Why Privacy-Focused Analytics Tools Aren’t Used More

There are many choices when it comes to web analytics tools, but only one is considered the default: Google Analytics. This might not be a huge issue, but in an ever-increasing privacy-focused world, why don’t the privacy-forward analytics tools get used more often? Why are they not the standard? 

Why Care About Privacy?

In a world where user data is easily collected, analyzed, and leveraged, you might be wondering why on earth you’d not want to utilize all the data you can for your business. Current US laws make this type of tracking legal. We’ve seen that large-scale changes to privacy legislation can be made (like with GDPR), but for the most part, website owners are encouraged by a large portion of the marketing industry to collect as much data as possible, whether or not they can actually make any useful decisions based on it. So, why forgo the perceived advantage analytics can provide?

Take a step back and remember you are also a user of the internet, and those tools are also being used on you. That means your data is being collected and analyzed, sitting on a server waiting to be used.

If that makes you uneasy as a user of the internet, it should make you uneasy as a website owner. Your customers are your best asset, and building trust between you and them can be more valuable than the data collected by an analytics company. Why collect unnecessary data on them and potentially expose them to threats?

The data collected by marketing tools can be used by hackers, extortionists, ransomware purveyors, subpoenaed by a government agency, etc. Are the insights you glean from your users’ data worth the risk you put them in?

What Makes an Analytics Tool Privacy-Focused?

There are a few keys that can make an analytics tool more privacy-focused than most analytics offerings available. Without making this post entirely about what makes a tool privacy-focused, there are a few things that tools like Mamoto, Simple Analytics, and Fathom do that give them the advantage over Google when it comes to privacy.

Cookies are a major factor when it comes to privacy online. Cookies are used to track a user’s behavior across a website or multiple websites. Mamoto, Simple Analytics, and Fathom all state they do not use cookies, while Google Analytics uses cookies to track users. A privacy-focused tool should not use cookies, as they could theoretically be used to tie certain actions on a website to a specific person or user.

Another factor differentiating privacy-focused tools from Google Analytics is that Google uses the data it collects from its Analytics users and uses it in its own advertising and marketing platforms to improve their own products.

While this data is aggregated and anonymized before Google uses it, it has still been collected and is sitting on a server somewhere available for potentially nefarious purposes. Another thing to keep in mind is that because Google Analytics has collected data, that data can be subpoenaed by a court. If your privacy-focused analytics tool never collected the data, it can’t be subpoenaed. Why put your users or your business in the middle of a legal battle?

Reasons Why Companies Don’t Use Privacy-Focused Alternatives

Price

Companies of all sizes have budgets, and usually, that budget includes some money set aside for marketing of the company. There is usually a small sliver for web-related marketing activities within that budget, and often no money at all earmarked for a website analytics solution.

This is where the more privacy-focused analytics alternatives fall short compared to the biggest name in the website analytics game: Google. Google Analytics is entirely free. Not only is it completely free, but it also has a fantastic community of experts, hundreds of articles on how to do X or Y across the web, and is widely accepted by most industries and companies. 

Of the four top names in the privacy-focused analytics game (Simple Analytics, Open Web Analytics, Matomo, and Fathom), three are paid with prices ranging from $14 (or cheaper if you go with annual pricing) to “contact us” (which usually means pricing is bespoke depending on user needs, but also usually means “not cheap”). While the lower-priced tiers are easily affordable by almost anyone trying to run a business, they still may be too expensive for someone who runs a personal blog or a cash-strapped nonprofit to afford or get budget approval for. 

On the lower pricing tiers, there are also sometimes limits in terms of page views, the number of websites you can use the tool with, the number of administrators allowed, etc. Considering these limitations, it doesn’t make sense to pay for a tool when the free option, Google Analytics, has none of these restrictions. With that said, there are websites that will require a paid tool because they receive enough traffic to push them beyond Google Analytics free offerings to the paid version of Google Analytics, Google Analytics 360. The only websites using 360 are those that receive enough traffic to warrant a budget large enough for 360.

Someone running a personal website or small-to-medium-sized company website isn’t likely to opt to pay for a tool with fewer data points and fewer features when there is a free alternative that surpasses it in nearly every way.

Unfortunately, this is not a hurdle Google Analytics alternatives can get over very quickly. While they are noble in their mission, some of these alternatives are actual companies with employees they need to pay, so they need to make money from their product. This is fair, and really how it should be. Google has somewhat monopolized this market by giving its tools away for free because it can finance them through other revenue sources. A more privacy-focused tool like Simple Analytics doesn’t have this luxury, unfortunately. 

Of course, there are free options for a privacy-focused Google Analytics suite like Open Web Analytics and a self-hosted Matomo option.

The only real hope for a privacy-focused analytics tool that could compete with Google Analytics in terms of price and features would need to be created by a company that builds it with privacy in mind and doesn’t require payment. There is, of course, a ton of technical knowledge, experience, and data that Google has that this new magic company might not have, but in a perfect world, it would be equal. This would give everyone access to a privacy-focused analytics platform that, if fully featured, support for free. We can dream!

Ease of Use

If money is not a concern, then you’ve crossed the first hurdle to not using Google Analytics.

The next step will require some technical knowledge or access to someone who can help, or the determination to learn some new skills and read a lot of blog and Stackexchange posts to help you out.

The problem with not using Google Analytics is that the alternatives suffer from a couple of usability issues that aren’t complete showstoppers but might be enough of an annoyance to keep some away.

First, while Google Analytics isn’t wholly hassle-free to install, it is relatively easy to get going on almost any website due to a plethora of plug-ins that make it plug-and-play or dozens and dozens of resources to get it running on nearly every CMS imaginable. 

The privacy-focused alternatives do not have nearly the same number of plug-ins or built-in integrations with popular CMS tools. With that said, you are paying for some of these analytics platforms and they may have dedicated support teams. For example, Matomo, Simple Analytics, and Fathom all offer dedicated support ranging from email support to phone support depending on your package, but Open Web Analytics does not offer dedicated support but has a good community that can assist if need be.) This dedicated support can be a huge advantage to your team, depending on their needs.

One huge asset that Google Analytics has that its alternatives tend to lack is the large web community that knows the product inside and out and have developed workarounds, hacks, plug-ins, extensions, you name it. There are tons of hacks you can use with Google Analytics to make it do what you need, and hundreds of explainers across the web on how to do so. You might be able to bend some of these privacy-focused tools to your will, but you likely won’t have such a large community of experts to can tap into if you need help.

Bottom Line, Bottom Dollar

Businesses don’t want to pay for tools that provide a limited experience where there is a free option, especially if privacy is their only reason. Most companies are happy enough to toe the line with letting Google Analytics and whatever other analytics tools they use collect whatever they want, then display a GDPR notice, and move on. There isn’t much incentive right now to be privacy-focused. Even though there is growing momentum behind privacy, it is still far from the norm on the web. Using limited marketing budgets for a paid tool when there is a free one also available that does indeed follow privacy laws doesn’t make business sense.

Hope for the Future

This might seem more negative than it should. There are plenty of reasons to at least consider a privacy-focused analytics approach. First, if your company is profitable enough that the cost is minimal to your bottom line, being willing to pay for a tool opens up an entire world of analytics tools.

There is something to be said for having less data to analyze. Google Analytics collects a lot of data and does a lot with it, from visualizations to trying to help make predictions based on that data. Depending on your website and your data analysis skills, some of this data may be nearly useless to you, and the same is true for most people. The trouble is, it’s hard to ignore all this data even if you don’t really need it. 

Many site owners may not need to look at analytics data at all; for many more, baseline metrics such as visits, traffic sources, and conversions may be all they need. But viewing just this data in Google Analytics isn’t easy. You could create a simple dashboard for this data, but you always have ALL THAT OTHER DATA tempting you. What I am trying to say is that more data and analytics doesn’t mean better decision making. Data can be misleading, inaccurate, or just not representative of real-world situations. Plenty of people make decisions based on bad data or get so overwhelmed by their data that they don’t look at it at all. A simplified analytics setup could serve your website or company perfectly well and keep you focused on your actual goals.

There might be something to the idea that if you use a privacy-focused analytics tool and your users know that, you could build a certain amount of trust and loyalty from users who value privacy. Personally, I try to use the most secure checkout methods possible, even if it means I have to go out of my way a bit. If I know a website is not tracking my usage on it, I feel better, and I’m more likely to use the website over a less-privacy-focused site, much like I avoid websites that bombard me with ads.

Finally, there’s always the possibility Google Analytics could go away or be forced to become drastically different in privacy. We’re hopefully heading towards a future where privacy is paramount over everything else, so we could, at some point, be living in a time where the only options are privacy-focused ones. If you don’t need all the data you have, might as well get a head start.

Final Thoughts on Privacy and Analytics Tools

There are reasons to use good reasons to use Google Analytics. There are good reasons to use alternatives. And there are bad reasons for both as well.

It comes down to where privacy ranks in terms of your values regarding your website or marketing. If privacy is a core value of your company, you should consider an alternative that provides real privacy when it comes to analytics. The emphasis you place on it justifies the price.

If you don’t know where you stand on privacy issues, think Google Analytics is private enough, or work hard to make your GA set up private, then it’s a toss-up on whether an alternative to Google makes sense.

Luckily everyone has options, and that is what is essential.

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