January 27, 2022 Websites | Content | Tech advisory

Time to think about analytics and privacy

OR There's no such thing as a free lunch

By  Staffan Lindgren

Free solutions come with a price, and when it comes to analytics, we pay that price with our users' personal data. As they say, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The good news? There are some great solutions out there that allow us to collect the data we need to evaluate performance and optimise our websites without jeopardising privacy.

If you run a corporate site or other websites for your business, you probably use Google Analytics and several other tracking scripts to track usage behaviour and collect data from your users. To use these tools, you have to tell your users what tracking you will do and for what purposes. The practice has become the norm, but is now being questioned across Europe.

For instance, Austria recently ruled that it isn't enough to tell your users what data and for what purpose you track, and that users must give "informed consent". This means that users need to understand the consequences of the consent they give. Similarly, Google Analytics in its free version is deemed to be illegal in the EU (more about that below).

Together with a technical trend where browsers such as Chrome, Safari and Firefox block third-party tracking cookies, this makes the current methods of measuring website traffic and collecting analytics data unviable.

The concern with Google solutions

Let's start with the elephant in the room. What is the concern with Google, and why can't you use the tool if you have consent from your visitors?

There are two concerns for the free versions of Google tools. The first is that the anonymising techniques used by Google aren't deemed sufficient; the data collected isn't viewed as truly anonymous. This means that all tracking that uses Google Analytics requires consent from the user, even if you use the new version set to anonymous tracking.

The second concern is of a more philosophical nature and questions whether a user can understand what happens if they give consent. The ruling by Austria Data Protection Agency states that no regular user can understand what happens with the data when consent is given. Therefore, "informed consent" is impossible to achieve, and the continuous use of Google Analytics violates the GDPR.

The position of the Austrian Data Protection Agency is not unique. It's based on the European GDPR laws that are the same or stronger in all EU countries.

Loosing 50% of the tracking data

Some businesses already struggle due to the consent regulations around data collection. First of all, it affects the completeness and accuracy of their data set. In many cases, as many as 50% of the users skip consent or allow only necessary cookies, making the reporting unreliable. Second of all, browsers are removing support for third-party cookies. Safari, Firefox, and soon Chrome will not support third-party cookies at all, and we expect the drop to continue even further.

Thankfully, analytics packages and solutions have had tremendous growth and innovation over the last couple of years. Google takes privacy seriously and is working on improving and matching the demands and regulations. The tools are de facto standard and set the bar for everyone else, so it makes a lot of sense to use them. There are also several solutions that let you analyse traffic data without collecting Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Some of them also handle the consent from the users transparently and with a straightforward approach (see our list further down in this article).

What should I do?

Depending on what you want to achieve and how you want to work with your website, you can be more or less ambitious with your analytics setup.

Most importantly, you should make sure you can collect performance data for your website without asking for consent. With this approach, you can measure all your traffic and have a solid baseline of key performance indicators.

Measuring traffic and KPIs without consent

There are various solutions that are approved and that allow measuring performance data for websites without using cookies and having the user's consent. This is because the tool neither identifies the visitor nor processes or stores any information that makes it possible to track who the user is.

This solution allows you to measure all your traffic and gives you a solid baseline set of performance data with KPIs, such as:

  • Number of pages viewed
  • Number of sessions
  • Where in the world users are
  • Source of traffic (direct, social media, campaigns etc.)
  • Event tracking, such as clicks on a button, submissions of forms etc.

You don't need PII for this. In fact, in most cases, you're not interested in a single user, but in the overview of a large number of users and in having a tracking method that's as accurate as possible.

Platforms like Plausible.io and Umami have specialised in providing this type of basic tracking, which is often used in combination with other tools. The solutions are cost-efficient and easy to use. If you're not using other tracking scripts, such as Facebook Pixel or Hotjar, your site doesn't need a cookie consent banner at all when using these tracking tools, making life easier for both you and your users.

"I want the same tools as I've always had"

But if you want to use scripts for advertising and more advanced analytics, A/B testing, and user profiling, you need consent before serving the scripts to the user. If you have this need or ambition, there are a few options that will help you.

"We like the Google Analytics data" and "I really want to have the same, or even better tracking" is something we often hear. The more advanced tools that are available today use technologies that ensure anonymous measurement and allow you to collect consent for more detailed tracking and targeting.

For all of these solutions, the data is owned and controlled by you, which is a critical difference from free versions where the provider owns and controls the data.

Two of the most popular solutions are Matomo and Piwik Pro, which give you excellent alternatives to Google platforms. You also have the option to go all-in with Google using Google Analytics 360. All alternatives are really good solutions that will give you efficient and sound reporting.

High-level comparison Matomo, Piwik Pro and Google Analytics 360 packages

FeaturesMatomoPiwik ProGoogle Analytics 360
Analytics, anonymousYesYesYes
Analytics, consentedYesYesYes
Tag ManagerYesYesYes
Consent ManagerNoYesNo
Profile storeNoYesNo
Free versionOn-premise, open-source self-hostedYes, cloud service, 500 000 reporting eventsNo

Piwik Pro is the only one of the ones listed that can provide Analytics, Consent, Audience and Tag management in the same tool; the others require add-ons or separate packages to handle that functionality.

One is not enough

Analytics solutions are all about statistics and data, and the quality of data collection is critical for you to be able to trust the data. With this in mind, we recommend using a combination of tools that lets you evaluate how well your solutions capture traffic.

With the combination of one of the simple analytics solutions such as Plausible.io and a more capable analytics suite such as Piwik Pro you can compare and evaluate how well the tracking of basic performance indicators is working and how much of the traffic that drops of due to cookie and script blocking technologies.

Knowing how much of your traffic is lost due to cookie or script blocking and in the consent process helps you understand the quality of implementation and data.

What do you use analytics for?

What you choose is ultimately about what you want to use your analytics for. According to our Web Management Survey, most respondents use web analytics as a KPI. If that's the only reason, the solution you choose should be reasonably simple.

We would recommend using analytics as a tool to improve your corporate website to measure not only the number of visitors or page views, but also the user journey and the use of different parts of the website.

To do so, you need to have a robust way of collecting consent and then use tools that allow you to analyse, turn and segment your data on the fly and integrate this data and insights into how you work with improving your website and your communication.

Still not sure what to do next? Get in touch with us, and we'd be happy to help.

Staffan Lindgren

Staffan Lindgren

Advisor

staffan.lindgren@comprend.com

+46 70 971 12 12

Rowena Crowley

Rowena Crowley

Senior Consultant

rowena.crowley@comprend.com

+44 (0)20 8609 4904