Web Analyst Code of Ethics: Good for business.

by Jim Cain

I am getting most of my research done now while I rock the baby to sleep every night.  He’s not much of a sleeper so I am getting a LOT of work done.

Last night something in particular jumped out at me that could be the most interesting piece of industry news I have read all year. Eric Peterson of WebAnalyticsDemystified is working with the Web Analytics Association to build a web analyst ‘code of ethics’, so that we as an industry can take a stand on how we want to deal with the terabytes of personal information that we work through every day.

(As an aside, it’s great to  see WA Demystified and the WAA working together on such an important issue.  Based on the twitter-blogosphere there have been some WestSideStoryesque Sharks-Jets moments in the past….)

Mr. Peterson has written a great first shot on goal at a code that all analysts can use and buy into – and our respective stakeholders (Both bosses and site visitors) will be able to read to better understand and trust our work.  I am sure that this code will evolve over the coming months and the Napkyn team is both looking at them and planning to adopt them, but this blog isn’t to talk about things that I feel need to be changed.  I would like to contribute by explaining why this code is awesome.

Now a code of Ethics isn’t a set of rules, they are a set of guidelines.  If someone decides to do something sketchy with personal data, there won’t be a WAA SWAT team at their cube the next day.  So why am I excited about it?  The key points are below.

Increased Exposure of the web analytics industry in general and the WAA in specific: One of the issues with web analytics has always been its limited visibility and perception.  Part of it is that we are still sitting on the line between the server room and  executive row.  Another, larger part has been that people always focus on the money – and data on what happened yesterday didn’t have perceived value.  This explains why the Interactive Advertising Bureau (whose members actively spent billions on ads) is so large as an organization, and the WAA (whose members actively track what the ad spend did…) has limited perception.  By taking a strong stand on how we as a group want to deal with data, we are not only increasing the brand of web analytics, we are also closely aligning ourselves with the most valuable part of every business – their visitors.

The data apocalypse is coming and we need to pick a side: For as long as there have been web browsers, there have been concerns about personal data capture.  The last big backlash was in regards to cookie based data capture in the early 2000s.  Lawsuits were filed,  people in general got a bad taste for online data capture, but there was no legislation passed regarding online data capture and the issue backed off to a slow boil.

Flash forward to 2010, and your average website is collecting way more data than Toys R Us was in 2000.  Between tools that pull data out of your web browser, Google trying to collect every piece of data ever created, and advanced data mining tools, an unscrupulous marketer could build a very invasive profile of a visitor on the very first pageload.  When you couple the preexisting unease with online data capture with the newly increased perception of the issue (cue the Wall Street Journal), you can see the inevitable outcome:

Someone is going to go too far, and it will create a public outcry.

When that happens, and it will, this code of ethics (and the people who have supported it all along) will be out there for any Google searcher to see.  It won’t put the industry in the clear, but it will show that we self-regulating, and that we built and are delivering a solid and respectful plan around the data that we capture and use.

If you are an analyst, I strongly encourage you to get involved in this process – if not as a contributor than as a follower.  This code of ethics is going to allow us to put our flag in the ground on the key issues.



PS.  How does Napkyn deal with the data that we deal with in the Analyst Program?

  • We execute an NDA with every client from day 1.  We don’t wait for someone to ask, we include privacy documentation with our contracts.
  • Outside of what is gathered in a standard web analytics tool, we don’t work with Personally Identifiable Information (PII).  Our programs don’t require us to look at individuals; we look at significant types of people when we do analysis.  Because of that we never need access to, or request clients capture, personal information.
  • When in doubt, we apply the 1984 rule.  There are new technologies coming out all the time, some of which we totally endorse.  But when we are looking at new analytics tools to recommend to our clients, we always ask ourselves if this is something ‘Big Brother’ would do. If we say yes, it’s too creepy and we move on.

Jim Cain

Founder and CEO, Napkyn Analytics

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