An Exact Science

Statistics & Analytics are the words we associate with complete accuracy, transparency and immutability. What was true yesterday cannot become false the day of tomorrow. The 5 doesn’t become 6,5 with the rise of the dawn, and Australia does not convert into Austria no matter how hard we insist on it.

Google Analytics has become one of the biggest and most crucial tools in organizing website performance. Hundreds of online courses have been created with the sole purpose of teaching you how to collect website data, analyze your traffic and master all the ins and outs of the Google Analytics tool. Using its findings day-to-day, we are unconditionally confident that it presents the most reliable, current and accurate information possible.

But is it a true lie of the land, or are we so used to considering it so that we no longer bother checking? Well, it turns out it’s the latter. The story described below reveals how one small mistake can result in a big disaster.

Wrong Place, Wrong Time

This story happened in early 2016 shows how our trustworthiness towards analytics can turn against us. A small town in Kansas, called Potwin, among other reaches, is granted with a 360-acre piece of land surrounded by mystery. The land has a long story of being owned by the Vogelman family, and now one of its succeeders is renting out the place.

This quiet, and remote in the fullest meaning of this word place with a farm, barns and a couple-story house has been a center of attention of local and state police, FBI forces and even federal representatives. Why you would wonder?

Supposedly this exact location has been on the radar of all security agencies for years thanks to being recognized as a center of identity theft, fraud activities and spam distribution. It wouldn’t be much trouble if it was home to local pets and the wild Kansas winds, but unfortunately, this land hosted more than that. It hosted a family, renting the Vogelman property, who got accused of all kinds of unlawful activities for the whole last decade.

It started with a call from Connecticut from a businessman who was furious about his email system overreacting and disrupting his customer’s work. He explained the disruption being caused by the address of the farm. And over the next couple month, the amount of notification of the same nature intensified. People from various companies kept calling, some went as far as visiting, the others even scrounged around in their barn. Even a broken toilet has been left in the driveway as a threatening message of a special kind.

And all of these accusations were caused by a single mistake. Lost peace of an innocent family for over a decade became a product of our blind faith towards the infallibility of Google Analytic tools. To find out why this happened, let’s look into how Geo-targeting works.

The Infallible Tool

Determining, finding and targeting the right demographic is the key to effective marketing.

Geo-targeting plays a fundamental role in this process, allowing you to reach your audience based on their location and increase the effectiveness of any released advertisement.

Geo-targeting is based on determining the IP addresses of the users and sending them specific ads derived from their location. How it turns out, the IP address itself does not contain any geographical information. It is linked to a deterministic ID or a cookie, which then acts as a representative of the internet users and the country they live in. When it comes to assigning that ID a real-life location, a special database is created and used. There is no universal, unified source of geo-locations, and each company like MaxMind and Digital Element is using their inhouse-developed geo-location database.

And this is where the confusion comes from. Geo-location information providers use a number of technics to assign IP addresses to real-life locations, including data registry and IP spidering, yet none of these methods provide a reliable way to determine the exact location. What the said process really comes down to is pure guessing of required address by comparing the time it takes data to travel from a known IP location to the unknown one, and by making predictions based on the original location the IP appeared from in the first place.

Billions of addresses requiring verification, their processing done by human efforts and inaccurate deterministic methods being used explain why the Kansas story described above is not the first one, and far from being the only one on the list of mistakes made by this faultless, rigorous, and precise analytics tool.

Finding a Solution

Knowing about the possible inaccuracies in your geographical findings is already half a solution.

Based on a special case study, testing the precision of the Google Analytics Geo tool described in this article, there is a number of things we can do to avoid them.

Firstly, it’s important to abstain from basing our marketing activities on precise locations, such as cities, their areas or regions. If possible, take into account more wholesome locations e.g. a country or a province to avoid any data distortion. If the success of your campaigns does rely on the exact location of your target audience, consider using this tip. Even though AdWords use the same geo-services as Google Maps do, they allow targeting users with mobile devices. The phone’s location is measured more accurately thanks to the use of the Global Positioning System (GPS), which uses a set of 30 satellites to determine carriers position, presenting huge leverage in provided accuracy.  

Using your awareness regarding the process of determining geo-locations and its underlying issues will help guide you in your future decision-making and avoid possible mistakes.