If you're hosting a website, analytics is critical to growing your audience or customer base. Insight into how visitors interact with your site and its products or services is a time-tested method of fine-tuning your website's appeal.
How Does Google Analytics Work?
Google Analytics gathers information about your site's visitors by placing a temporary file called a cookie on the visitor's computer through their web browser. The Google Analytics cookie tracks information like:
- Referring site (eg, a search engine or a linked from another site)
- Search terms used to find your site
- Pages viewed
- How long each page was viewed
- Device type, browser, and operating system
- Geographic area in which the visitor appears to be located (via their IP address)
- Links clicked (whether internal to your site or external to another site)
- Event information such as date and time of each visit.
If you click around on your Google Analytics dashboard, you can see the full list of fields in the reports you view.
Is Google Analytics a Privacy Concern?
By now, it should also occur to you that other sites are tracking this information about you. Analytics looks like an entirely different beast depending on which side of the telescope you're looking through.
For the time being, privacy laws in the United States are fairly lenient with regard to cookie tracking. However, if your site attracts visitors from other parts of the world like the European Union, you could be in violation of their privacy laws.
Location Tracking via IP Address
Of particular note is that Google Analytics can roughly determine your computer's location by analyzing its IP address. However, IP addresses don't function like GPS satellites. Although GPS is capable of determining your exact location (within a few meters), IP addresses aren't nearly that precise. Additionally, there are ways to mask IP addresses to make it seem like the computer is elsewhere.
Google Analytics and the Law
Most places in the world allow you to use Google Analytics without restrictions. But there are things that all website owners should worry about.
The EU Cookie Law
The most important law is probably the EU Privacy Directive, which most people refer to as simply the "EU cookie law." In its simplest terms, the law says that if you're going to do any tracking whatsoever of visitors on your website, you must alert them and give them a method of opting out of said tracking. In practice, compliance with the law usually takes the form of "cookie banners" like the one below.
Why should you care about EU laws if you aren't European? Regardless of where your site is hosted, you might need to comply with the EU law, or other laws different countries may enact. If your site is targetting customers in other countries, it is more likely that the laws would apply to you. At this point, it isn't clear. But it is safest just to follow the most stringent laws so you don't have to worry.
Automatic Opting Out of Google Analytics Cookie Tracking
The good news for website owners is that since the original law went into effect in 2011, many browsers have implemented a feature that allows web surfers to automatically opt-out of all tracking requests. For example, in Chrome, the opt-out setting can be found in Settingss > Advanced Settings > "Privacy" section:
Although the browser-based opt-out method is more of a sledgehammer than a scalpel in that it doesn't allow for opting in, the added browser functionality has empowered internet citizens to control their own tracking as they see fit.
- Competitors: It's also a good idea to look at some of your competitors' sites and see what they've listed in their privacy policies as it pertains to your own business or blog category.
- Document how you already use Google Analytics data — and what you might use it for in the future.
- Read a few privacy policies from your competitors.
Further Reading and Resources
We have more guides, tutorials, and infographics related to privacy and the law:
- The Ugly Face of Online Fraud: this extensive guide explains the most popular scams on the internet.
- Parents Guide to Internet Safety: learn how to product your children when they are on the internet.
- Dealing with Hate Crime: learn all about hate crime and what you can do to stop it.
The World Wide Web & Internet Privacy
Check out our infographic, The World Wide Web & Internet Privacy.