Since the announcement of content blockers in iOS 9, many have speculated what impact it would have on ads on the web as well as the tracking of users that has been present on the web for the last decade and a half.
One of the primary functions for loading third-party content are analytic, and tracking, sites. These analytics engines, while performing analytics for the site, also gather information about the users. The information gathered by these analytics firms include things that users would expect, like the HTTP request, the user’s IP Address, and web browser. However, what analytic firms also collect include screen resolution and many other items. This is done via a tracking cookie.
The issue with this setup is that if many sites use the same centrally-hosted analytics engine, that analytics site can correlate, through the tracking cookie, all of the information about that individual and create a full picture of the user. This could be more than just which sites are visited, but what links are clicked on, which ads have been seen and any number of other measurements. Many of these analytics site are ones that provide free services. When this occurs, the visitors of the sites that have opted to use the analytics engine become the product.
One of the problems on the web is that if people have resigned themselves that ads are inevitable, they do so in hopes of being served relevant ads. Yet, in order to get the relevant ads users must be tracked. The problem, for many, is not that users are being tracked but the fact that information that is tracked is being sold to advertisers. An additional problem is that it only takes a small amount of information to truly be able to uniquely identify someone. If it were only the websites doing the tracking, many individuals would not have a problem with this arrangement.
The reason that most would not have a problem with this arrangement is that when you visit a website, and do not pay for the content on that website, it is understandable that a website would want to know who is visiting the site, as well as keeping some basic information about the individuals who visit the site.
One of the things that I have been pondering, particularly since the iOS 9 content blocker fiasco is what alternatives to Google Analytics there are. I did some searching, tried a couple of different free and open source packages, and ultimately I have decided on trying out Open Web Analytics.
Open Web Analytics will work as a standalone product or as a plugin for WordPress. With Open Analytics, none of the information leaves the site where the product is installed. It is not sent off to third-party aggregation sites where it will be analyzed. Since Sunday morning I have been running both Open Web Analytics and Google Analytics. I am running both in tandem to be able to to see how close the two are in relation to number of visitors, and individual page counts. It will likely not be long before I decide to turn off Google Analytics entirely.
There area a myriad of reasons behind this change. The first is that I cannot, in good conscience, allow readers of my site to be unwillingly forced to use Google Analytics and be subjected to unnecessary third-party tracking and aggregation. While yes, the content is free, it still does not feel right to have visitors be tracked in this manner.
The second is the speed of the site. With any third-party loading of content, inevitably the site is slowed, even if it is just milliseconds, it is slowness. I would like to have a responsive website, in both styling as well as load times. The best way to do this is to eliminate as much of the third-party items that load on a site.
It may be that I am an idealist, but I would like to think that more independent websites would choose to run their own analytics. I know it is not possible for all sites to do so, but it would be nice to see this change occur on those that can.
I would think that if enough sites opted out of using Google and other analytics aggregators, that maybe these companies would start realizing that users are not satisfied with the current state of tracking and change their practices. Particularly in Google’s case, if ad revenue starts to take a major hit due to content blockers, it may open their eyes a bit. Sadly, I am not optimistic that this will help in any meaningful way.