The Three Evils of Analytics Tracking: Images, Javascript, and Cookies

- December 11, 2008

Tag-Based (or script-based) Web Analytics programs have excellent, business-friendly advantages that help organizations make intelligent, insightful decisions about their website. This applies to websites from businesses across every imaginable industry and size, from the local flower shop to the U.S. Government. These benefits include (but are definitely not limited to):

– Full suites of reporting options
– Colorful, easy-to-use graphics and reporting interfaces
– Data that is “good enough” for any marketer or decision-maker to use
– Fast and almost always reliable data

But with script-based web analytics – and like anything in life, really – there are pros and cons, or, the good and the bad. Unfortunately, not every visitor can be tracked with script-based web analytics programs. Some individuals purposely configure their browser settings to block web analytics tools from tracking and collecting data; others have no idea that their browser settings are configured in a fashion that would block or interfere with the data collection process. Most website visitors using mobile phones simply do not have the technical capabilities to be tracked by web analytics programs.

What this means is that tag-based web analytics solutions can only track visitors that allow themselves to be tracked. There are three separate elements that users can restrict on their browser of choice, rendering script-based analytics programs completely helpless. Users can block or restrict images, JavaScript, and cookies from loading or processing – blocking or restricting any one of these means “No Soup For You!” I call these elements the “Three Evils of Analytics Tracking” (Sounds scary, doesn’t it?).

Images
A part of how web analytics programs (like Google Analytics) operate is by requesting a 1×1 invisible GIF image to the Google Analytics servers for storing and processing the data it has just collected. If a browser does not have images enabled for whatever reason, this request cannot be satisfied, and data – although collected – cannot be sent to Google Analytics for processing, hence, no data in reports.

This doesn’t affect too many folks, as almost everyone has their browsers set to load images, and only a very small percentage of the population even knows how to do this in the first place. However, this is a major problem when tracking things like Email Open Rates, which in most (if not all) cases are handled by a request for a 1×1 clear pixel GIF image to the necessary server. If a person does not click on “Download Images”, that person is not able to be tracked.

JavaScript
The main logic behind all tag-based web analytics programs is JavaScript. JavaScript is easy and fast to implement, and it’s the type of web analytics tracking solution that makes the most overall sense across the board. It is with a few lines of JavaScript code that a website can set cookies on a person’s computer, collect data, and send that data to the appropriate processing server, be it an in-house server or a data warehouse of some kind. However, not all that glitters is gold. If users have JavaScript disabled, they cannot be tracked – it is that simple.

Luckily, not many folks disable JavaScript, as it is such a commonly used language, present on almost every website out there. However, a very small percentage of folks do block JavaScript, which is unfortunate for anyone involved with Web Analytics. This really affects mobile phone users in a big way – since the browsers on a lot of mobile phone platforms cannot execute or understand JavaScript, they cannot be tracked by default. The only thing that anyone can do about this is to hope that soon enough, all mobile phones will be equipped with a JavaScript-executing browser.

Cookies
Cookies are very small files that get set by websites on a person’s computer. These small files collect information pertaining to their activity on a website: when they entered the site, when they left the site, where they came from, what source of traffic brought the person there, how many times a person has visited the site, and so on. Cookies come in many different shapes and sizes, life spans, and security levels, but if any of them are blocked or disabled by users on their favorite browser, web analytics programs cannot store or collect data about these individuals.

Unlike Images and JavaScript, Cookie “management” is a very big concern, and it’s the biggest evil of the three. Some people block only specific cookies from specific sites. Some people block all cookies, regardless of where they originate from. Others have daily, weekly, or every first of the month cookie deletion parties on their personal computers, where they wipe off every cookie imaginable. All of these actions hurt tag-based web analytics programs, un-purifying data and distorting figures. This affects a very sizeable portion of the population – some independent reports have this figure at 3 or 4% of all internet users, while other reports have this figure in the high teens / low 20’s.

So how do I know that my data is “good”? Should I be worried about this?

This shouldn’t be something that you lose sleep over, but you definitely need to be aware. If data quality is something that your organization simply cannot live without, tag-based web analytics solutions are going to give you a lot of headaches – you want to consider using log-file parsing programs or packet-sniffing programs, although there aren’t too many of those programs available anymore. You may also want to consider using raw server log information to help.

If tracking every single person that visits your website is not the most important thing – that is, you can live with being a few percentage points “off”, and a little margin of error, then you really have nothing to worry about. Web analytics programs weren’t designed to collect the exact number of hits or queries like your server is configured for – web analytics programs were designed to give you valuable insights about your website’s performance, which can effectively be accomplished with the percentage of data that they can collect for most companies.

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