Google Analytics 4, Privacy and Cookies Blog Article

Google Analytics 4, Privacy and Cookies

Google Analytics has been the de facto tool for tracking and reporting against website user data since it was first launched in 2005. Its most recent iteration, Google Analytics 4, finally replaced its predecessor (Universal Analytics) in July 2023.


Google Analytics 4 offers a powerful feature set and, unlike the previous version, can track user behaviour across both websites and apps. However, the world has moved on since Universal Analytics was launched. There is an ever greater shift to cloud based services, increased awareness around privacy concerns among web users and a backdrop of privacy legislation, in particular the European GDPR data-protection act and the UK Data Protection Act 2018.


So what does this mean for Google Analytics and those of us who manage websites and digital marketing for our clients and want to understand where our web users are coming from and how they’re using our sites?


Cookies make the web go round

Cookies have been used in web development since 1994 and are a very useful technology that helps to provide seamless user experiences on the web. Cookies are small text files stored in a web user's web browser and are used for things like keeping users logged into a website as they navigate from page to page, storing user preferences, and providing personalised user experiences.


Cookies are generally a good thing and an essential part of the internet.


However, they come in different flavours and not all cookies are created equally. In the context of privacy, we need to understand the difference between first and third party cookies.


When a user visits a website, the website can place cookies on the user’s browser to capture a unique identifier for that user and collect other useful data.


First party cookies are from the website the user is visiting and capture useful information around things like login details, preferences, language settings, etc.


Third party cookies are created by external services (eg advertising platforms) and collect broader information, for example, about other sites the user has visited.


And here in lies the rub. First party cookies focus on improving the user’s experience of the website that they are visiting, while third party cookies aim to create a broader profile of the user’s interests and browsing behaviour to better target advertising towards them.


Third party cookies aren’t inherently bad, they can be used to provide tailored recommendations and personalised content to users and improve their browsing experience. However, over time, the data aggregated by third party cookies can build up a detailed picture of an individual’s online footprint, creating concerns that this data can be used without users’ consent, misused, or sold on to third parties.


Google Analytics and Consent Mode

Since the implementation of GDPR, when using tracking cookies businesses now need to ensure they are gaining individual user consent and enabling them to have control over the data that is being collected. This clearly has an implication for tools such as Google Analytics and Google Ads.


Even though Google Analytics tracking code is considered to be a first-party cookie (it’s placed on the user’s browser by the website they are visiting), consent is still required.


Google states that it designed Google Analytics 4 with privacy at its core, via its new Consent Mode feature.


Consent Mode allows Google Analytics to manage what tracking occurs depending on what is (and isn’t) consented to by the user. It splits tracking into five different categories: security, functionality, analytics, personalisation, and advertising.


2024: The end of third-party cookies in Chrome

Google’s decision to phase out the third-party cookie support in Chrome was announced in 2020 and despite being pushed back a couple of times, Google began the process in January this year, turning off third-party cookie support for 1% of its users worldwide (approximately 30 million people). The target is to roll this out to every user by the end of this year.


While browsers such as Firefox and Safari have already removed or limited support for cookies, with Chrome's approximate 60% global market share, this is a big deal for web users and digital marketers.


For individuals, this means we will see more prompts asking for cookie and privacy consent and more browser alerts letting us know when we’re browsing more (or less) privately. This is good for web users who are becoming more and more aware of privacy concerns and it should be good for responsible website owners and digital marketers who want to create more trust based relationships with their audiences.


It does, however, mean we have work to do.


I just want an actual cookie now. What does this mean for me?

For digital marketers, we need to understand the role of consent in general and how to work with Google Analytics 4 and Consent Mode. This means implementing a Consent Management Platform (CMP) to ensure legal compliance, but also understanding Google’s new predictive data modelling and how that differs from its predecessor.


It also means understanding and potentially rethinking our reliance on consumer profiling and remarketing tools, such as Meta’s pixel. While this tool is still useful, the changes to consent and browser support for cookies is certainly putting these types of tracking tags under scrutiny.


Ultimately, website owners and digital marketers should see this as an opportunity. We’re compelled to review the data we’re collecting, how much of it we really need and how we’re using it and that can only be a good thing.


And by doing so, we can signal to our customers, prospects, and wider audiences that we’re a responsible and trustworthy resource and a good online neighbour.


If you need support in setting up and implementing a CMP to be legally compliant, get in touch so we can discuss a potential plan.

Richard Carlaw. 

Digital marketing strategist.


Send us an email or give us a call on 01412210707

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