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Cookie Law and Google Analytics

Published on May 25, 2012
Tags: Web Site Law

With only days to go until the EU Cookie Law comes into effect, many website operators are likely to be wondering just how the new law will affect their ability to, among other things, make use of services like Google Analytics. This is a real concern; since tracking cookies such as Google Analytics are not considered to be ‘essential’ to a website’s operation, consent is needed from users before they can be deployed.

This means that if a web user declines the cookies, website operators will no longer be able to track what they do on the site. If multiple users do this, the value of Google Analytics data will naturally go down and it will be harder to make use of it as a resource. This is something that could affect a huge proportion of websites – it is thought that of the top 10,000 websites, 57% make use of Google Analytics. Many more use similar alternatives such as Statcounter.

We’re going to focus on Google Analytics in this post since that is the major player when it comes to this sort of software, but similar issues are likely to apply to Statcounter and other analytics alternatives.

Currently, Google Analytics automatically sets four cookies. There is also an optional fifth cookie that gives website owners the option to share website traffic information with Google. There is something called a first party cookie that is set by Google Analytics that means if you utilise it on your website, you will only need to gain user consent once before it can be used (in contrast to ‘third party’ cookies that require consent each time they are used).

If you have the fifth optional cookie enabled that passes information back to Google, this will also need to be made clear on your website so that users can see who you are passing information to and what the purpose of this is. The Information Commissioners Office makes the suggestion of having text in a header or footer on your website to highlight the cookies and what they are used for. Google Analytics says that website information they receive is typically used for ‘benchmarking’ performance of sites. This is the sort of thing that will also need consent from users.

From all of this, it is quite easy to see the scale of the impact that the Cookie Law could have on tools such as Google Analytics. However, it is thought that these sorts of cookies are considered to be low priority by the ICO. Their guidance states that ‘provided clear information is given about their activities we are unlikely to prioritise first-party cookies used only for analytical purposes in any consideration of regulatory action’.

Also, the Government’s Digital Service has acknowledged just how vital analytics are to government websites and that cookies are currently the most effective method for this. They say that the usage of these cookies tends to be controlled by a ‘first party’ and that they are minimally intrusive to users. This, plus the information from the ICO, suggests that as long as information about analytics cookies is made clear and that they are operated solely by first parties, compliance with the Cookie Law should not be too difficult. However, even though this sort of cookie might not be the highest of priorities, to not comply is still to break the law and so it’s an issue that needs to be taken seriously.

At this point in time, it isn’t entirely clear what the solution will be for analytics cookies requiring consent from users. Their usefulness has been admitted, but compliance is still important and so it isn’t inconceivable that the value of analytics data will be affected by users opting out of the cookies. Solutions could potentially come from a modification to the code used by Google Analytics, a browser-based solution or updated privacy policies, for example.

There are also a handful of non-cookie based analytics tools available. We’re currently testing one and will advise shortly on the results, but so far we’re seeing similar results coming back to Google Analytics – the downside, though, is that it’s a fee-based service.

The ICO blog has stated that there will be 'no knee-jerk formal enforcement action’ taken against sites that are taking steps to comply with the Cookie Law but who are not yet quite compliant, so there isn’t too much need to panic at this stage if you are still sorting out your compliance procedure.

However, only time will tell what the impact of the Cookie Law is on analytics results but for now it seems that the safest course of action is to do what you need to in order to comply with the law, make sure that your processes and policies are clearly defined and that users are made aware if you are using analytics cookies – and that a decent solution is found some time soon so that Analytics remains a useful, valuable resource for anyone who uses it.

Should you need any advice on implementing compliance with the new regulations, please contact us for further information and our Cookie Consent Service.

By Chelsey Evans

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The EU Cookie Law: What You Need to Know

Published on May 18, 2012
Tags: Web Site Law, Web Design London

They’re technically known as the Privacy and Electronic Communication Regulations, but you might know them as the EU Cookie Law. This is the new directive that comes into effect on 26th May 2012 and that requires websites to gain the consent of users when they want to run most cookies on that website.

The vast majority of websites currently use cookies and, as it stands, many of them are breaking the law as most websites don’t ask for users’ consent before utilising the cookies. There are different types of cookie though, and some of them are exempt from compliance with the Cookie Law. Generally speaking, those cookies that are exempt are the ones that are essential to the operation of a website. For example, if you have to log in to a website to use its service, a cookie will be needed to remember that or else the service will not work.

However, even though some cookies might be used for operational purposes, they will still require websites to get consent from users before using them. For instance, this could be the case for cookies that remember a user’s preferences for that site. Other cookies considered to be ‘non-essential’ will also need consent before they can be utilised on a website. Notably, tracking cookies (such as those used by service like Google Analytics or Statcounter) will require permission from users, as will advertising cookies.

The Information Commissioners Office, which is responsible for the Cookie Law in the UK, has offered some suggestions as to how websites can make sure they are compliant with the new law. These include getting users to agree to cookies when they accept website terms and conditions, obtain consent when users choose certain settings, obtain consent when users utilise certain features, or utilise tools such as headers or pop-ups in order to gain consent.

For an example of how consent can be gained from users, pay a quick visit to the ICO website. Across the top of the screen you will see a header that requires you to tick a box that states ‘I accept cookies from this site’. It appears that this is a one-time thing. Once you have accepted the cookies from the ICO website, if you then leave the site and come back, it doesn’t ask you again to accept the cookies.

Guidance from the ICO suggests that the person who is responsible for setting a particular cookie should be responsible for the compliance of that cookie with the new law. For instance, if a third party advertiser were to place an ad on our website, they would be responsible for ensuring it complied with the law. However, if we were to use Google Analytics cookies to track our site statistics, we would be responsible for those cookies. The difficulty arises when a third party, such as an advertiser, doesn’t actually have a means of obtaining consent because the website is not theirs. This means that in practice it is much likely to be easier for the website owner to take responsibility for obtaining consent for all relevant cookies.

There is therefore likely to be a need for website owners/operators to liaise with any third parties in order to find out the exact nature of the cookies placed on a particular site since an owner might not always be entirely aware of this.

There are clearly quite a few ways in which a website could choose to obtain consent from users for their cookies, but no matter which method is chosen, the most important thing is that users are given an informed and clear choice. It is important to note that this might also mean that websites have to update their terms and conditions or privacy policies in order to ensure they comply with the new Cookie Law and so that users can read more about the kind of cookies that are used on a particular website.

As it stands, the majority of websites are thought to still be in violation of the Cookie Law, with many holding on to see how other websites (such as key government sites) deal with the new regulations. However, the law is due to come into effect very soon, and so if websites have yet to take action to comply with the directive, they would be wise to start forming a strategy now so that they do not fall foul of the ICO and find themselves in trouble.

Next time, we’ll be taking a look at how the Cookie Law affects tracking cookies such as Google Analytics. For now, if you want to find out more about the Cookie Law and different types of cookies and how they will be affected, the International Chamber of Commerce has produced a useful guide.

By Chelsey Evans

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Participation Choice: Are People More Engaged with the Web Now?

Published on May 11, 2012
Tags: Usability

A question that is often discussed by web designers and others working in industries connected to the internet is: how engaged are web users? We naturally all want web users to be inspired by and make use of the sites that we create - in many cases, we want them to actively participate on websites, whether it is joining in discussions, sharing photos and other material, or making a purchase from a business.

However, it is hard to get away from the fact that many people simply view the internet rather than taking part in it. This, though, might be starting to change. The BBC recently conducted some in-depth research into how active the UK online population is, and they came up with some interesting results.

One of the headline results that this study came up with was that the ‘1/9/90’ rule does not have as much relevance on the internet as it once did. This is the rule that suggests 1% of people created web content, 9% engage with that content in some way (such as by editing or adding to it), while the other 90% are what are often referred to as ‘lurkers’. By contrast, the BBC study mentioned above found that 77% of the UK population now participate in some way on the internet.

A big reason for this, it is suggested, is because online participation is now easier than it has been in the past. Just think about how easy it is, for example, to share content with friends on Facebook or Twitter, or to comment on an online discussion or newspaper article. Some people are clearly still in the ‘lurker’ category, though. One interesting finding in relation to this group is that many of them are considered to be early adopters – they know how to get involved on the internet, but they simply choose not to.

As a result of these findings, the BBC has developed something called the Participation Choice, which is a model that seeks to explain digital participation. It includes different levels of participation from ‘passive’ to ‘intense’. There is evidently a spectrum of internet involvement, with some people being much more involved than others – but the main conclusion of this study is that people are more involved on the internet than ever before and that increasing numbers of people are choosing to participate online.

However, there is a flip side to this and not everyone agrees that the study discussed above has got it right. One response to the study suggests that the 1/9/90 rule was never supposed to be representative of the entire internet. Rather, it is to do with the expectations of behaviour ‘inside any given online community or service’.

Part of this argument is to do with the fact that there are lots of different web platforms a user could choose to be active on, yet they might only engage with one or two. For example, just because someone is part of the ‘1%’ creating content on Twitter, they might fall into the ‘lurker’ category when it comes to lots of other websites such as Facebook, LinkedIn or Google+. The internet, this argument suggests, is a huge place and everyone is likely to be taking part somewhere, but not taking part in many other places. Therefore the ‘1%’ rule still holds sway when we are talking about particular sites or services, because for everyone who is participating, there will still be plenty more lurkers even if those lurkers are taking part on other sites elsewhere on the web.

The debate arises when you are trying to determine whether this means a particular user is participating or passive on balance. It’s not difficult to see the points that both sides of the debate are making, and they are both in some way right. However, to get too bogged down in ‘internet rules’ of participation could be to miss the point a little bit, taking our focus away from what matters. We could argue that even though someone isn’t participating on a website, it doesn’t mean that they’re not engaged or interested in what is happening there. The job for web designers and others is to work out which method works best for the individual sites they are creating and to make sure those sites offer a great user experience – no matter how those users eventually choose to get involved.

By Chelsey Evans

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Google Penguin (Webspam) Update UK

Published on May 4, 2012
Tags: SEO

Say what you will about Google, but they know how to come up with quirky names for their algorithm updates. Previously, we have discussed the Panda update and the Venice update. Today we turn our attention to the latest update to gain significant attention from web designers and SEO specialists – the Google Penguin update (this was originally known as the webspam update).

While it isn’t yet entirely clear what the update will do, it seems certain to say that it is targeted at quality – or rather, weeding out sites that are in violation of Google’s quality guidelines in order to help sites that utilise good SEO techniques get better page rankings. The Google post outlining the upcoming Penguin algorithm change offers a couple of examples of the kind of pages that might be affected by the change.

That post also offers a useful explanation of what Google perceives to be the difference between good and bad SEO. The terms it uses for this are “white hat” SEO and “black hat webspam”. In brief, white hat SEO is defined as SEO that helps to improve a user’s experience of a website. It is to do with good content as well as good marketing techniques in order to build the profile of a site, according to Google.

By contrast, black hat webspam is defined as SEO techniques that don’t actually benefit users. For example, sites that include keyword links that aren’t actually relevant to the content in question, or keyword stuffing on a site that has got generally poor-quality content.

Google also helpfully offers some information to give us an idea of the number of searches that are likely to be affected by the Penguin update. It isn’t expected to have as significant an impact as the previous Panda update that helped to promote good quality sites, but it should still make a difference. It’s thought that just over 3% of English searches will be impacted.

So, even though most sites should be perfectly fine following the Google Penguin update and could even receive a boost as poor quality sites are weeded out, it still makes sense to review your web content to ensure it falls within the quality guidelines. There are a few different areas you can look at to make sure your site is properly promoted with white hat SEO.

For example, ensuring you don’t have duplicate content on your site is an issue we’ve looked at before as a result of previous Google updates, but if you still have any content that could be considered as duplicate, it could be worth reviewing this. In theory, duplicate content doesn’t automatically get you a search penalty unless it can be proved that you were trying to manipulate the search rankings, but generally speaking, it isn’t worth taking the chance.

Keyword stuffing is another issue that Google mentions in its blogpost on the update, so this something else you might want to look at to ensure your site falls within the quality guidelines. This isn’t just about ensuring your visible content utilises keywords properly; any hidden text on your website also matters and could lead to you being penalised in the search rankings if you have engaged in any keyword stuffing. If your site has been loaded with keywords for the express purpose of doing well in the search rankings even though the user experience isn’t as good as it could be, now is a very good time to review that practice.

Google also mentions links in its Penguin algorithm post. In its guidelines, it warns against linking to webspammers or what it refers to as ‘bad neighbourhoods’, so this is something to watch out for on your site. The examples given in the post linked above include that of an article ostensibly about getting fit but with keyword links for payday loans. This might seem like an obvious no-no, but it’s clearly something to be careful about as this sort of technique can be much more subtle.

Overall, the message from Google clearly seems to be that good content will be prioritised and that those websites utilising white hat SEO should not be pushed out or penalised by sites attempting to manipulate the search rankings. While most sites should have nothing to fear from the Penguin update, it’s still a timely reminder that it’s worth reviewing our content from time to time to ensure it is still as high quality and beneficial to our users as we initially intended it to be.

By Chelsey Evans

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