Mental Pivot

Notes and observations from a lifelong pursuit of learning.


Ethical Web Analytics: Alternatives to Google

A thread on Hacker News titled “Stop donating your customers’ data to Google” gave me the necessary jolt to do something I’ve had on my to-do list: remove Google Analytics from my website.

The “don’t be evil” Google is long gone and many of us are wary of advertising, personal data collection and privacy intrusions. For bloggers like myself, having some view into activity on my site traffic and activity is essential. At a minimum it provides visibility about what’s working and what’s not on my website which is information that can be used to improve my blog.

Given my modest analytics needs, its overkill for me to need to track a reader’s activity across the web and to then share that data with an advertising juggernaut like Google. I simply want to track my content. Most analytics packages are all about tracking the user. Web marketers argue that the latter is more effective and valuable; from an advertising standpoint they’re right. But the cost of this intrusive type of tracking is one we’re all familiar with: compromised personal privacy and a constant barrage of marketing messages. I’m no longer comfortable with those costs.

So what are the alternatives? Let’s start with the requirements.

My requirements for analytics (in order of priority):

  1. A basic analytics dashboard, nothing overly complicated: visits, popular content, referrers and device info (e.g. phone or desktop).
  2. A privacy-focused solution: no user tracking, no data-sharing or selling to 3rd parties, is GDPR compliant.
  3. Free to use or reasonably priced subscription fee (I’m not making money off this blog so I don’t want to pay anymore than I need to for this hobby). Anything over $10/month is a non-starter at this point for me.
  4. No-fuss setup and maintenance. This blog a hobby. I don’t want to fiddle with configuration and patches/updates, I already have to do that since I’m self-hosting Ghost. However, open source is a plus in the event I do elect to host at some point.
  5. Tool will be around for years to come. It doesn’t do me much good if the service goes down a few months from now.

Unfortunately the landscape of qualified alternatives is thin (for solutions that hits most of the above criteria). Google Analytics is popular with small blogs like mine because it nails points 3, 4 and 5 so well: it’s free, easy to setup and will be around forever.

Fortunately there are a handful of solutions that meet some of my requirements. Here is a shortlist of alternatives and their pros/cons based on those criteria.


Countly

  • Pros: Privacy-focused, free if you use the self-hosted option, open source, platform longevity (launched in 2013).
  • Cons: Self-hosted. The cloud-based "enterprise" solution requires subscription (the price is not disclosed on the website).

Fathom

  • Pros: Simple analytics, privacy-focused, cloud-based.
  • Cons: Unproven longevity (launched in 2018); open source code for self-hosted solution, “Fathom Lite,” may not be actively maintained, least expensive subscription tier is $14 (if you pay annual there is an additional discount).

Goatcounter

  • Pros: Simple analytics dashboard (possibly to simple?), privacy-focused, cloud solution is free for noncommercial use, open source.
  • Cons: Unproven longevity (launched late 2019). Least expensive commercial subscription plan is $17/month.

Matomo (formerly Piwik)

  • Pros: Privacy-focused, free, open source, platform longevity (launched in 2007).
  • Cons: Self-hosted, feature-rich but complex dashboard (great if you’re looking for the most robust Google Analytics solution).

Plausible

  • Pros: Simple analytics, privacy-focused, cloud-based solution with reasonable $6/month subscription tier, open source (so self hosting is also an option).
  • Cons: Unproven longevity (launched 2019), requires subscription for cloud-based solution.

Simple Analytics

  • Pros: Privacy-focused, cloud-hosted solution.
  • Cons: Requires subscription (best basic pricing is annual plan, $9/month)

Visitor Analytics

  • Pros: Privacy-focused, cloud-based solution with reasonable pricing tiers.
  • Cons: Requires subscription. unproven longevity (launched 2016). Lowest subscription tier is $4/month for an annual commitment.

In the final analysis, Goatcounter and Plausible tick off the most boxes on my requirements checklist so I’m going to try both services out for a few weeks.

Goatcounter is free for non-commercial websites and has a strong privacy-focus. It’s a cloud-hosted solution which means I don’t have to setup and configure my own server. Plausible, on the other hand, is not free but it does have a generous 30-day trial and does not require a credit card to activate the trial period (other web services take note: these two customer-friendly decisions win big points from me). If I do elect to continue beyond the trial, the $6/month pricing strikes me as entirely reasonable.

The biggest downside risk with using Goatcounter and Plausible is that both are new (e.g. green and untested) services maintained by a single developer. It remains to be seen whether or not the solo founders behind these tools can maintain and grow their product. Fortunately there are viable alternatives. The other shortlisted solutions under consideration if either don't pan out are Simple Analytics and Fathom.

I’ll be sure to update the blog with any further developments on this topic (and whether or not I need to run back to Google Analytics with my ideals tucked between my legs). Google still exerts a strong influence on my everyday life–I still use gmail, google docs, and maps–but every little dependency that can be shed for a better alternative helps tip the scales back in favor of personal privacy.