Google hoist with its own tracking petard*
*Hoist with his own petard [Wikipedia]
The chances are if you’ve landed on this page, you are something of a technically-oriented person – not necessarily a full-blown developer or a CTO presiding over a large IT department, but someone who has more than a passing interest in all things tech.
If that’s the case, you’re statistically more likely to run ad-blocking software in your browser than most. Technically-minded drivers of web browsers are much more likely to be running uBlock Origin or Privacy Badger, or one of a host of alternatives. If you use DuckDuckGo habitually rather than Google search, the chances of running these types of privacy applications go through the roof.
What’s often not appreciated by those running technology-oriented web properties is that the ad-blocking extensions, in all likelihood running on the machines of their site visitors, means the traces left by the adblocked are hidden from the de facto standard of web statistics gathering tools: Google Analytics.
Companies and organizations running websites that don’t necessarily attract the technologist will be less affected. For example, visitors who habituate lifestyle, sports, or food sites are much less likely to be running voracious privacy guarding software. A study by Marko Saric of web analytics platform Plausible, for example, found that only 7% of visitors to a food website had their shields set to the “up” position. To a technology website, that percentage jumped to 26%.
For many website owners, installing the Google Analytics web code snippet is one of the first acts of a website administrator when a site approaches production state. But depending on the demographic of people who might use the site, the default analytics package will not only under-report visitor numbers but be unable to track visitors as they move from page to page. And of course, all those juicy details that Google loves to show (and monetize) regarding which sites and countries users came from and so forth are lost.
There are some interesting, although perhaps unsurprising variations in the numbers of people running ad-block software. Visitors to a site using a mobile browser, for example, are generally running blockers less often than those on desktop machines. That’s due at least in part to the fact that it’s more difficult to install extensions and the like onto iOS and Android versions of browsers. On iOS, the Firefox browser, often regarded as the privacy-conscious choice, is, in fact, a version of Safari that’s skinned to look like Firefox. That’s also going to shave off a few percentage points from the numbers of visitors who are un-tracked, despite the illusion of the Firefox branding.
The issue of these disparities between those tracked and those attempting to block tracking comes down to the dread cookie, specifically the tracking cookie, which browsers such as Firefox block by default. For other browsers, even Google’s own Chrome, maintaining privacy from Big Tech’s tracking technology is relatively easy – an extension or add-on is just a click away. However, many users either don’t bother, don’t care if they’re tracked, or discover a site or two “breaks” if they have the audacity to browse it with some degree of privacy protection in place.
There is a certain irony that Google and others’ business practices elsewhere on the internet have led to the rise in popularity of extensions such as uBlock Origin, technology that breaks the company’s own analysis software.
Several alternatives to Google Analytics do not use tracking cookies, least of all Plausible, from where the statistics quoted here are sourced. But there are plenty of others, too, some of which purport to be just as comprehensive as GA and critically, being less subject to the privacy guards set up by the browsing public.
As of 2022, it’s become illegal in Austria and France to use Google Analytics on a web property because doing so contravenes GDPR (also known as DSGVO and RGPD in those countries’ respective languages), as data collected by GA is transferred to Google’s servers that are based outside Europe.
27 January 2023
27 January 2023