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Published on Dec 11, 2023
Last updated on Mar 27, 2024

Un-alytics

In my journey with startups so far, the one common pattern I have seen is that our teams heavily rely on web analytics tools to keep a website in good shape, and sprint towards our business and marketing goals. Tools like Google Analytics are (supposed to be) our best friends (spoiler: it’s far from being my best friend). Google Analytics involves a learning curve, but once it’s done, it gives us a deep understanding of how visitors use our website over time. We use this information to make our website, campaigns, and ads better. Eventually, this contributes to better conversion rates and revenues. Here’s the catch though: tools like Google Analytics can be a part of something not-so-great called surveillance capitalism. In simpler terms, it means our personal data might be used in ways we wouldn’t like.

At first, it is tempting to overlook these underlying problems for the sake of meeting our performance targets. I get it – nobody ever got fired for using Google Analytics. However, the deeper I get into the impacts of these underlying problems, the more I start questioning if sticking with such tools is the smartest choice.

In this article, I have tried to explore such problems, and offer a new perspective of looking at analytics and reimagining feedback systems for businesses. Let’s see why it’s high time for businesses to change up the usual approach and find better, more ethical ways to gather the insights we need.

The trillion dollar elephant in the room 🐘

Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: Google Analytics (or GA). It’s a robust and dynamic product, even though the user experience could be much-much better. While GA keeps getting smarter in providing businesses with the best of insights, what really goes on behind the scenes, and why should it be a matter of your concern are questions worth asking.

Let’s start with the most relatable thing: cookie consent banners. Almost every other banner I have ever come across is designed for the sake of being legally correct (read: evasive). They are optimized to make you click on “Accept”. If you do end up seeing a preferences management option, it can be a bit too jargon for the visitor. All of these point to bad website experience, slower site speeds, and dark patterns.

But, that’s not even scratching the surface of the underlying problems. The problem begins when you use the “Google Consent Mode”, i.e. how your Google tags behave based on the consent provided by your visitors. Google designed it to make up for your lost data when people reject your cookie banners. Here’s how it works:

Situation A: visitor accepts the tracking cookies through your consent banner. In this case, the google tag fires and sends as much data as it can about the behavior of the visitor and their interaction with the website to Google servers, and eventually to your GA account.

Situation B: visitor rejects the tracking cookies through your consent banner. In this case, the google tag still fires, except that the tag dynamically adapts and anonymizes the customer data this time. Such anonymized data contributes to filling up the information gaps stemming from rejected cookie banners. This is all possible with the help of Google’s AI and machine learning algorithms. This, then uses conversion modeling to show you modeled analytics inside GA, which you cannot differentiate from your regular data. It seems fair at first, but consider the following.

Apart from having ‘semi-true’ analytics (since a large chunk of it is modeled), you also stand the risk of breaching users’ trust, because this was never disclosed in the consent banners. And, your visitors thought that Reject means Reject. :) Now, even though such data doesn’t go with personally identifiable information like complete IP Addresses (semi-anonymized IP Addresses still register), site owners are still sending some sort of data about the user (while the user thought you weren’t) to Google servers. Here’s the thing to be noted: We can never know how that data is really processed by the servers, before being anonymized. Since Google is a closed-source and proprietary entity, there’s no way to find out either.

Now, consider this too: A cookie is nothing but a tracking device that follows you around when you browse the web. This is later used for understanding user-scoped web usage and behavioral patterns. Imagine if this was disclosed raw in those cookie consent banners? Would you be encouraged to say yes?

Many people don’t mind sharing some of their info in exchange for a good product or service. Here are the findings of a survey:

Source

Terms-of-service and privacy agreements, on the other hand, are so lengthy that few people are likely to read every word. This kind of incomprehensible contract is a usual tactic in surveillance capitalism; let’s dig deeper into it once.

“If the product is free for you, then you’re the product”

~ heard it somewhere

I have sourced most of the information in this section from “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”, a book by Shoshana Zuboff.

In simpler words, surveillance capitalism is about those few powerful entities of the world that mine the user data available through tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon. Here’s an interesting fact: A few years ago, Google was bleeding money. Then, their ads became much more accurate and much more personalized; their revenue increased by 3,590% in just four years! This shows that the data is being used in ways users didn’t knowingly agree to.

Let’s see more facts from the book, “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism”. In 2015, the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examined the top one million most popular websites. They found out that 90% of them share users’ personal data with an average of 9 external domains, 78% of which are domains owned by Google, and 34% are the ones owned by Facebook.

Surveys conducted in 2009 and 2015 showed that between 73 and 91 percent of people reject the very idea of targeted advertising when told about the ways in which their personal data is being collected.

In surveillance capitalism, everything about our lives—movements, speech, actions, experiences, and behaviors—is captured and monetized by tech giants like Google, Facebook, Microsoft, and Amazon. These entities transform this information into data, which is then sold to diverse businesses for various purposes.

Understanding historical patterns

It’s not like nobody ever saw such problems coming, but before any laws could be put into practice, the unfortunate 9/11 incident took place. This led to a stream of events like the US government not tightening privacy laws in cyberspace. Rather, it went the other way. The CLOUD Act allowed US authorities, the likes of The CIA and the NSA, to monitor global internet activity. So these authorities turned to Google for accessing their data. Naturally, many advertisers started seeing value in the seas of data as well.

Another one of my favorite stories that Shoshana highlights in her book is about Pokemon Go. This was a wildly popular game in 2016, developed by Niantic, the gaming company owned by Google’s Alphabet Inc. The game utilizes a device’s camera and GPS data to display the locations of virtual Pokémon creatures for gamers to capture. These creatures can appear in various places, like private properties and businesses! Eventually, businesses started paying Google to become hotspots, ensuring players would find virtual creatures there. This resulted in reported business boosts of up to 70%. While the game was a huge success, it also served as a potent method for gathering personal information. The requirement for access to contacts and the need to “find accounts on device” is not essential for gameplay but rather linked to the practices of surveillance capitalism.

The larger impact of surveillance capitalism

The ads and spam calls that I receive on a daily basis are simply creepy, annoying, and makes me question our free will. But you probably already empathize with that.

Let’s talk about the issues that slowly creep into our lives, like the psychological impacts. Facebook and the likes of it have repeatedly proved that they employ behaviorist strategies to give repeated doses of dopamine to its users, thereby promoting addictive behavior. Consider that our newer generations would never see a world without smartphones. This generation will be prone to normalizing the practices of surveillance capitalism. It will (has) become a self-sustaining feedback loop. Trying to unhook from social media even causes withdrawal symptoms and the likes of isolation, mood swings, and depressive episodes. Imagine: All of this just to push our kids towards psychological issues? It’s only common sense to stop feeding the ad-tech giants of the world.

Zooming out

Businesses are sandwiched between end-users and tech giants like Google. This is both an advantage and a disadvantage – since these businesses get to be the effective change makers in society. Here’s an oversimplified view of the situation (there are many nuances to this too) explained so far:

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At this point, we don’t even need to take the pressure of understanding ethical business practices––just look where the world is shifting to. The best example of that is GDPR. It’s a way for the EU to protect its citizens’ personally identifiable data from leaking out of the country. Other countries are starting to follow suit. Google itself is being forced to phase out third-party cookies by 2024. The best choice really is to act now. With the increasing awareness of surveillance capitalism and privacy-conscious users, it only makes sense to build a sustainable business based on user trust – your only asset.

Offering a new perspective

Understanding how the practices mentioned in this article can have a big impact is important. If we let those who push surveillance capitalism gain too much control – wanting to be in our homes, cars, stores, and workplaces, watching everything we do in the name of “conveniences” – it’s hard to accept what the world might become, even leading to conflicts and wars. A larger paradigm shift is needed.

When you are a consumer, you can just have encryption services on, privacy controls in place, and get a sense of being done with your responsibility. But when you’re a business, you’re an effective societal change maker and part of the responsibility of surveillance capitalism inevitably falls into your hands.

Coming back to web analytics, it is a good starting point for businesses to contribute less to surveillance capitalism. Start by revisiting the basis and purpose of analytics, which is to get insights into your property’s (web or product) performance and optimize it for better goal-reaching. The important thing here is to understand that we own our website, not the users. That is why keeping the tracking limited to website-only metrics like pageviews, bounce rate, visit duration, traffic sources, etc is justified. What is not justified is putting a CCTV camera on your customers (or, using third-party tools that are known to do that) that follows them all around the web, IDs them, mines their data for behavioral trends, shows them intrusive ads, sells the data on dark web, puts their security at risk, and pushes them and their kids towards psychological issues. All this, when all they did was visit your website; seems off to me.

Once you start looking at it this way, you’ll automatically be able to start asking the right questions in the context of your business, and come up with newer, creative ways to collect website or product feedback, in addition to using privacy-friendly analytics tools.

The motto is to not only be GDPR compliant, but to be compliant with every law that is yet to come around the globe. Staying ahead of the curve also makes sense for compoundingly growing a business, if you are in it for the long term.

Sure, everything is too intertwined and we may not be able to prevent everything and change the wrongs overnight, but the only way to do our bit is to be the change. How? Let’s see.

What should we do as businesses?

If you’re not on board with the idea of this mindset shift, consider this: The GA script faces blocks from millions of users employing ad blockers like uBlock Origin and popular browsers like Firefox and Brave. Even Apple Safari is stepping in by blocking GA for cross-site tracking. There are other practical issues with GA as well, like bad UX, referral spam, and whatnot.

On another hand, if you do resonate with the mindset shift, you can utilize a combination of privacy-first web analytics tools, and some other radical methods. I will explain both below, one-by-one.

Utilizing privacy-first web analytics tools

There are many open-source, privacy-conscious, web analytics tools on the web, such as Plausible, Matomo, etc. They are good enough to track your basic web metrics like pageviews, bounce rates, funneling, traffic sources, exit pages, etc. Being open-source, such tools are very transparent with their practices, and are built keeping the privacy concerns in mind. IMHO, the metrics provided by these tools are more than enough to optimize your website, unless you are a huge corporation. Plus: the UX is much simpler than Google Analytics.

On the other hand, if you are currently too dependant on Google Analytics as your primary tool, there are a few immediate steps you can take:

  • Utilize Google Tag Manager’s server-side tagging method for anonymizing user IP addresses on your end, even before sending them to Google servers.

  • Disable Google Signals, a feature of Google Analytics that does user-profiling and analytics, rather than session-based web analytics. This will block features and data like retargeting ads-audience builder and large amounts of demographic data.

  • If you do end up gathering data you shouldn’t have, use the Data deletion request feature from the UI.

This will reduce your GA account to a simple, yet effective web analytics account. To be fair, GA has been employing more and more privacy-friendly measures in place. But that is not the end of it. If you want to reduce your data feeding to Google Analytics, the biggest enabler of surveillance capitalism, it is important to eventually steer away from it.

Other ways of collecting analytics

Remember, the basis and purpose of analytics is to get insights into your website’s performance and optimize it for improving your business in terms of higher conversion rates, revenues, and eventually profits. Let’s explore some radical, but why-didn’t-I-think-of-this? ways of collecting business feedback that are not only ethical, but also better in terms of quality of information.

Through website and surveys

Write down the pressing business questions you normally seek answers to. They could be: “How do customers find me?”, “Which feature attracts them the most?” , “How does the pricing compare in their minds?”, etc. Such qualitative analysis (when asking the right questions in the context of your business and industry) is highly capable of contributing much more to your business goals than typical analytics itself. Model these questions into a survey, and tell your customers you are asking these questions because you take a stand against intrusive analytics, and educate them on why you do it. You can impart this knowledge and your stand against it through a blog post, landing page, social campaigns, etc where you can explain the associated intricacies in easy language. Show the customers how you are in their team. The “reciprocation” cognitive bias will definitely compel your customers to give you useful business insights by filling up your survey, especially if you have been catering to their needs well through your product. P.S. There is no silver bullet for compensating for bad product quality; that must be the first and foremost priority always.

Through meetups

The best analytics you can get? Invite your customers to your office or organize an event for them! Offer them drinks, vouchers, trials of new stuff, early access, maybe even 20 shares in your company. Talk with them, and make them feel like a real stakeholder in your business, because they really are the biggest ones! Freakins, the Indian denim brand, is actually already doing the likes of this approach (watch the series “Brands of Tomorrow” on ‘Disney+ Hotstar’ for learning the full story on this).

Through research studies

Have you noticed how we use numerical figures as proofs in a certain piece of content and link it back to the source? Be the source. The process of conducting a user research study involves directly connecting with a group of people, and asking the right questions. That kind of analytics is unbeatable. The cherry on the cake is how much free traffic you can get from around the web, as a reward for having done the study that everyone can reap the benefits from. Plus: the process is extremely fun.

Through social media connections

Learn where your customers hang out the most. Let’s say, X (Twitter). Start posting at a humane level. Share screenshots from your Slack group, show business processes, even show your mistakes. Engage with them like a regular social media account. A no-BS post from a business encourages its followers (who are most likely the business’ current and potential customers) to engage with it too. This will guarantee real connections, which no competition can replicate.

Nurture a community

Bring your customers closer by creating a community where they can connect. Platforms like Discord or LinkedIn groups are great for managing this. A thriving community becomes self-sufficient as members interact, solve problems together, and naturally share product feedback and improvement ideas. Plus, having a community is a powerful way to spread the word about your other business and marketing efforts. Win-win!

When you shift your perspective, you’ll be able to come up with multiple of such creative, original, true-to-brand, authentic methods yourself. Now, that is a superpower!

Concluding

Using privacy-first web analytics alongside unconventional feedback collection methods comes down to this: You might end up with only half the usual amount of web analytical data, but what you lose in quantity is made up for by the richness and depth of insights gained through these radical analytics. It’s more or less something like this:

You’ve reached the end of this post. I hope I added some value to your day today. Thank you for taking the time to read so far. :)

I am writing my next article on building a vision-driven business. See ya around!