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Measuring your website traffic is one of the most useful things you can do for your online business.

Identifying your most viewed pages, how people are finding your site and where people are bailing is important for intelligently revising your marketing strategy on an ongoing basis.

My go-to tool for this has always been Google Analytics (GA).

It’s a great tool. I love trawling through the tables and graphs, cross referencing attributes and spotting patterns in data. It’s helped me improve my site as well as those of my clients – which has improved their businesses as a whole – over the years.

Whilst GA in all its graphy splendour is free to use, it does not come without cost. The truth is that it feeds all your awesome website data into the Google hivemind, including the very grey area of the demographic data of your website visitors who are logged into their Google account.

If you’re learning this for the first time, you’ve probably not read my recent blog about online privacy. If it scares the bejesus out of you, here’s some advice:

  1. Don’t use Chrome. Instead, consider a privacy-focussed browser such as Brave.
  2. Don’t browse sites when logged into your Google account.
  3. Use an incognito tab so you don’t get tracked.

If using Google Analytics, it’s definitely worth turning off the sharing of your data with Google’s advertising algorithm using the highlighted toggles in the Data Retention settings.

Whilst I’ve always made sure to turn off as many of the ‘share with Google’ options as possible when installing GA on a new website, the formidable privacy policy you have to agree to no doubt dismisses these requests.

As scary as all that sounds, GA has always been considered the industry standard for web analytics and is installed on roughly 70 per cent of ALL websites.

Following Laura Kalbag’s chilling privacy talk at New Adventures 2020 I figured it was time to take the initiative and take control of my digital privacy. It would not hurt to have a little less ‘big tech’ in my life (and in the lives of my website visitors).

Enter Fathom Analytics

Around the same time as New Adventures 2020, I’d spotted Fathom Analytics, a minimalist website analytics tool that does not track personal data. It also doesn’t use cookies so you don’t need that ugly cookie notification bar any more. Hurrah!

The Fathom Analytics logo.

Fathom does not track personal data, so when someone visits your site it will only log that someone went on this page and that page, but not who specifically. It collects the important stuff such as which pages are popular, not what Jim from Manchester who likes beer and cat memes did on your website.

Created by an indie software company run by Jack Ellis and Paul Jarvis, Fathom Analytics seemed to be building quite a reputation amongst my Twitter pals.

I decided to experiment, so during March 2020 I ran both GA and Fathom side by side on my site to see how they compared at measuring my site traffic.

Setting up my Fathom account was straightforward. There was no signing my life away to a wall of text privacy policy. I just popped the tracking code onto my site and we were up and running in a few minutes.

Minimalist interface

The Fathom Analytics Dashboard is simple, clean and to the point. Small business owners who have a million other things to do other than check their website data will love this straightforward presentation.

Fathom promises simple analytics and it delivers this by presenting your website usage data in a single page that lists only the most useful data. This includes:

  • Page views
  • Number of visitors
  • Average time on site
  • Average bounce rate
  • Goals completed

These topline stats also come with a label comparing them to the previous month.

Both unique visits and page views are tidily displayed on a single graph. More detailed information including your top pages (with page views and unique visits) and referrers are listed in tables.

Other useful (check-once-in-a-while) data such as device type, browser and country can be toggled on and off to reduce the amount of clutter on the page.

Reducing your data diet

Pug looking at a cheesecake.

This is a metaphor. The cake is data or Google or something. Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Whilst great for giving an overview, for a statistic fiend like me who looks at website data every day it took me a little while to stop asking: “Where’s the rest of it?”.

It’s made me realise how much personal data is required for Google Analytics to be as useful as it is.

Ultimately, I’ve had to ask myself if I really need to collect all this data? How much of this is actually useful to me as a business? For example:

  • Do I really give a hoot how long people spend on each individual page?
  • Looking at the world map with all the little dots on is fun (“Mum, someone viewed my site from Papua New Guinea!”), but how useful is it actually?
  • Do I need to know the bounce rate of people viewing my site from Blackpool?

In the grand scheme of things, is it worthwhile for me to collect umpteen metrics of data and then pass it all to Google when I’m only using a few key numbers?

The Fathom dashboard tells me which pages are more viewed and which channels my visitors are coming from. Do I need much more?

A few things I’d like to see

OK, so yes, there are a few things I think would be useful to include.

  • Add annotations to the graph, so I can remind myself why I had spikes on certain days (e.g. I posted a blog or sent a newsletter out).
  • Reorder the content and referrers tables by unique visits. Knowing which pages have been viewed by 20 people once can be more valuable than which page has been viewed 20 times by one person.
  • Present the graph in weeks or months rather than just days, so it’s easier to identify long-term changes.
  • Filter the tables, e.g. just seeing pages with /blog/ in the URL so you can analyse specific sections of your site.
  • Identify landing pages. This is really useful to help work out what content is attracting people to the site via search/social. However, this probably requires cookies to differentiate from being a normal page view.
  • Bounce rates for individual pages. This is the one bit of info I would find useful on a page-by-page basis, as it allows you to spot which pages need attention. I acknowledge this risks cluttering the dashboard,but perhaps it could be toggled.

April 28th update: When I shared this blog on Twitter, Fathom actually responded saying my wish list was in fact already on their to-do list! Amazing customer engagement!

My only gripe with using Fathom is that it still counts visits from incognito tabs. This is a little annoying, as I usually try to mask my visits to my own sites to prevent skewing the analytics data. This is particularly important during testing when I refresh pages many times in multiple browsers. Viewing the site in the Brave browser does keep you hidden however.

May 2020 update: Fathom added an awesome new way to mask yourself from your stats hurrah!

As a side note, it’s a good idea to only output any tracking codes on pages for users who are not logged in so if you’re logged in as an admin (eg. writing a blog) you don’t get tracked.

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Ethical Google Analytics alternative

Overall, I’ve been very impressed. It took a little while for me to adapt my way of thinking to let go of collecting all that extra data, but ultimately making the switch felt like the right thing to do.

As of April 2020 my site is now Google Analytics free for the first time since I launched all the way back in 2009! As subscribers to my newsletter know, I also switched off my Mailchimp analytics a couple of months ago.

The website switching.software has lots of recommendations for ethical, privacy-conscious alternatives to well-known software

Switching away from GA to Fathom Analytics or another privacy-focussed analytics tool feels like a small step in the right direction towards making the internet a better place.

One challenge Jack and Paul face will be convincing people to pay for an analytics tool when they can already use Google Analytics for free. Fathom costs $14 (roughly £11.50) per month for tracking up to 100,000 page views for unlimited sites which is very fair for improving the privacy of your customers. Understanding how your website is used is valuable to your business and is a worthwhile investment!

Fathom proudly announced that they don’t sell data, they sell software. This is a timely reminder that if you are not paying for the product, you probably are the product.

Whilst I still acknowledge GA is a very useful tool, as people become more aware of their digital privacy and as more ethically-minded contenders come to the fore, I am looking forward to seeing more people turning away from big tech companies towards more positive alternatives.

For me, switching to Fathom has felt a bit like switching from fossil fuels to solar energy.
And it feels good!

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