A Web Analytics Breakthrough (That May Never Be Used)

One of the most potentially powerful Web analytics tools out there isn’t being used for Web analytics.

If you’re one of the burgeoning number of Firefox users, you probably also use a number of the many extensions available to stretch, modify, personalize, and customize the browser’s capabilities. If Google Browser Sync is one of those extensions, have you considered the implications it might have for Web analytics and ad tracking?

According to Google, Browser Sync “continuously synchronizes your browser settings — including bookmarks, history, persistent cookies, and saved passwords — across your computers. It also allows you to restore open tabs and windows across different machines and browser sessions.”

Otherwise put, no matter how many work, home, or other computers you regularly or sporadically use, if you use Firefox, have this extension installed, and are logged in, you can theoretically be counted as a single user insofar as any tracking application is concerned. That, in turn, would inform recency and frequency metrics. The implications are profound — and potentially a real breakthrough for analytics vendors and ad-tracking services. They stretch into Web analytics, anonymous behavioral targeting, affiliate marketing, accurate counting of unique site visitors, and likely a few more issues.

I knew I couldn’t be alone in coming up with these potential applications for Browser Sync, so I got in touch with Avinash Kaushik, the Web metrics whiz who joined Google in the role of analytics evangelist earlier this month.

It Works, All Right

He confirmed all my suspicions.

“It is syncing your persistent cookies (tracking cookies), all of ’em, be they first party or third,” he told me. “So people who have Browser Sync are already being tracked much better by analytics vendors (or DoubleClick or whomever), but the vendors don’t quite realize this yet. It certainly has the potential to make tracking unique visitors more fun.”

There’s no way of knowing how many Firefox users have installed Browser Sync, but it’s certainly not anywhere near critical mass.

“It’s the yous and the mes of the world who are curious about such things and anticipate the benefits,” says Avinash. And though the tool is freely available to anyone who wants to use it, in typical Google style there’s no promotional push. Google describes the app simply as a way for people to port their preferences from one browser to another. Browser Sync isn’t linked to or used by Google Analytics, Avinash told me, “although any analytics would benefit from the application.”

So how come they haven’t stepped up to the plate?

Avinash has a couple of theories. “My sense from reading things around the Web [e.g., message boards] is this is not something they are bothered with for now,” he says. “It’s not something the vendors are taking too seriously in terms of benefits or otherwise. None of the vendors have come back and said, ‘We’re getting better at identifying unique persons.’ Perhaps because it’s associated with Google itself, they may be a bit reticent.”

Eric Petersen agrees. The author, a former Jupiter analytics analyst who’s now at Visual Sciences, similarly sees reticence across the board. “If the analytics vendors were pushing something like that, it would be suspect,” Petersen says. “Maybe the browser platforms would incorporate something like this. It does have the potential to improve the user-level visibility, but it just creates…so many potential problems.”

Log files could, however, easily parse out more accurate unique user data from visitors using the tool. Avinash tells me Google has released the code in open source. “It’s completely easy. This wouldn’t be limited to analytics vendors and ad trackers. There’s nothing stopping Microsoft from building the functionality into Internet Explorer.”

The downside? Privacy concerns. Earlier this week, I clicked into my Gmail account from my work computer in San Francisco. Up popped my boyfriend’s account. He’d been at my place to feed the cats and, while there, checked his mail on my home laptop. Avinash told me he routinely gets “funny stuff” from Amazon.com, then realizes he’s logged in as his wife. This goes a bit beyond privacy, of course. Unless people can be counted on to log in and out (and they can’t), 100 percent accuracy won’t happen.

“If someone’s simultaneously logged into your account, it will not synch,” explains Avinash. “Suddenly all of these people would be thought of as the same person, but it makes it no worse than it is today.”

Beyond the above-cited potential relationship issues, there are myriad possible downsides to being the same person at work as you are at home insofar as your Web browser is concerned. Visiting a job listing or a porn site in private and forgetting to turn on the customizable don’t-track-this settings in Browser Sync could land you in hot water with your employer, for example.

A Social Experiment

Personally, I love Browser Synch. It makes my online life a little easier, I understand the tracking is anonymous, I trust my boyfriend enough not to worry about an occasional inadvertent mail trespass, and I know how to shield my privacy in more sensitive areas, like financial accounts.

“You and I live in a rarified world,” Avinash counters. “We’re not normal. How would normal people adopt it, and would they install it? Then you can ask, ‘Will the tracing tools get better?’ It’s a social experiment as well as a technical one. More than what we do with it and what vendors do with it, I’m curious to find out what people do with it.”

Getting users to opt in to this, or a similar tool, will hinge on assuaging fears and clearly explaining the benefits. That’s not something Google is likely to do. “Google is fantastic and innovative at creating products,” Avinash observed, but “evangelism has to come from more than Google. There have to be other layers of evangelists. Google probably won’t do as much of it.”

If Google does decide to modify Browser Sync, it might start with the icon. It resembles nothing so much as a sideways Yahoo Y.

Meet Rebecca at SES Chicago on December 3-6.

Rebecca is off this week. Today’s column ran earlier on ClickZ.

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