“Integrating your search and social efforts brings better brand visibility and higher conversion rates.”

— Jim Yu, BrightEdge

Google Analytics is a tool developed by Google, which allows web site owners to embed it on their pages and collect various information about their users, view a bunch of charts based on the collected data and see the various reports. That is, Google Analytics aims to provide exemplary statistics about the visitors of your site. Beyond doubt, it’s a fantastic tool to help to rule your business. Anyway, I bet you’ve already heard of it. That was a description for developers.

“If you want to keep a secret, you must also hide it from yourself.”

— George Orwell, 1984

Now, let me reintroduce Google Analytics (GA), and I’ll be honest this time.

So, Google Analytics allows web site developers to track your actions on the web pages you use. That is, GA allows big bosses to spy on you. Never heard of it? By the way, do you know you use GA every day? Have you been a happy customer? That was a description for everyone else.

The problem

Let’s imagine that you were teleported to a mysterious dark room with a table-lamp and a computer (since GA is the culprit, you could imagine you’re in a basement of Google Labs somewhere in the spacious desert of Texas). You figured it’s boring there and decided to use the computer and read some news. You opened a web browser and visited your favourite web site. Before loading the web site’s content, the browser asks you a simple question: “Do you want to enable tracking of your activity while staying on this site? (Yes/No)”. What is your answer? Think about it duly. Do you think the grimy grim man in black behind you would be happy to see you choosing “No” (you haven’t spotted him initially, because he was under the veil of mystery and basement darkness)? Righto, let’s suppose, your answer was “Yes” (or most likely “I don’t care”, which means the same). The web site content was very interesting and you’ve spent 2 hours reading it. So after you’ve finished reading, you closed the tab. But before closing, the browser demands you to answer one last time: “Do you want to send the activity we just recorded to our servers? (Yes/No)”. This activity is data generated by you while browsing the content: your actions and behaviour while working with input devices of the computer. Hence, it’s your data they want to send, which belongs only to you. Do you usually share your stuff with strangers? Me neither. I think it’s clear now that no-one wants to share their data without permission.

Let’s teleport back to where you were. Oh, hello! You’re in a comfortable roomy room now. There’s a computer in the room, of course (your computer this time). Why not spend another couple of hours reading comics and other funny stuff? No sooner said than done. You visit a web site with comics and suddenly your browser asks the same questions you saw while in the basement. There’s no suspicious men around this time. You safely answer “No” on every question it asks. So, you finished using the computer, but the day is not over yet and there’s still time left on your hands. With that being said, you decide let’s go for a… but wait for a second, did you notice something strange? When you’re free to choose, you usually want to stay private.

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

— Martin Niemöller

Of course, as I previously mentioned, you may not care. Privacy may not be your concern if it doesn’t touch upon you directly. However, how do you like this: every user on the internet, if he knows your email, phone, username or full name, can find your Facebook account without asking you for a link. Just navigate to the special page and enter a random number from your phone book. You’d be surprised, but you can easily find an unknown person who rang you last month from a number that is not stored on phone and called you a moron. Now, imagine that Google knows everything about you. It knows everything about me, too. I use GMail, Android and Chrome a lot. Google Analytics seems to be a “logical” addition to that soup, so they could spy on every level of your internet activity.

The “magic” search

How to protect yourself from Google Analytics

Whether you use GMail, Android, Chrome or not it is your personal choice. You can easily opt-out from using those products. On the contrary, Google Analytics is everywhere and it’s free. It means that GA can be added to every web site, including the web site of your dog. Because GA executes on the client side, the best protection would be to disable JavaScript (JS) in your browser. As an additional bonus, you will also block any other possible tracking activity (GA is not the only malicious script, but the most ubiquitous). I don’t recommend to go this way, though. Although you will be well protected and your pages will start loading almost instantly, most likely you will encounter some issues. The problem is that the modern web is covered in a plaid of JS. You will not be able to browse some web sites and some features previously known to work before can become unresponsive. JS is the most popular programming language and it is becoming more and more popular, so your browsing experience will be even worse in a couple of years.

There’s another option: Google Analytics Opt-out Browser Add-on. Go visit the page. You’ll discover that you are on Google.com. I haven’t used their add-on, but I believe it’s bullshit. How can you trust an add-on from the same company that spies on you? Yet another option is to use yet another extension by a different company. Check out Ghostery. I prefer this option, because it can block many other tracking scripts. However, while writing this article, I discovered it’s not open source. It means that only goodness knows what their extension does with my data. I’m not aware of a similar open source tool, though. Still, I find this extension the lesser of two evils. If you are hardcore, you can develop your own way to cut out unwanted scripts. The community will hug you tightly and thank you warmly.

You still may not want to use any protection, and you know what? I can understand your choice. But it’s important to keep in mind that sometimes they spy on you without your will, even when you don’t expect it. My advice to everyone: choose wisely what you share with unknown people and random web sites.

Wrapping up

Every thing in our world has shortcomings and Google Analytics is no exception. However, in case of GA the shortcoming is fatal: it is its main feature. You don’t even have to register a Google account to be tracked by them. As of 2012, 55% of the top 10,000 web sites on the internet use GA. I, as a programmer, am truly impressed by GA. It’s a really magnificent and successful product. I, as a user, strongly dislike it. It’s the plague. I respect big web sites like Wikipedia that do not use GA. I encourage you to respect the users of your web site as well and forget about GA or similar tools forever. Honor your users, because they are what make you successful.

Did you know?

Did you know that Google Analytics is not the only product that violates your privacy? There’s a Russian clone of GA called Yandex.Metrica. It is a very popular service in Runet1. Some web sites even use both GA and Metrica on the same web site.

Acknowledgements


  1. The Russian-speaking part of the internet (Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Kazakhstan)