Google v Facebook: Who knows wins

The unparalleled Google Analytics service means Google knows more about internet users than anyone else. And runner up, Facebook, must go further to mine precious user insights if it wants to compete.

A month or so back, I downloaded an extension for my web browser called Ghostery.

The purpose? Basically, I wanted to see who was tracking my web usage when I visited certain websites. My curiosity was piqued mainly because I wanted to see which domestic publishers were allowing third party and ad network tags on their site, and who these were.

Ghostery not only displays the ad networks that are tracking usage, but it also displays analytics programs such as Google Analytics and Omniture, as well as other information gathering services that monitor activity like mouse-over and real-time usage.

Visiting an article page on The Age.com.au, I see that there are 27 different companies tracking my activity, on a news.com.au article 22 different trackers, and on news.ninemsn.com.au 16.

The striking thing for me isn’t the amount of companies building their business by tracking internet users activity – this doesn’t bother me, it’s been this way for a long time and to me feels simply an extension of old fashioned direct mail – it’s the fact that almost every single website I visit is using Google Analytics as a central tool to better understand their users.

Don’t get me wrong, I think Google Analytics is a very solid piece of software, but it does seem odd that media companies – many of them currently fighting a losing battle against the advertising might of Google – rely on it so heavily to generate key insights required to help them improve their business.

The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, News.com.au, Herald Sun, The Australian, Ninemsn, Business Spectator, Carsales, Seek, Network Ten, ESPN and Fox Sports and hundreds of other prominent local sites all use Google Analytics. So does Twitter. Only a handful of large sites don’t use the service – including RealEstate.com.au, LinkedIn and Yahoo!7 and, more interestingly, the biggest site aside from Google, Facebook.

Before Google Analytics came along measurement of what happened on websites was pretty lousy. Aside from top line numbers around page impressions, system/browser, unique browsers, time of day and location, information was pretty limited. Google mashed together acquisitions such as Trendanalyzer, Urchin and Measure Map to create a much simpler yet far more detailed and intuitive tool. And they gave it away for free.

There’s no denying that Google is supplying the majority of the backbone of the ad supported internet – its Chrome browser is now the leading browser in most countries, the majority of digital advertisements are served via the company’s DoubleClick ad serving technology, and the majority of publishers rely on its analytics service to understand their audience. Most are using YouTube as their default video solution and rely heavily on embedding content posted to YouTube within stories to increase page dwell and engagement. As a result, Google knows far more about a website’s users – and their wider online habits – than the actual owners of the website are likely to. And so they should – Google is doing most of the heavy lifting and most publishers are failing to innovate as it’s simply easier for them to let Google do it and then use their kit.

The other digital business with a similar scale of valuable user data is Facebook. It knows a stack about most people online – age, location, education, friendship circle, close friends, places visited, interests, life stage, preferred brands, entertainment preferences – and like Google, Facebook has its own ambitions of being more than just a destination and more of an omnipresent consumer internet backbone.

It raises the idea: should Facebook develop its own analytics software available to sites across the internet? Facebook has its own analytics product available for brands and organisations to monitor and measure activity on their pages within the social network, but it is limited only to the Facebook domain. A wider analytics product would allow Facebook to monitor activity outside of its domain and generate more insights and information on users and their ‘real life’ behaviour, not just their behaviour on Facebook.

For web publishers, a Facebook analytics product could give them some needed insights around users – most importantly around their interests and social activity, which would be incredibly valuable information. The question is really whether Facebook wants to share any of this valuable information, or whether it wants to keep it to themselves to continue to fuel its stratospheric 40 per cent plus year-on-year growth.

It wouldn’t be surprising to see Facebook move in this direction. The distribution of Google Analytics is so vast that it gives Google unprecedented visibility into how consumers are using the internet, information the company can use to continue to refine its core products and data it can access to help fuel new products and services. Facebook has limited visibility on the wider internet due to the presence of ‘Like’ buttons across the web, but deeper information on what goes on outside its platform would be incredibly valuable data. And it’s data it will require to compete head on with Google over the next decade.

Ben Shepherd is a media and technology consultant. He can be found on LinkedIn and on Twitter.

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