Google has democratized web analytics and given website owners the ability to track analytics and visualize metrics since 2005 when they purchased the web statistics company Urchin. They have pushed products on the platform over the years that keep helping SMBs and, as such, we still recommend them.
Many companies that run alternative analytics software on their websites still run Google Analytics because it has become the standard in data collection.
Google is everywhere. In the digital architecture of the world wide web, Google may as well be the drywall of this metaphorical building. With more regulations trying to improve how consumer data is collected and protected across the world, such as the General Data Protection Regulation in Europe and the California Consumer Privacy Act, consumers are increasingly becoming aware of how much of their personal data is out there and have greater expectations for how that data should be managed and protected.
Doug Leigh, a researcher from Trinity College, Ireland, found that the Google OS service Android collected 20x as much data as that of an iOS (Apple) device. The paper he published showed that even when idle, an Android device sent “1MB of data to Google every 12 hours, compared with iOS sending Apple about 52KB over the same period.”
How Google Collects Data
Google has access to your YouTube history and comments; the content in your emails with Gmail; the files you save in Google Drive; your search terms in Google Search; the places you’ve been in Google Maps; your schedule in Google Calendar; questions you’ve asked Google Assistant; the news you’ve read on Google News; the Google Ads you click on; and your spending habits through Google Pay.
Creating With Google Products
When you create a Google account, you add personal information like a phone number, credit card or email address. You could be creating a YouTube account to watch videos or to create content, but either way you’re contributing data to Google’s overview of who you are and what you like.
Apps, Browsers, Devices
How you access Google products and services also matters when it comes to what data they track and why. This kind of information includes:
- Unique identifiers
- Browser type and settings
- Device type and settings
- Operating system
- Mobile network information including carrier name and phone number
- Application version number
They will also collect information on the apps, browsers and devices you use for/with their services, including IP address, crash reports, system activity and the date, time and referrer URL of your request.
- Search terms on Google
- Videos you watch
- Views/interactions with content and ads
- Voice and audio information when you use audio features
- Purchase activity
- People with whom you communicate/share content
- Activity on third-party sites/apps that use Google Services
- Chrome browsing history when synced with your Google Account
Google products have access to your GPS, IP address and sensor data for different reasons at different times, whether you’re using Google Maps or interacting with an app that is integrated with Firebase.
Things near your devices, such as public Wi-Fi access points and cell towers will inform Google as to your geolocation. Bluetooth-enabled devices might also interact with bluetooth beacons that are specifically designed to target a small and accurate location radius.
Pixels, Cookies, Local Storage, Databases & Server Logs
These are technical details that Google can track either from a pixel implemented on a website (like the Universal Analytics tracking code), cookies, raw data from storage, databases and servers that you interact with that connect with Google or Google products.
In his research, Leigh pointed out that this is problematic “because it’s readily linked to a user’s name, email address, payment card data, and possibly to other devices the user has. What’s more, the constant connections to back-end servers necessarily reveals the IP address of the device and, by extension, the general geographic location of the user.”
What Kind of Data Can a Website Owner Access?
If you run a website, chances are that you have already installed a Google Analytics tag to your site. If you haven’t yet, there are plenty of reasons why you should invest in having a Google Analytics account fully set up for you.
Although there are alternatives to Google Analytics, Google Analytics is a very user-friendly (and free) platform for you to track your website traffic and goals. Recently, Google has rolled out Google Analytics 4 (GA4), which also allows website owners to select what data they want to collect from visits to their website. This allows website owners to make conscious decisions as to how they treat consumer privacy and meet compliance requirements from GDPR and CCPA.
Google Analytics is a valuable tool that lets website owners know where their consumers found them, what actions they took on their website and can even show where the users are geographically located. It shows valuable insights into user behavior and tracks a lot of data, including pageviews, session data, event hits and e-commerce metrics. You can learn more about who your website visitors are with demographic reports that will give you data such as age, gender and interests.
Google is able to provide you with so much insight into your users because they collect a lot of information on users for your benefit. It gives you greater insight into your customers, especially when it comes time to running effective advertising campaigns.
But there’s another tool that is helpful. Google collects aggregate data from around the world. Because it is the de facto search engine and vastly popular, it has data sets rich in contextual information that it publishes on Google Trends.
Community Mobility Reports
Community Mobility Reports leverage the same kind of information that tells you how busy your local businesses are, and Google has enough data to provide baselines to let us know when the world is returning to normal.
This kind of information can be leveraged in various ways. One way we have been using these reports is by reading the trends in physical mobility to better implement geotargeting in our digital marketing efforts.
How the Google Analytics Tracking Code Works
The Google tracking code pulls a lot of information when a user visits your website. The Google Analytics Tracking Code (GATC) retrieves web page data in this sequence:
- A browser requests a web page that contains the tracking code.
- A <script> element is created and enabled for asynchronous loading (loading in the background).
- The ga.js tracking code is fetched, with the appropriate protocol automatically detected. Once the code is fetched and loaded, the commands on the _gaq array are executed and the array is transformed into a tracking object. Subsequent tracking calls are made directly to Google Analytics.
- Loads the script element to the DOM.
- After the tracking code collects data, the GIF request is sent to the Analytics database for logging and post-processing.
What Kind of Data Is Collected in the GIF request?
Visitor information is sent to Google Analytics through a utm.gif image request. This technique allows Google to catalogue all the details about a user’s visit to your page in the form of a UTM.
- Pageview data
- Campaign data
- E-commerce data
- Browser properties
- Visitor IDs
The analytics script collects a lot of information about a visit to your site, from the page they visit (utmdt) to the resolution of the computer screen it was viewed on (utmsr). Not all parameters are sent with each page load; for example, e-commerce data is only sent on pages where it is relevant.
How to Set Up Google Analytics Tracking
Out-the-box website builders like Squarespace make it easy for you to add your Universal Analytics tracking code to a website, but it’s difficult to set goals for on-page events or further set up your analytics in a way that is dynamic and beneficial to your business objectives.
If you have a custom website created for your business, you have a lot more options and flexibility in managing your analytics. Our recommendation is that you implement your tracking code through Google Tag Manager (GTM), where you can also build all of your events out.
If you have your website built through WordPress, there are lots of useful plugins that integrate with your e-commerce platform to make it easy to measure e-commerce events from product views, cart actions and successful transactions, including how much they spent.
Who Benefits From All of This Data?
The diplomatic answer is that we all do.
Business owners benefit because they are able to better understand their marketing success, who their customers are and how they interact with their websites. They can make better decisions as to how they invest in their business, which channels produce better ROI, what trends they can get ahead of, and stay up to date as people start going out into the world again.
Consumers benefit because they are served advertisements for products and services they’re more inclined to be interested in. I would personally prefer to only see ads that align with my tastes. Consumers can also see in real-time how busy their favorite restaurants are before they try to get a table and how traffic is on the route there (and whether there are speed traps, car crashes or roadworks).
But, of course, Google benefits from collecting this information by building advertising profiles to better target advertisements that it runs through Google Ads.
What Kind of Data Can a Consumer Control?
Consumers increasingly have more autonomy on the kind of data they allow websites to track. You’ve probably noticed how thorough website cookies banners are getting: GDPR has made it so that all websites that conduct business in Europe have to be more transparent about the private data they collect, and make it easier for consumers to opt out of that collection process.
You can also see the information Google has collected about you on the Google My Activity page. A lot of your data collection settings can be controlled through your Google account, including the searches you do, the websites you visit and the places you go. But you will quickly see that Google products perform their best when they have access to the data that makes their services better.
For example, I changed my settings on YouTube so that it would no longer track what videos I watched. I stopped getting high-quality recommendations for new content I might be interested in, and I started to see a lot of repeat content in my feed that I had already seen. In short, I turned the settings back on because the product is more enjoyable when I have new, relevant content served fresh each day; YouTube does that best when it knows what content you watch and enjoy.
Better Data = Better Personalization
Better data means better personalization, whether that’s in the ads you see or the videos recommended to you. If you’re a business owner, it makes it easier to reach out to the right audience for your brand and to understand who your customers are.
Whilst Google collects a lot of data about you, and benefits from the user profiles it creates about you to sell digital ad space and demographic data, it has a business incentive to maintain your privacy and to stay compliant with regulations that protect consumers.
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