Why Care About Privacy with Web Analytics?

Dec 24, 2022 business security

If Google gives free access to their web traffic tool called Google Analytics, why would you need anything else? Why would you care? Let’s briefly talk about why privacy matters and what you can do instead.

Know all of this? Skip to the bottom to get my security-minded privacy-focused analytics recommendation.

Why Do You Need Web/App Analytics?

As a non-marketer, I always thought that website analytics are only a vanity metric. “Look how popular I am!” - but there’s so much more to it.

Analytics help you understand if there is interest in your content. This matters if you’re trying to make sales - or if you’re just trying to educate and teach visitors altruistically. Let me explain.

First, you can determine if your landing pages and calls to actions are converting using things like funnels and click-through tracking. You could do A/B testing (seeing if one copy or one version of a website design or content does better than another to accomplishing your goal). All of this is measured with analytics and helps you determine the most profitable and effective way to sell your product or service.

But, what if you have nothing to sell? Maybe you’re just teaching other programmers (or others in your field) what you’ve learned so they don’t have to make the same mistakes as you. Analytics still matter. You can tell which topics are most important, and that’ll help you focus on what to write/share in the future. (In the same way that college classes can be canceled because of lack of interest - maybe your direction of documentation can change, too.). It also may tell you sites that have referred you traffic - so you can find a wider range of audience for your content and networking.

Analytics aren’t just for vanity - they can help you whether you’re selling or teaching.

This sounds amazing, but how much does it cost? Some are offered free, like Google Analytics.

What Does Free Cost You?

The internet isn’t free. In fact, if you’re a programmer (even if you’re in open source), you likely still want to get paid for building software. That’s not unique to you. All products on the internet have a cost.

So why is Google Analytics free? What is it costing me?

It’s free because it makes money off of understanding your actions and marketing other products to you. This includes it’s search engine and the supporting ads. It does this by invading your privacy in a particularly nasty and seemingly-benign way.

Google Analytics builds a profile about you and follows you to every website you visit that uses their services. Use a site with Google Analytics? You’ve been tracked. That site then maybe submits any demographic information it knows about you to Google in return for better targeting of you in the future. They have helped themselves market to you - individually - and likely within the bounds of what you expect. But Google doesn’t sandbox that data. It’s added to your profile.

Next, go to a website - maybe even a naughty website - and see a popup to sign into Google (who would?!). Tracked. Now, Google has a general idea about your sexuality or what inspires you.

Finally, log into Gmail in a new browser. Tracked. Now Google knows about you, and your email address. This process is repeated and aggregated multiple times. (And before you say ‘well I use private browsing’, you really don’t. Cookies and IP addresses are just the beginning of how people are tracked. That’s beyond the scope of this article.)

Now, I know what you’re going to say…

I have nothing to hide!

Yet? Or do you? Let’s briefly touch on all the ways that this is not true:

  • Depending on the country you live in, you may already be part of a system that tracks its citizenry. You may not be under attack now, but you could be soon.
  • The information could be sold and repackaged, and used by scammers to build a profile of you (or your loved ones). Imagine someone calling your grandmother, using all the information they know about you based on your internet activities, to convince her to send them money.
  • You don’t know what 10 years from now brings. More than a decade ago, I was involved in politics. Never thought I’d be there - never want to be again. But if you would have asked me when I was 20 if I had nothing to hide, that was a ’no.’ 10 years later, while nothing I did was ‘wrong,’ it became news stories.
  • Aggregate data is used in ways beyond your control. You may not think this applies to you directly, but it does. When enough data is gathered about people online, we can make generalizations about the society in that area. Would you like it if your social projects were altered based on how you spend your time on the internet? Or, would you like to spend more money because you happen to have a technology configuration shared by people with more disposable income?

These are not all pie-in-the-sky things that ‘could’ happen - they are happening right now.

But don’t worry. While some things are beyond our control, we can still fight ’the man’ - or at least retain a little bit of our privacy.

What is the best privacy-focused Analytics tool?

It’s important that owners of site consider these security implications for their visitors (as well as themselves!). With this in mind, the best solution would be to implement analytics (an arguably needed tool) by a vendor who focuses on privacy.

Enter Fathom Analytics.

Fathom Analytics (affiliate link) is a Google Analytics alternative that doesn’t compromise security and use your data as a product, without your permission. It is GDPR compliant - and doesn’t require cookie notices. The features, while not identical to GA, are pretty well developed and expanded: they support most features the average user and marketer need.

And their founders, Paul and Jack, have bootstrapped the company and shared a lot publicly. They work within the Laravel community and have a proven track record of building reliable software with Fathom.

Finally, and this is one of my favorite features, you can still load your analytics code even when people have turned on (some) adblock apps. This isn’t for advertising, so because of that, they’ve built a system that allows you to use a custom subdomain to host their analytics code.

Fathom Analytics is not free - because you aren’t the product. But, you can get a free trial and try it out before you get started. If you use my affiliate link, you will receive a $10 discount on your first invoice and I’ll receive a commission. I believe in this product - I use it on this website - as well as most websites I’m responsible for.).

Get Fathom Analytics now. (affiliate link)

By the way… They’re committed to privacy and security, and therefore have built their own affiliate tracking system. This means it works when you use it - but doesn’t necessarily track you long-term.

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