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Data Privacy

When privacy-respecting means giving out control and letting the majors win

The new privacy-respecting analytics are important but by removing the tools that small-medium businesses can rely on for content relevancy, personalization, timely communication and customer support, we are letting big tech win the battle.

When privacy-respecting means giving out control and letting the majors win

Public opinion around online privacy has shifted in recent years, with more people demanding that internet companies stop collecting and exploiting their data. Privacy regulators have levied billions in fines, and even Big Tech has (mostly disingenuously) signaled support for privacy protections.

Compared with the wild west of data collection that reigned during the early 2000s, this represents a paradigm shift. And many startups are entering the data analytics space to compete with legacy companies like Google.

Google Analytics is an easy target for disruptors because it’s the backbone of the company’s surveillance-based business model. GA and Google Marketing Platform are the internet’s dominant advertising and analytics tools, powering the bulk of the company’s revenue through its targeted and invasive data harvesting.

Three of the latest privacy-respecting analytics tools to enter the market are Fathom, Plausible and Umami. Each of these are alternatives to Google Analytics that offer privacy to end users because they don’t store any data about website visitors, such as IP addresses, and they don’t place cookies on people’s browsers. 

While well-intentioned, these companies will fail to present any meaningful challenge to Google. Defeating the surveillance model will require tools that both respect privacy while also providing the same or better data-based intelligence for businesses. 

Ultimately, “cookies or privacy” is a false dichotomy. This article explains the third way we’ve developed at ReachOut. Our solution respects the privacy of end users while empowering businesses with meaningful analytics and marketing automation.

The problem with Google Analytics

Google Analytics is the most popular web analytics service because it provides a large amount of accurate data for free, it’s easy to use, and it integrates with many other platforms. It’s the default analytics tool for most developers.

But Google’s reputation as the best and only option is faltering across all its services (apart from Search). And GA is among the platforms seeing a surge of high-quality competition. There are several reasons businesses are looking elsewhere for analytics:

  • Data privacy: People now care about data privacy protections in the tools they use, particularly in regions with strict privacy regulations like the European Union, with the GDPR, and California.
  • Ad blockers: More users are now employing ad blockers that can block Google Analytics tracking scripts, leading to incomplete or inaccurate data.
  • Cross-device tracking: It can be challenging to track user activities across different devices accurately, which can lead to gaps in your understanding of user behavior.
  • Cost: While Google Analytics offers a free version, Google Analytics 360, which provides more advanced features, comes with a substantial cost ($150,000/year), which would be a tremendous waste for most small- and medium-sized businesses.
  • Integration challenges: Integrating Google Analytics with other marketing and analytics tools can sometimes be complex and may require technical expertise.

For these and other reasons, companies are considering alternatives. And new companies are answering this demand.

The problem with most Google Analytics alternatives

The main Google Analytics alternatives are Adobe Analytics, Hubspot, and Matomo. We’ll address these specifically in future articles, but each has drawbacks, including data privacy concerns, technical limitations, and high monthly costs. 

Another class of analytics companies promises much greater data privacy by not using cookies and not storing any user information. These technical design decisions seem to satisfy a particular kind of privacy purism that rejects all data collection apart from the most simplistic “click counter” style metrics. 

But these services have significant drawbacks that will ultimately undermine their customers’ business competitiveness. By hurting their customers’ chances, they instead bolster those firms that actively exploit people’s data — hardly a win for privacy.

With Fathom, Plausible and Umami, it is technically impossible to track repeated visits of the same user, and they effectively end up counting viewers as browser sessions. Fathom and Plausible use cryptographic mechanisms to hide unique user data, meaning they often over-report unique visitors. (Umami doesn’t explain on their website how they track unique visitors, but it’s likely similar.) For example, if I visit your website once a day for five days, this will count as five unique visits rather than one unique visit and five page views.

Further, even if the end user subsequently consents to provide you with their information and consents to data collection, there’s no way to associate them with past events or behaviors on your website. At this point, you’re providing more privacy than people actually want, at the expense of your business growth.

A better solution for small- and medium-sized businesses

There are two important points to make about privacy with respect to web analytics: 

  • A cookie and an anonymous ID alone do not constitute an invasion of privacy. The only technically possible way to associate the ID to an individual is for the individual to actively provide information by registering in a form or providing the information.
  • What constitutes a privacy violation is the ability to accurately infer a person’s identity, which Google and big tech companies achieve by owning mobile OS, browsers, applications like Gmail or YouTube and more.

Ultimately, by removing the tools that small-medium businesses can rely on for content relevancy, personalization, timely communication and customer support, we are letting big tech win the battle. User engagement will further gather to their platforms, at the expense of true privacy and a competitive marketplace.

At ReachOut, we place a first-party cookie which stores an Anonymous ID. If I visit the same site multiple times across 90 days, it will show up as the same viewer and multiple page views. 

Differently from all other platforms, ReachOut generates a dedicated marketing database to each organization. It does not allow any other third party to access its data, and uses end-to-end encryption and encryption at rest. 

This means that the end user can agree to the terms and privacy policy of the property they are using, and rest assured that no further data transmission, access or use will be made.

In fact, people tend to like relevant content. But if their engagement can’t be measured and attributed, relevant content becomes impossible. Google, Apple and and other privacy-invasive companies all have ways to aggregate, categorize and repurpose content to be served based on their knowledge of people’s interests.

Businesses and consumers need a better understanding of what privacy actually means: giving people the freedom to meaningfully choose how their data is used (or not used). 

Small- and medium-sized businesses do no harm to the end user when they collect first-party, anonymous usage information. This is a GDPR-compliant way to compete with big tech on usability while scoring a win for privacy.