Which Political Parties Should be Invited to Take Part in TV Debates?

Four of the UK’s largest broadcasters have announced plans for a series of leadership debates prior to the next general election. The BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4 plan to hold 3 debates:

  • One with the Conservative & Labour parties.
  • One with those parties plus the Liberal Democrats.
  • One with Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, and UKIP.

Their belief appears to be that this is what the public wants. I was not sure whether that was the case, therefore I carried out a poll of just over 1,000 people to find out. I gave the options of the above, plus a fourth option “All parties with at least one MP”.

The Overall Results

Here is the result of a survey of 1,003 people within the UK, asking the following question:

“Which political parties should be invited to appear in televised leadership debates ahead of the 2015 General Election?”


In summary, here is the breakdown, weighted to match the internet population of the UK:

As you can see, this is a significant result.

  • Just 10% opted for the 2 main parties alone.
  • Even less wished for the 2 main parties plus the Lib Dems.
  • The first 3 options combined make up the 3 debates planned by the BBC, ITV, Sky and Channel 4. Even when totaled up, these 3 options still form less than 50% of respondents’ preferred opion.
  • Well over half of respondents wish for all parties with at least one MP to be invited to the leadership debates.

Summary: Respondents to a poll of over 1,000 people in the UK want all parties with at least one MP to be invited to televised leadership debates.

Split by gender, the result looked as follows:

Result from Women

Result from Men

In summary: If we accept the poll as anywhere near representative of broader opinion, t is clear that the population of the UK would favour all parties with at least one MP be invited to appear in televised debates. At the time of writing those are as follows:


Appendix: Further Details

The survey was carried out between 14-16 October 2014. Users were surveyed while browsing websites. The breakdown of websites where users were asked the question was as follows:

  • News: 29.6%
  • Mobile: 18.9%
  • Arts & Entertainment: 17.1%
  • Other: 34.3%

Here is the makeup of the responding group, and their bias +/- the overall internet population of the UK:

If you’d like further details, drop a comment below or do get in touch. If you find this useful or interesting, please do share it with others.

Is the Cookie Law Being Enforced in the UK?

In 2012, “the cookie law” was implemented in the UK (it was actually a year earlier, but UK organisations were given a year’s grace period). I put in a ‘Freedom of Information’ request to the Information Commissioner’s office to see how they’re currently enforcing the law. Ashley Duffy (Lead Information Access Officer at the ICO) very kindly responded.

This post has a little bit of preamble, the numbers on how many ‘concerns’ have been raised about cookies by members of the public, detail on how the ICO has generally responded, and a summary.

Cookie Law?

The law essentially says you must tell your users prominently if your site is using cookies. Of course, by 2012 when the law began being enforced, almost every site on the web was using cookies, and therefore this meant every business in the UK rushed to do something to try and understand their requirements and comply with this new law. The Information Commissioner’s Office (who are responsible for policing this in the UK) flipped & flopped a little bit on what was acceptable for sites to do to gain consent that their visitors were happy to be tracked via cookies, but eventually agreed that ‘implied’ consent was a valid way for sites to achieve this. This is the approach that virtually every UK site now follows.

Here’s the ICO’s bullet-point guidance on what ‘implied consent’ means:

Some sites choose to take that to mean “we have to place a strip across the top of the site telling everyone”, some read it as “we just have to have a link in the footer that says “cookies”, etc. In summary though – it means almost without exception, sites in the UK place cookies without the user taking a specific ‘explicit’ action to say they’re happy with that. In other countries this is much harsher – for example in France many sites avoid placing any cookies until the user has either accepted, or clicked/scrolled on a page.

Enforcement: The Numbers

The Information Commissioner’s office very kindly replied to a Freedom of Information request I put in, asking for a breakdown of complaints & their response so far. They publish much of this info on their website, but it’s a tiny bit out of date & missing one or two answers. Here is the number of complaints (they refer to a complaint as a ‘concern’) that have been expressed to the Information Commissioner’s office, broken down over the last few years:

In other words, there have been a total of 1,023 ‘concerns’ raised by members of the public in the time since the law began being enforced. The number has dropped over time, with more than 50% of all complaints happening in the first 6 months after enforcement began, and only 7% of complaints in the last 6 months.

As context, the ICO received 47,465 ‘concerns’ about unwanted marketing communications between April & June 2014. In other words – if you’ve been doing the maths there, you’ll have noticed these 2 key stats:

  • Between July & September there was roughly only 1 complaint every 3 days.
  • Between April & June (all being equal) – it  was 1,249x more likely for a company to be complained about as a result of marketing communications than as a result of improperly informing users about cookies.

The ICO Response

The ICO give a good level of detail breaking down the above ‘concerns’ and their response:

  • Among the 1,023 complaints, there were 52 sites which were complained about more than once.
  • Following the 1,023 complaints since the ‘cookie law’ rolled out, the ICO say they have written to 275 organisations “where a complaint has been received about a website”. Absolutely no formal action has been taken (ie. no prosecution, fine, etc).
  • “27 larger sites have been investigated. We have prioritised those sites that are most-frequently visited by UK individuals (sites ranked within the top 200 most-visited in the UK). We have rated these sites as red, amber or green depending on the steps taken towards compliance. Currently all of these sites fall within the green category.”

The red/amber/green categories are as follows:

  • Red: The site hasn’t taken any steps to comply.
  • Amber: The site has taken some steps, but the ICO consider it ‘non-compliant’.
  • Green: “Significant steps taken to make users aware cookies are in use and obtain consent.”

Here’s a chart directly from the ICO showing the history of their classification for websites they’ve investigated. These are the group within their priority ‘top 200 most-visited in the UK’ about whom they’ve had complaints & have investigated:

As you can see, only one site among those has ever been in the red bracket, and all have moved into the “significant steps taken to make users aware cookies are in use and obtain consent” bucket. Ie: It looks like nobody’s ever been in any real trouble with the ICO in relation to cookies. I clarified this by asking for the number of sites prosecuted, or  where other action was taken against a site for the non-compliance of the cookie law, to which the response was:

“We have not had to take any formal action to date, instead we have used informal methods to secure compliance such as through correspondence and compliance meetings.”

That is the key line in this post really: nobody has been charged with anything in the UK, nobody has been fined, the ICO has simply worked with them to get them to a state where they’re happy that users have given ‘implied consent’ that they’re happy for sites to set cookies.


In summary, and in answer to the question in the headline:

  • Yes, the “cookie law” is being enforced.
  • It is most definitely not a high priority within the Information Commissioner’s Office. (they do not have a single member of full time staff assigned to it, for example)
  • ‘Enforcement’ so far has simply meant: take complaints from the public, prioritise them based on the scale of reach of the site concerned, contact organisations to ask them to take steps toward compliance, check whether they have done that.

Based on the extremely low number of complaints they’ve received, I’d say the ICO are doing a really good job of matching the response to the actual level of interest from the public: the general public does not seem fussed about this issue at all (for better or worse), or they are broadly happy with the way it’s presented by sites.

Finally, with the obvious caveats that the ICO could change their policies if they wish, and that I am not offering legal advice:

  • From a business perspective: if you’re not among the 200 most visited sites in the UK, it seems you’re likely to be lower priority from the ICO’s point of view.
  • Even among the top most visited sites, as long as you’ve taken steps toward compliance & you’re willing to cooperate and take more, you are likely (literally) to be able to achieve a green light.

How Google are Pivoting Brand Searches Into AdWords Profits

Google have been rolling out “Sitelinks Search Boxes” for many sites recently. These have existed for years, but on a very, very limited number of sites, and without any auto-complete functionality. These are useful from a user point of view but – something that has not been spoken about particularly – they also provide a big potential new revenue opportunity for Google. Here’s an example of how Google are using Sitelinks Search Boxes to turn a search for ‘ASOS’ into a potential click on an ad for the much more revenue-friendly term ‘Dresses': Here’s the user journey there, in case you find that difficult to follow:

  1. The user searches for ‘ASOS’.
  2. Google show the search results page for ASOS.
  3. The user sees the ‘search within asos’ box and types ‘dresses’
  4. Google takes the user to a search results page where the organic results are all from ASOS’ site, but the ads are all from competitors.

That means:

  • From Google’s point of view, a search term where they could expect a very small amount of ad spend in the past (brand search cost per click direct to the brand site is usually very low) has suddenly turned into a big revenue opportunity.  They of course have the ability to ‘autocomplete’ that search box with any terms they choose, and to populate ads in any way they choose on the page afterward.
  • From the main brand’s point of view (ASOS in this case), suddenly their brand search – a page where they’ll have spent lots of time, effort, and money to try and ensure they fully ‘own’ has the potential to drive customers to competitors.
  • From the secondary brands’ position (in this case Net-a-Porter & John Lewis), this is an opportunity to ‘steal’ a customer who had been searching specifically for another brand.

Additional Examples

On some searches there are no ads at present, on others there are simply sidebar ads, but on some – like the example below found by Mark Pinkerton – competitor ads are placed above the main brand:

And below is perhaps a more controversial example. Interflora fought a long battle with Marks & Spencer, based around Google Adwords, and their perception that M&S were unfairly gaining customers off the back of their brand. I triggered the below by searching Google for ‘Interflora’, then searching for ‘flowers’ in the sitelinks search box (the exact wording on the sitelinks search box is ‘Results from interflora.co.uk’). I suspect Interflora would not be delighted by this.

Potential Protection

For brands particularly worried about this, there is some potential protection. As suggested by Peter Wilson, it is possible to set things up so that the sitelinks search box delivers users to your own internal search, rather than to another google results page. Here’s an example of the instructions to achieve that:


Multiply this across the tens of thousands of brands where Google is enabling these Sitelinks Search Boxes, and – assuming users take advantage of them – is likely to be a big revenue driver for Google, a big opportunity for some brands to target their competitors, and a cost for others to protect their own brands.

It will be interesting to see the impacts of this, especially tied with Google recently removing the ability to exactly target particular phrases. Do leave any thoughts below, or share this with others if you think they would find it interesting or useful.



I updated this post to add extra examples from Mark Pinkerton (chelsea boots), Peter Wilson (how to protect), and Geoff Losse (interflora).

What Would Happen if you Flipped the Scotland #indyref Question?

The Scotland referendum question is worded like this:

“Should Scotland be an independent country?”

As a result, the “Independent Scotland” campaigners are called the “Yes” camp, and those who want the UK to stay together are the “No” camp.

I’ve heard it suggested quite a few times that this puts the ‘unionists’ at a fundamental disadvantage: they’re trying to get people to vote for a negative result. I therefore thought it would be interesting to run a survey on the opposite question. Here’s the answer, when asked of 1,000 people within Scotland:

“Should Scotland be part of the United Kingdom?”

In other words: in a poll of 1,000 people in Scotland, when asked the reverse of the independence question, there was most definitely not a strong swing toward keeping the union.

You could ask further questions: “Has months of seeing ‘yes’ vs ‘no’ genuinely moved peoples’ opinions toward ‘yes’?”, would the ‘Yes’ campaign have been successful if they had been campaigning with ‘No’ banners for months, etc, but I think there’s enough here to satisfy the smaller question, and to say that the framing of the question does not appear to directly affect the likelihood of someone flipping their vote.


Appendix: Poll Details

As per previous surveys I’ve carried out, this was carried out via the web. The results are weighted to match the ‘Internet Population’ of Scotland, which is generally thought to trend slightly younger & slightly more urban than the general population.

For full clarity, here’s the breakdown in the group of respondents:


I’ve carried out a series of these polls. You can see two more, with further caveats on the methodology here:

Scotland Poll result: 53.9% Yes

Here are the results of a poll run on a sample of Scottish web users between 7-9 September. The poll reported – when weighted to match the Scottish internet population’s general makeup – a 53.9% ‘Yes’ vote for the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

The poll results were from 1,000 people in Scotland (for context, the last YouGov poll was of 1084 poeple). The poll was displayed to web users as they browsed media, mobile, arts & entertainment websites. The question was displayed to 2,873 people, from which 1,000 responded. The “Yes” result was reported with 95% significance (meaning if the same poll were run 100 times, the answer would be “Yes” on at least 95 occasions).

Weighted Results:  “Should Scotland be an independent country?

  • 53.9%  ‘Yes’

  • 46.1% ‘No’


Unweighted Results: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

The 1,000-person sample didn’t exactly match the makeup of the Scottish population (by age & gender), and therefore the above ‘weighted’ results have been altered to take that into account. For complete disclosure I’ve included the ‘unweighted’ results below, which actually lean further toward ‘Yes’. By unweighted results, I mean the results below are the ‘raw’ data, ignoring whether or not the age/gender of respondents matched the general internet users of Scotland.

  • 55.1% ‘Yes’
  • 44.9% ‘No’.


Do share this with others if you think they would find it interesting. Feel free to leave any/all comments below.

Appendix: Further Detail:

  • The poll ran & as displayed to a random sample of users within Scotland between 6:36pm on September 7th to 5:31pm on September 9th.
  • There was no “Don’t know” answer displayed.
  • The answers were displayed in the same order each time: ‘Yes’ first, ‘No’ second.
  • The question was worded as per the official question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?
  • There are lots of caveats with data such as this. It is a ‘snapshot’ rather than a ‘prediction’.
  • I have asked the specific ballot question, rather than framing it as “If you were to vote today, would you vote for Scotland to be an independent country?”.
  • I’ve left error bars on the results so that you can see the variability.
  • I included a series of caveats & additional notes on a previous similar poll I ran. You can read those in the ‘caveats’ section of this post.
  • For full clarity, here is the breakdown of respondents, and their bias vs the general ‘Internet Population’ of Scotland

Do share this with others if you think they would find it interesting. Feel free to leave any/all comments below.


Postal Code Data Now in Google Analytics

Google Analytics is now recording Post Code data for visitors to websites across Europe.

Rachel McCombie of Air Experiences was the first to spot the change.

Here’s an example for the UK, where over the last few days roughly 5% of ‘city’ traffic has been recorded with a postal code rather than a city name (the percentage varied by account):

(Note that this only contains the first portion of postcodes, which gives a smallish region, but not enough data to personally identify someone.)

The data is being recorded across other European countries too. For example here’s a snapshot of some postal code data being recorded in Germany – home of the toughest data protection laws in Europe. (Across a few accounts, German postal code data was being recorded for roughly 1.5% of all country sessions):

Similar data appears to now be flowing into accounts across many European countries, as pointed out by Benoît Perrotin:

The data appears to have begun trickling in on August 27th, with a much greater flow on the 28th:

Positives & Negatives

There are some big positives of this, but also a few negatives:


  • This is great for direct mailers, whose businesses are very much focused around postal regions.
    • If it’s accurate, it allows you to judge response from particular regions.
    • Allows you to attribute sales to catalogues that you previously may not.
  • It’s probably good for charities, political parties, and other campaigners.
    • Many of these businesses have a ‘local’ focus, for example political parties tailoring messaging by postal code, and using local volunteers.
  • It’s good for any business with retail outlets. Rather than the arbitrary ‘city’ names, that often included small towns, postal codes are
  • It also means you can match up your data more easily with other sources:
    • Returns data for retailers.
    • Third party demographic data.
    • Population data, to understand your traffic in areas vs the actual size of the population.

The Caveats:

The first caveat is, we do not know how this data is being collected, or why it seems only to cover a percentage of traffic.

The second caveat is, it’s unlikely that the data here would be completely accurate & comprehensive. That being the case, you’d only ever likely get a sample for any given area, and it would be difficult to tell whether those samples were evenly sized by region (eg. if I’m told I have 100 visits from postcode A and 200 from postcode B, does that mean I actually got double the number of visits from the latter, or just that fewer visits from the first area were correctly classified?)

The biggest caveat on all of this is that – at present – the data is being recorded in the ‘City’ field within Google Analytics. That makes things a bit of a mess: Some of the data is still recorded as city/town names, some is now recorded as postal codes. That means firstly that the data can’t be used with much confidence (eg. if you see a postal code, you have to ask “is that all of the data for that region, or is some of it grouped under a town name somewhere?)

Update: A final caveat is: Martin Macdonald spotted an oddity with an ‘ME14′ postcode appearing to be very popular. On further digging, the same postcodes seem to appear again & again among the top 5 for different accounts. Speculation (from @scottjlawson & @davecatley) is these may be large internet exchanges/providers.

How to Find the Data

The simplest way to reach the data is to navigate to:

  • Audience > Geo > Location.
  • Click the ‘City’ Primary Dimension (just to the top left of the main table listings)
  • Use the search filter box, placing the following filter into it: “[0-9]” (including braces, excluding quotes). This essentially says ‘show me any results that contain any number’, which matches most postal codes across Europe (and of course excludes City names, which do not contain numbers)

Alternatively, the following Google Analytics Custom Report will give you a quick snapshot of Sessions listed by Postal Code and Country:


My hope is that this data will remain in Analytics. Ideally it would be in an additional dimension (‘Postal Code’) rather than being shoe-horned into the ‘City’ field, and would cover the US and other regions.

If you have any thoughts about any of this, do share them with me (@danbarker) on Twitter, or leave a comment below.

Do English People want Scotland to Stay Part of the UK?

Here are the results of 2 surveys. The first is one that’s been run quite a lot by polling organisations over the last couple of years. The second one is much rarer. Here are the descriptions:

  • Survey 1: A survey of 1,000 people in Scotland, carried out over the web, asking the simple quesiton “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
  • Survey 2: A survey of 500 people in England, again carried out over the web, asking the same question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

I thought it was strange the second question had not been asked more often, so thought I would run a poll myself.

Scottish Results

Here are the overall results of 1,000 people in Scotland being asked the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?”

As you can see – very, very close. So close in fact that – if you look at those ‘+/-4.6%’ error bars, it’s literally too close to call based on the 1,000 people surveyed.

(I’ve included error bars, so you can see the margin of error (and whether they are meaningful), and broken them down by age & gender too.)

Scottish Results by Age

Here are the results split by age, for the 2/3 of respondents where the age was known.

As you can see, the largest ‘Yes’ lean is among those 35-44; the largest ‘No’ lean is 18-24. This is interesting, but, as these are small groups of respondents I would not draw any conclusions based on this. (see the error bars, for example)

Scottish Results by Gender

Here are the Scottish results, split by gender:

Again, that’s leaning toward ‘Yes’  for male, and ‘No’ for female, but too close to call.

English Results

I ran exactly the same survey across 500 people in England – asking the question “Should Scotland be an independent country?” (worded exactly, I believe, as the official ballot question).

This time, the results were very, very different:

English Results by Age

Splitting this out by age, the results are very similar across all brackets (albeit note the error bars again here – these are very small samples in each group, so far from exact).

English Results by Gender

Again, splitting by gender we see a similar picture: English people do not want Scotland to be an independent country.


It’s always worth caveating this kind of survey (in fact that’s true of almost all data). This is not an election. I did not ask “If you were to vote today, how would you vote when asked the question ‘Should Scotland be an independent country?'” – I simply asked the actual ballot question Scottish voters will be asked.

You’ll notice that I surveyed 500 people in England here, and 1000 in Scotland (note ‘in England’, ‘in Scotland’ rather than English/Scottish). The reason for that was I started by surveying 500 people in each. The “England” results were so conclusive I stopped. There was no clear winner in Scotland, so I ran for another 500 responses. Again, too close to call.

The final obvious caveat is: I haven’t surveyed Northern Ireland or Wales here. If you’d like me to do that, feel free to add a comment on the post. And – if you’d like me to survey more people in England if you feel doing so would alter the outcome – feel free to drop me a note too.

Overall Summary

The polls here are snapshots of 2 particular audiences. Based on those audiences, we can say:

  • The audience within Scotland are not sure whether they want Scotland to be part of the United Kingdom or not. The results are quite literally too close to call. (Voting one way or the other is another matter, where actual risk & proactive effort are both involved)
  • The English audience on the other hand are are very, very, very much swayed one way: they want Scotland to remain part of the UK.

Do share this with others if you think they may be interested.

LinkedIn’s Sneaky UX Trick

Occasionally at the moment when you click a LinkedIn notification on your phone, the LinkedIn app opens and – before you’re taken to the notification – you’re presented with this screen:

That looks fairly mundane at first glance. Often apps present you with information before taking you to wherever you were going. But… if you click ‘Continue’ there, you’re actually saying “I agree to LinkedIn importing my phone address book, and storing all of those personally identifiable details within their database”.

I think that’s a bit sneaky for 3 reasons:

  1. At first glance it’s not obvious that clicking ‘continue’ will do something as big as import your address book (!)
  2. This appears when you click on a notification from your phone (eg. someone new connecting to you). In that context, ‘Continue’ feels like it means ‘Continue on to where we were taking you'; not ‘Continue importing the details of all of my friends/family/colleagues’.
  3. There is no ‘skip this’ option at all. Your 2 choices are ‘Continue’ (presented in high-contrast) or ‘Learn More’ (presented in grey-on-grey text).

I think: it feels like this has been done with the intent of getting people to click ‘Continue’ without realising what they’re doing, or because it appears to be their only real choice.

What do you think?

The Real Original Source of the Phrase “Big Data”

Big Data

In early 2013, Steve Lohr of the New York Times published an article where he tracked down the origin of the phrase “Big Data”. He found several different sources, and declared that it originated in the mid-1990s. But… he specifically opted to conclude that the very earliest source he could find – from 1989 – was not the originator. His reasoning was based on 2 factors:

  1. He wanted to credit someone who used the phrase in a technical way: “The credit, it seemed to me, should go to someone who was aware of the computing context.”
  2. He did not feel that the original usage of the phrase fitted the same idea of ‘Big Data’ as his. He therefore concluded the first usage was: “not, I don’t think, a use of the term that suggests an inkling of the technology we call Big Data today.”

I read Steve’s article at the time, where he declared that the first ever use of “Big Data” was not the originator, and thought “that’s a little unfair”. I keep going back to it, because the first source he found, and apparently the original usage of the phrase “Big Data” was very insightful, and covers perhaps the two biggest issues in relation to data today: its massive worth from a corporate point of view, and its massive privacy implications from a consumer point of view.

The original article was published on July 26th, 1989, under the headline “How Did They Get Your Name? Direct-mail Firms Have Vast Intelligence Network Tracking Consumers”. It was written by Erik Larson (now a best-selling author). The article talks about organisations gathering, joining, and mining data on millions of people, to use for marketing purposes. Here are a couple of example paragraphs:

“We’ve been scavenged by data pickers who sifted through our driving record and auto registrations, our deed and our mortgage, in search of what direct mailers see as the keys to our identities; our sexes, ages, the ages of our cars, the equity we hold in our home.

The scavengers record this data in central computers, which, in turn, merge it with other streams of revelatory data collected from other sources – the types of magazines we subscribe to, the organizations we support, how much credit we’ve got left – and then spit it all out (for a price) to virtually anyone who wants it.”

It goes on to talk about future implications of all of this:

It is an interesting exercise to imagine the big marketing databases put to use in other times, other places, by less trustworthy souls. What, for instance, might health insurers do with the subscription lists of gay publications?

Despite the dated & simplistic example, this is of course what many people today worry about: what governments try to regulate, where companies spend millions setting up & utilising systems, what we use in real time to deliver relevant ads to people as they browse websites, and – with a little stretching – what much of the NSA/Edward Snowden stuff was about. It is an article from 1989 talking about one of the biggest issues in technology today. And there, in the middle, is the first ever usage of the phrase “Big Data”:


There’s a copy of the original article over on the Orlando Sentinel website, ironically now full of real-time targeted ads. Erik Larson later released a book expanding on the topic “The Naked Consumer: How Our Private Lives Become Public Commodities”. Despite being 25 years old, both the article and the book essentially talk about one of the versions of the phrase “Big Data” we use today: a cornerstone of modern marketing from a corporate point of view, and a privacy worry from a consumer point of view for many.

BuzzFeed is Watching You

When you visit BuzzFeed, they record lots of information about you.

Most websites record some information. BuzzFeed record a whole ton. I’ll start with the fairly mundane stuff, and then move on to one example of some slightly more scary stuff.

First: The Mundane Bits

Here’s a snapshot of what BuzzFeed records when you land on a page. They actually record much more than this, but this is just the info they pass to Google (stored within Google Analytics):

Here’s a description of what’s going on there:

The first line there is how many times in total I’ve visited the site (above this, which I’ve skipped for brevity, it also records the time I first visited, and a timestamp of my current visit).

Below that, the ‘Custom Var’ block is made up of elements BuzzFeed have actively decided “we need to record this in addition to what Google Analytics gives us out of the box”. Against these, you can see ‘scope’. A scope of ‘1’ means it’s something recorded about the user, ‘2’ means it’s recorded about the current visit, ‘page’ means it’s just a piece of information about the page itself.

There you can see other info they’re tracking, including:

  • Have you connected Facebook with BuzzFeed?
  • Do you have email updates enabled?
  • Do they know your gender & age?
  • How many times have you shared their content directly to Facebook & Twitter & via Email?
  • Are you logged in?
  • Which country are you in?
  • Are you a buzzfeed editor?
  • …and about 25 other pieces of information.

Within this you can also see it records ‘username’. I think that’s recording my user status, and an encoded version of my username. If I log in using 2 different browsers right now, it assigns me that same username string, but I’m going to caveat that I’m not 100% sure they’re recording that it is ‘me’ browsing the site (ie. that they’re able to link the data they’re recording in Google Analytics about my activity on the site back to my email address and other personally identifiable information). Either way, everything we’ve covered so far is quite mundane.

The Scary Bit

The scary bit occurs when you think about certain types of BuzzFeed content; most specifically: quizzes. Most quizzes are extremely benign – the stereotypical “Which [currently popular fictional TV show] Character Are You?” for example. But some of their quizzes are very specific, and very personal.

Here, for example, is a set of questions from a “How Privileged are You?” quiz, which has had 2,057,419 views at the time I write this. I’ve picked some of the questions that may cause you to think “actually, I wouldn’t necessarily want anyone recording my answers here”.

When you click any of those quiz answers, BuzzFeed record all of the mundane information we looked at earlier, plus they also records this:

Here’s what’s they’re recording there:

  • ‘event’ simply means something happened that BuzzFeed chose to record in Google Analytics.
  • ‘Buzz:content’ is how they’ve categorised the type of event.
  • ‘clickab:quiz-answer’ means that the event was a quiz answer.
  • ‘ad_unit_design3:desktopcontrol’ seems to be their definition of the design of the quiz answer that was clicked.
  • ‘ol:1218987′ is the quiz ID. In other words, if they wish, they could say “show me all the data for quiz 1218987″ knowing that’s the ‘Check Your Privelege’ quiz.
  • ‘1219024’ is the actual answer I checked. Each quiz answer on BuzzFeed has a unique ID like this. Ie. if you click “I have never had an eating disorder” they record that click.

In other words, if I had access to the BuzzFeed Google Analytics data, I could query data for people who got to the end of the quiz & indicated – by not checking that particular answer – that they have had an eating disorder. Or that they have tried to change their gender. Or I could run a query along the following lines if I wished:

  • Show me all the data for anyone who answered the “Check Your Privelege” quiz but did not check “I have never taken medication for my mental health”.

In BuzzFeed’s defense, I’m sure when they set up the tracking in the first place they didn’t foresee that they’d be recording data from quizzes of this personal depth. This is just a single example, but I suspect this particular quiz would have had less than 2 million views if everyone completing it realised every click was being recorded & could potentially be reported on later – whether that data is fully identifiable back to individual users, or pseudonymous, or even totally anonymous.

What do you think?