly what works for your customers and one doesn't. Without the appropriate data, you won't be able to implement the changes that make your site stand out from the crowd (while you could implement a guess-and-check system, this probably isn't the best use of your time and resources). One way to get the data you need is to use Google Analytics.

Google Analytics, as one of the most widely-used website analytics services on the internet, has a lot of data. With access to a metric ton of data (and more) comes great power. In this guide, we'll cover how Google gets its data, what it does after it's gathered the data, and how they plan on using your data responsibly.

How Google Gets Data

If you've enabled Google Analytics for your website, Google sends cookies to your customers' browsers every time they navigate to your site. Cookies are tiny text files stored on your customers' browsers; each contains a unique identifier called a cookie ID, which helps Google distinguish one person's browser from another person's browser.

What Google Doesn't Have Access To

Using these cookies, Google collects many different pieces of data about the activity that occurs on your site. None of the data can be used to identify your users specifically. The terms of service explicitly prohibit the sending of personally identifiable information (PII) to Google, which includes (but isn't limited to) name, email address, and billing information.

Types of Information You Can Gather Using Google Analytics

Google is capable of collecting many different kinds of information about your users. In addition to measures of activity (such as the number of visits, the number of distinct users, and the average amount of time spent on your site), you can track information like visitor demographics, software and tools used, and revenue earned. If Google doesn't already have a way to collect a data point you're interested in, you can set up custom tracking parameters.

The sky's the limit when it comes to Google Analytics.

How You Can Access the Analytics Data for Your Website

If you're the account administrator for your Analytics account, you own all of the data collected by Google. You can view this data using any of the following methods:

  1. Viewing it displayed Google's dashboards
  2. Exporting your data to XML, PDF, or CSV formats
  3. Integrating a logging/analytics application of your choice with the Google Analytics Core Reporting API

What Google Does With Data It Collects via Analytics

Google encodes all of the data it collects via Analytics before storing it across a shared infrastructure. Not only does this guard your data against security breaches, it protects you from and minimizes the damage you might incur from Google's hardware issues in the instance that any adverse issues pop up.

The data you've collected, processed, and stored using Google Analytics is used only to:

  • Provide and maintain the Analytics service
  • Perform critical system operations

In rare cases, your data may be used for legal reasons, as outlined in the privacy policy.

With your express permission, Google can use your data for the following reasons:

1. Improving Other Google Products and Services You Use

If you enable this setting, Google can analyze your data to better understand your site, your customers, and your customers' behavior so that any other Google product or service you might use is more relevant. For example, your Analytics data could be used to fine-tune the types of ads your users see in the sidebar.

2. Benchmarking

By allowing benchmarking, Google can use data from your site to gather aggregate data on your industry. This allows Google to compile reports and produce information that you might find helpful, such as what your competitors are doing, how fast their sites respond to requests, and so on. In a nutshell, benchmarking allows you to keep tabs on your peers regarding site performance, gain information on industry trends, and so on.

3. Technical Support

If you ever contact Google for technical support and you have this feature enabled, your representative can gather specific account data to help troubleshoot and identify the cause of your problem. Disabling this feature doesn't mean that Google won't help you if the need arises, but it does mean that your representative will have less information to use when he works on your case.

4. Account Specialization

By enabling this setting, you allow Google sales and marketing to look at, assess, and recommend different strategies that might improve your site's search engine rankings, traffic, conversion rates, and so on based on the data you've collected. Both 360- or Standard-level Analytics account owners receive tips and tricks for improved marketing, but those with 360-level accounts can speak to the Google team for specific optimization advice.

For instructions on enabling or disabling your account's sharing permissions for the four reasons listed above, please see this article.

The Google Analytics Opt-Out Browser Add-On

Using Google Analytics does not grant you the right or ability to gather information from visitors who do not want to do so.

If visitors to a site don't want their activity collected by Google Analytics, they can install the Google Analytics Opt-Out Browser Add-On. The add-on prevents the JavaScript tracking files running on websites from sharing their activity information with Google Analytics.

Please note that the add-on doesn't prevent a site owner from gathering activity information using other methods, not does it impede the user from sending data to the website itself.

Takeaways

If you want to take your site to the next level regarding user experience, increased traffic, and larger market share, you have to make data-driven decisions. One of the most commonly-used ways to gather this data is Google Analytics.

If you do end up opting for Google Analytics, familiarize yourself with how it collects data, what it does with it, and who has access to this valuable information.