FTC “Do Not Track?” Bring it on …

Published by Eric T. Peterson on December 2, 2010 All posts from Eric T. Peterson

As the hubub around consumer privacy continues I was gently prodded by a friend to pipe up in the conversation.  While my feelings about how we have ended up in this position are pretty clear, and while my partner John and I have proposed what we believe is a step in the right direction regarding online privacy and the digital measurement community, it seems that some type of ban or limitation on online tracking is becoming inevitable.

Without getting political or debating the reality of what we can and cannot know about online visitors I have a single word response to the FTC:


Before you accuse me of changing my stripes or going completely nuts consider this: If the FTC is able to somehow pull off the creation of a universal opt-out mechanism, and if the browser developers support this mechanism despite clear and compelling reasons not to, and if consumers actually widely adopt the mechanism — all pretty big “ifs” in my humble opinion — then I believe the digital measurement industry will do what I have already described as inevitable:

We will hold a revolution!

Since my tenure at JupiterResearch back in 2005 I have been telling anyone who would listen to stop worrying about counting every visitor, visit, and page view and instead start thinking about statistically relevant samples, confidence intervals, and the algorithmic use of data to conduct analysis.  Yes, you need to work to ensure data quality — of course you do — but you don’t have to do it at the expense of your sanity, your reputation, or your job …

See, it turns out in our community it doesn’t really matter whether we are able to measure 100% of the population, 90% of the population, or even 80% of the population — what matters is that we are able to analyze our visitor populations and that are able to draw reasonable conclusions from that analysis.  Oh, we have to be empowered to conduct analysis as well, but that’s a whole other problem …

Statistical analysis of the data … trust me, it’s going to be all the rage in a few years. I’m not saying this simply because I have a white paper describing the third generation of digital measurement tools that will empower this type of analysis … although I would encourage you to download and read “The Coming Revolution in Web Analytics” (freely available thanks to the generous folks at SAS!)

I’m saying this because every day I see the writing on the wall.  Data volumes are increasing, data sources are increasing, and demands for insights are increasing, all while professional journalists, politicians, and political appointees are supposedly protecting our “God-given right to surf the Internet in peace” without any regard to the businesses, employees, and investors who depend to a greater or lesser degree on web-collected data to provide a service, pay their bills, and make a profit …

Okay, sorry, that was editorializing.  My bad.

Still, rather than wring our hands and gripe about how much the credit card companies know (which is a silly argument given that credit card companies provide tangible value in exchange for the data they collect … it’s called “money”) I believe it is time to do three things:

  1. Suck it up.
  2. Hold yourself to a higher standard.
  3. Buy “Statistics in Plain English” and start reading.

The good news is that we have access to lots and lots of great statistical analysis of sampled data today — we just might not realize it.  Consider:

Have I mentioned Excel, Tableau, and R?  Hopefully by now you get the gist … statistics is already all around us all the time, perhaps just not exactly where we expect it or, in the context of lower rates of data collection, where we will ultimately need it to be.

Perhaps the most encouraging evidence that we will be able to make this shift is the increasing attention the digital world is getting from traditional business intelligence market leaders like Teradata, FICO, IBM, and SAS.  I, for one, am more or less convinced that the gap between “web analytics” and “Analytics” is about to be closed even further … and here’s one guy that seems to agree with me.

We don’t need to thumb our noses at the privacy people — quite the opposite, and to this end John and I will be sitting down with a representative from the Center for Democracy and Privacy and Adobe’s Chief Privacy Officer MeMe Rasmussen at the next Emetrics in San Francisco! We also don’t need to stick our head’s back in the sand and hope this issue will simply go away — it won’t, trust me.

We need to prepare.

Prepare by committing yourself to not being that scary data miner that consumers are supposedly so afraid of; prepare by improving your data quality to the extent that you are able; and prepare by starting to communicate to leadership that it really doesn’t matter if you can count every visitor, every visit, and every page view — what matters is your ability to analyze data using the tools at your disposal to deliver value back to the business.

If you’re not sure how to do that, call us.

Viva la revolution!

DISCLOSURE: I mentioned and linked to lots of vendors in this post which I normally do not do. Some are clients of Web Analytics Demystified, others are not. If you have concerns about why we linked to one company and not another please don’t hesitate to email me directly.

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  • http://www.socialsecurity.gov Tim Evans

    Thanks, Eric, for the (as-usual) on-target post.

    From a public-sector point of view, it’s, umm, interesting that while the left hand (the White House) has opened up on Federal use of persistent cookies, the right hand (FTC) seems to be making it harder for us to use analytics to figure out how to make Government web sites better.

  • http://bobbleheadguru.com Farris Khan

    I like your frame of mind with respect to this topic. At the very least, there will probably MORE demand for web analytics as organizations find ways to fit within the framework of regulators. That may be good news for everyone who embraces staying in compliance while still producing actionable results.

  • http://www.mvconsultoria.com Sergio Maldonado

    All good points, Eric. The truth is opt-out is not a bad outlook when you consider that we are all going the opt-in way on this side of the pond (EU level, with a newly amended article 5.3 of the ePrivacy Directive due to be implemented by all EU members before June 2011).

    It will sound like a joke to many, but it is happening and many are expecting a website to come up with all sorts of fancy pop-ups requesting a user’s permission. Luckily, it will only affect cookies that are not considered essential to the functioning of the service the user is requesting from a website. Arguably, even WA first party cookies are part of the basic maintenance expected for such services (considering that the law is actually aimed at regulating 3rd party cookie-driven ad networks).

    Finally, if you do find the time, just check out the Opinion 2/2010 on online behavioural advertising at http://ec.europa.eu/justice/policies/privacy/workinggroup/wpdocs/2010_en.htm.

    Hence, I could not agree more: Do Not Track? Bring it On! :)

  • http://michaeldhealy.com Michael D. Healy


    Great to see R finally getting some love in the mainstream community, Excel is actually a pretty good tool for what it does but R is the real deal.

    Statistical Significance:
    I have pitched precisely the type of analysis to more than one potential client and they didn’t go for it. My guess is that the marriage between personnel from different backgrounds in web analytics still has some rocky moments coming, with quantitative backgrounds gaining relevance.
    At the recent SF Bay Area ACM Data Mining Camp ( http://www.sfbayacm.org/?p=1341 ), the vast majority of discussions revolved around various online data, how to measure and influence.
    The tools used? R, R, more R, as well as the tools on the sponsor list.
    I can say from limited personal experience, clients/employers don’t always like it when you professionally let them know that just ‘because’ you can slice the segment one thousand times doesn’t mean that you ‘should’ do it.
    Or, as my friend Kevin Potcner put it:
    “Many web analytics studies are challenged to produce useful results because there’s often substantially more natural variation in the human behavior being studied and in the resulting data than the size of the effects that the studies are trying to detect.”

    I will disagree slightly with your editorializing, two different internet standard state that browsers should block third party cookies by default. The standards from February 1997 and October 2000 are available at http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2109 and http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2965, respectively.

    Furthermore, the Constitution of the State of California, everyone else is on their own, explicitly states the following:
    SECTION 1. All people are by nature free and independent and have
    inalienable rights. Among these are enjoying and defending life and
    liberty, acquiring, possessing, and protecting property, and pursuing
    and obtaining safety, happiness, and privacy.

    We also have the Online Privacy Protection Act of 2003 http://leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=bpc&group=22001-23000&file=22575-22579 , and the Shine the Light Law http://www.leginfo.ca.gov/cgi-bin/displaycode?section=civ&group=01001-02000&file=1798.80-1798.84 both of which provide some privacy protection.

    While not sharing a corner with the Luddites, if companies don’t like the current legal situation they have the ability to lobby and get laws changes.

    Until then, the law is the law.

    Michael D. Healy

  • http://web.analytics.yahoo.com Matt Lilliig

    Yahoo! Web Analytics is another platform that uses sampled data for its Interest Group reports. Essentially, it allows the analytics user to better understand what their web site audience is interested in (based on Yahoo’s massive amount of anonymous user data).

    Publishers and advertisers love this report because they can use it to invest in advertising campaigns targeted towards the most rewarding Yahoo! Interest Categories and also tailor their content towards the most attractive segments.

    But what people need to remember is that there is value being provided to ALL parties in exchange for the anonymous data collection. The publisher and advertisers get better insights about their web site audience which allows them to provide better targeting and web content leading to a better web site and online ad experience for the consumer/visitor (those being tracked).

    With out data collection, one is left with guessing and hypothesis.

  • http://www.the-omni-man.com Adam Greco

    Here is an article on this from CNN Money. It raises some good points: http://money.cnn.com/2010/12/02/technology/ftc_do_not_track/index.htm

  • http://michael.westendintie.net Michael Dlugosch

    The idea that data sampling equals data falsification seems to be as ineradicable as the focus on feelgood metrics (“Yeah! But how many PEOPLE were visiting our web site last month?).

    This seems to be the case particularly for smaller markets, where marketers’ prevalent strategy simply is to throw more and more people into their conversion funnels. At the same time these marketers seem to be more and more incapable of improving their funnel dropout rates, as: “We don’t have resources available in our IT department!”

    I seriously welcome initiatives like “Do not track” / the according EU directives. It finally will help us cutting through all the grease and grime of “Have we really tracked every single page view?”, and it would allow us to re-focus on what really matters: building services which are perceived as relevant by those who are using it.

  • http://blogs.gartner.com/ Bill Gassman

    Well put Eric, as usual, pointing out the importance of some tracking, and showing how the Web analytics industry is starting to use real analytics. However, discrete user tracking and scoring will not die. While statistical analysis is an important arrow in the quiver, increasing number of firms are using segmented extracts to drive downstream marketing tools. Discovering which segments to target, through data mining of high-quality information is important. The yield from context rich email, advertising and web content is too high to allow the data-mining genie to be put back in the bottle. When it comes to tracking, there are two degrees of scope to the issue, that being local to the site and cross-site tracking. Getting an email from the vendor of the shopping cart you just abandoned is one thing, but seeing an ad for the product on another site is attracting the wrong kind of attention. The government saber rattling may help move the technology and processes forward – but opt-in is hardly going to be the answer that keeps an economy growing. Perhaps it is a generational thing – that will become less offensive as our culture absorbs the new way of doing business.

  • http://www.webanalyticsdemystified.com eric

    Thanks everyone for your replies and let’s keep the conversation moving!

    Tim: Umm, yeah, like I said I didn’t want to dive into the politics … but since you asked, what the heck is going on in Washington? White House and FTC is one thing, but the FTC and some legislators appear to be ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater without considering what this change would mean to the growth engine we call THE INTERNET.

    I am just hopeful that at some point Eric Schmidt, Steve Jobs, John Chambers, Larry Ellison, Steve Balmer, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, etc. will fly to Washington and clarify what a “Do Not Track” list will cost each of their companies. It’s not as if we track for fun … this is a business.

    Oh well.

    Farris: Thanks! At the risk of sounding like a “smug analytics punter” in a way I relish the change were it to happen. It would be a stark reminder that our data is no better than the offline sampled data direct marketers have been using for decades — it’s still crappy, only we have a lot more of it.

    Sergio: Great to hear from you again my friend, how is life in Spain!? I haven’t yet read the document you referenced but I am very interested in the phrase “essential to the functioning of a service” since I very much consider web analytics cookies to be “essential” … although I may be biased since they are also essential to my ability to feed my children. LOL!

    Seriously, we are looking to Europe to do the right thing in this regard and consider that the Internet is very much subsidized by data collection, either in the form of data mining for insights, behavioral targeting, and plain old justification of expenses.

    Michael: Good points, except I’m not sure any of the third-party cookie “standards” you cite are followed in any practical way. Clearly third-party cookies are in use … otherwise we wouldn’t be having this conversation. We can, as analysts, of course rely exclusively on first party cookies — and we probably should (hmmm, why do I feel like I have been saying that for nearly six years!)

    Going back my post on “We are our own worst enemies” … we have done a piss-poor job collectively of representing our best interests in both the consumer arena and also in the vast pit of politics. The reasons are obvious, glaringly so thanks to the WSJ series and the recent FTC news, but we need to A) accept responsibility and B) do something about it.

    Matt: Sort of, but again you don’t have information on everyone coming to my site as measured by YWA; you have information about a (hopefully) representative sample. I’m good with that, although you may recall that I have been asking for years for better insight into the size and statistical validity of your sample … still waiting for that ;-)

    If I were a betting man, which I’m not really, I would venture that in a few years most of what we do in “web analytics” looks more like your demographic sampling and less like the “count every hit” insanity we engage in today.

    What do you think?

    Adam: Thanks for piping up my friend! I especially like this comment in the CNN piece:

    “But those in the industry warn that such an overarching policy would put billions of e-commerce and advertising dollars at risk. It could also unleash all kinds of unintended and undesirable effects on the very consumers the FTC is trying to protect.”

    Uh, yeah, you think? Facebook is a far less interesting advertising engine without cookies, and I suspect a lot of what Google gives away for free (in exchange for data, ahem, Google Analytics) will be a whole lot less free if that data isn’t coming back to them.

    Michael: Yes! The problem is that using statistics and samples I can tell you how many people visited your site in the past month. What’s more, I can tell you what my confidence is in that number and I can also account for known challenges like A) cookie deletion, B) multiple browsers, C) multiple devices, etc.

    How cool is that? Josh Chasin and Jody at comScore know. You and I know. My readers know. But we are still in the minority.

    I want one of the vendors to build me a “sample only” web analytics solution that lets me model my counts based on reasonable assumptions and provides a summary of the quality of each measure presented in an easily understood way. Who of the vendors reading this comment are up to the task?

    Bill: Great to hear from you again, Bill, and thanks for the comment! I completely agree with your assessment but you see the trap we are in, right? We don’t have the same problem the IAB has … we don’t need to see every single hit to generate our reports and conduct our analysis. But legislation against the behavioral advertising and targeting community directly impacts what we do since we are in woefully unprepared to deal with government-mandated cookie destruction.

    Does that make sense?

    Great point as well about this being generational. It is also interesting to think about all this in the context of the recent elections, the emergence of the “Tea Party”, and stuff like that. I don’t want to editorialize any more, at least not in the blog, but I personally think all of this stuff is a huge step in the wrong direction …

    Good think I kept my boxed copy of Webtrends Professional 3.0. Who knows when I might need that. ;-)

  • http://www.twitter.com/bigbryc Bryan Cristina

    Great points.

    We have a (small) group of people here who cry out everytime they count some of their real back-end data with my web reports because there’s a 3-4% difference in the numbers.

    I simply point out that it’s a marketing tool, and if we have data that has a sample size that represents 96% of all visitors, I think we’re in pretty good shape. Knock it down some, well, it’s still incredibly valuable.

  • Pingback: Ethically Dynamic Analysts | MichaelDHealy.com


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Adam Greco, Senior Partner

In working with a client recently, an interesting question arose around cart additions. This client wanted to know the order in which visitors were adding products to the shopping cart. Which products tended to be added first, second third, etc.? They also wanted to know which products were added after a specific product was added to the cart (i.e. if a visitor adds product A, what is the next product they tend to add?). Finally, they wondered which cart add product combinations most often lead to orders.

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7 Tips For Delivering Better Analytics Recommendations
Michele Kiss, Partner

As an analyst, your value is not just in the data you deliver, but in the insight and recommendations you can provide. But what is an analyst to do when those recommendations seem to fall on deaf ears?

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Overcoming The Analyst Curse: DON'T Show Your Math!
Michele Kiss, Partner

If I could give one piece of advice to an aspiring analyst, it would be this: Stop showing your "math". A tendency towards "TMI deliverables" is common, especially in newer analysts. However, while analysts typically do this in an attempt to demonstrate credibility ("See? I used all the right data and methods!") they do so at the expense of actually being heard.

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Making Tables of Numbers Comprehensible
Tim Wilson, Partner

I'm always amazed (read: dismayed) when I see the results of an analysis presented with a key set of the results delivered as a raw table of numbers. It is impossible to instantly comprehend a data table that has more than 3 or 4 rows and 3 or 4 columns. And, "instant comprehension" should be the goal of any presentation of information - it's the hook that gets your audience's brain wrapped around the material and ready to ponder it more deeply.

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Automating the Cleanup of Facebook Insights Exports
Tim Wilson, Partner

This post (the download, really - it's not much of a post) is about dealing with exports from Facebook Insights. If that's not something you do, skip it. Go back to Facebook and watch some cat videos. If you are in a situation where you get data about your Facebook page by exporting .csv or .xls files from the Facebook Insights web interface, then you probably sometimes think you need a 52" monitor to manage the horizontal scrolling.

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The Recent Forrester Wave on Web Analytics ... is Wrong
Eric T. Peterson, Senior Partner

Having worked as an industry analyst back in the day I still find myself interested in what the analyst community has to say about web analytics, especially when it comes to vendor evaluation. The evaluations are interesting because of the sheer amount of work that goes into them in an attempt to distill entire companies down into simple infographics, tables, and single paragraph summaries.

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Funnel Visualizations That Make Sense
Tim Wilson, Partner

Funnels, as a concept, make some sense (although someone once made a good argument that they make no sense, since, when the concept is applied by marketers, the funnel is really more a "very, very leaky funnel," which would be a worthless funnel - real-world funnels get all of a liquid from a wide opening through a smaller spout; but, let's not quibble).

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Reenergizing Your Web Analytics Program & Implementation
Adam Greco, Senior Partner

Those of you who have read my blog posts (and book) over the years, know that I have lots of opinions when it comes to web analytics, web analytics implementations and especially those using Adobe Analytics. Whenever possible, I try to impart lessons I have learned during my web analytics career so you can improve things at your organization.

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Registration for ACCELERATE 2014 is now open
Eric T. Peterson, Senior Partner

I am excited to announce that registration for ACCELERATE 2014 on September 18th in Atlanta, Georgia is now open. You can learn more about the event and our unique "Ten Tips in Twenty Minutes" format on our ACCELERATE mini-site, and we plan to have registration open for our Advanced Analytics Education pre-ACCELERATE training sessions in the coming weeks.

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Current Order Value
Adam Greco, Senior Partner

I recently had a client pose an interesting question related to their shopping cart. They wanted to know the distribution of money its visitors were bringing with them to each step of the shopping cart funnel.

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A Guide to Segment Sharing in Adobe Analytics
Tim Wilson, Partner

Over the past year, I've run into situations multiple times where I wanted an Adobe Analytics segment to be available in multiple Adobe Analytics platforms. It turns out…that's not as easy as it sounds. I actually went multiple rounds with Client Care once trying to get it figured out. And, I've found "the answer" on more than one occasion, only to later realize that that answer was a bit misguided.

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Currencies & Exchange Rates
Adam Greco, Senior Partner

If your web analytics work covers websites or apps that span different countries, there are some important aspects of Adobe SiteCatalyst (Analytics) that you must know. In this post, I will share some of the things I have learned over the years related to currencies and exchange rates in SiteCatalyst.

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Linking Authenticated Visitors Across Devices
Adam Greco, Senior Partner

In the last few years, people have become accustomed to using multiple digital devices simultaneously. While watching the recent winter Olympics, consumers might be on the Olympics website, while also using native mobile or tablet apps. As a result, some of my clients have asked me whether it is possible to link visits and paths across these devices so they can see cross-device paths and other behaviors.

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The 80/20 Rule for Analytics Teams
Eric T. Peterson, Senior Partner

I had the pleasure last week of visiting with one of Web Analytics Demystified's longest-standing and, at least from a digital analytical perspective, most successful clients. The team has grown tremendously over the years in terms of size and, more importantly, stature within the broader multi-channel business and has become one of the most productive and mature digital analytics groups that I personally am aware of across the industry.

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Ten Things You Should ALWAYS Do (or Not Do) in Excel
Tim Wilson, Partner

Last week I was surprised by the Twitter conversation a fairly innocuous vent-via-Twitter tweet started, with several people noting that they had no idea you could simple turn off the gridlines.

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Omni Man (and Team Demystified) Needs You!
Adam Greco, Senior Partner

As someone in the web analytics field, you probably hear how lucky you are due to the fact that there are always web analytics jobs available. When the rest of the country is looking for work and you get daily calls from recruiters, it isn't a bad position to be in! At Web Analytics Demystified, we have more than doubled in the past year and still cannot keep up with the demand, so I am reaching out to you ...

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A Useful Framework for Social Media "Engagements"
Tim Wilson, Partner

Whether you have a single toe dipped in the waters of social media analytics or are fully submerged and drowning, you've almost certainly grappled with "engagement." This post isn't going to answer the question "Is engagement ROI?" ...

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It's not about "Big Data", it's about the "RIGHT data"
Michele Kiss, Partner

Unless you've been living under a rock, you have heard (and perhaps grown tired) of the buzzword "big data." But in attempts to chase the "next shiny thing", companies may focus too much on "big data" rather than the "right data."

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