UPDATE (5/30/22): Since writing this post, I've reversed my decision and added analytics to my website. You can read why here.
Originally I was planning on writing a blog post about how I chose "X" service for analytics on my website. I was going to go over the pros and cons of each service I considered and then dramatically tell you the one, best web analytics service.
But after a lot of thought, I made the unconventional decision to not use any analytics service at all for my website. I haven't heard of anyone else who's done this, so I decided to write why I decided to do this.
Wait, what do you mean "analytics"?
If the title of my post is self-explanatory to you, feel free to skip this section.
So, here's the deal: on basically every single website you visit there's code embedded on the website used to track how you use the website. This code can track how many users view each page, what other website they were referred from, and what they click on in each page.
By far, the most popular user analytics tool is Google Analytics. Not only is Google Analytics one of the most advanced user analytics tools available, it's also very easy to set up and completely free (at least the basic version). Google makes this free because when a website uses Google Analytics, they agree to share all of their usage data and traffic patterns with Google, and the more Google knows about how people use the internet, the better they can serve targeted ads. One cool/creepy feature of Google Analytics is it gives you very detailed information about the demographics of your users. It will show you the age, gender, and location of everyone who visits your website. It can even show you what types of things they're interested in, like sports, travel, food & drinks, etc. If you're a marketer, this data is invaluable because you can ensure that your content and marketing is optimized to appeal to the demographics of your users. It's also very useful for showing targeted ads on your site if you use ads to generate revenue. And of course Google offers a companion service, Google AdSense, which is used for serving ads from Google and integrates with Google Analytics.
One tool that Google uses to learn all of this detailed information about you is the cookie. Cookies have been a feature of web browsers since the 90s, and allow websites to store information specific to you in your browser that can persist even after you leave the website or close your browser. Cookies can be used for lots of different purposes, such as keeping you signed into a website so you don't need to reenter your username and password every time you visit the site.
Typically, the "benign" cookies (i.e., not a privacy concern) are ones that are implemented by the website you're using, like the aforementioned cookie used for keeping you signed in. These are "first-party" cookies since they come from the website itself. But there are also "third-party" cookies, which are set and used by companies external to the website you're on. One of the most common third-party cookies on the web is the Google Analytics user token, which is automatically set by Google Analytics as soon as you visit the website and is used to track your entire history of actions across all your sessions on that site. Third-party cookies are "bad", because when you use a website your data is not only shared with the website you're on, but also with third-parties that you may not want your data shared with, like Google. Websites used to do this all the time without telling you, but now with regulations like GDPR, websites are required to inform you about how they share your data with third-parties and give you the option to opt-out.
The passage of GDPR is the reason that all websites you visit now have that annoying banner at the bottom with some fine print about sharing data with third-parties and a giant button that usually says ACCEPT ALL COOKIES, which most people click because it's the easiest way to make it go away.
Ok, that's pretty much everything you need to know about web analytics. Now I'll explain why I decided not to add analytics to my website. Before that though, I'll briefly go over why I would even want analytics on my personal blog to begin with.
Why I considered adding analytics to my blog
It's just how you do things
As I mentioned above, pretty much all websites have some kind of user tracking built into them. Adding analytics to your website is definitely the default decision. In fact, in every website I've made previously, adding Google Analytics was one of the first things I did. It's also incredibly easy to do – adding analytics (at least, Google Analytics) takes only 5 minutes and is simple enough that anyone can do it.
So not only is omitting analytics an unusual decision in general, but it's even an unusual decision for me.
Tailoring my content based on what's popular
This was my original reason for wanting to use analytics on my website, and probably the main reason why most blogs use analytics. It's not uncommon for a single blog post to "go viral" and be the most-read post on the site by a significant margin. And if one of your posts goes viral, you probably want to make your future blog posts more similar to that post. Or maybe you'll write a follow-up post to try to entice the people who read your first post back onto your blog.
A less extreme possibility is that certain types of posts attract more readers, so it would make sense to mostly write those kinds of posts going forward. For example, if my posts about software engineering are getting more views than my posts about video games, maybe I'll want to focus my blog on software engineering instead of just writing about whatever I feel like.
Knowing if I'm famous yet
Another thing I worried about was how will I know if I'm "famous" if I don't know people are reading my blog posts? A million people could be reading this right now, but I'd have no idea.
Why I decided against adding analytics to my blog
I hate cookie banners with a passion
Just to make sure we're on the same page, I'm talking about those banners at the bottom of basically all websites that mentions something about sharing data with third-parties and has a big button with the text ACCEPT ALL COOKIES.
Yeah, I hate those things. Websites added them in response to the passage of GDPR, which was a law designed to protect the privacy of EU citizens while browsing the web. But as far as I'm concerned, all it did was add another annoying thing to websites that you have to click on before you can use it. I read that some updated regulations will eventually make these banners useful and more than just a nuisance, but it doesn't seem like that's happened yet.
As someone who hates these banners, I decided that there was no way I would put one of these things onto my website. Theoretically, I bet I could get away with using third-party tracking cookies without displaying the legally required banner, because I doubt EU regulators would bother coming after me. But I'd prefer to do things the right way.
So, if I did want analytics on my website, I would need to find a privacy-focused analytics service that would be GDPR compliant and exempt me from needing to display the dreaded cookie banner.
Note: Although I'm a big proponent of online privacy, I have to be honest – the main reason I was looking at privacy-focused analytics solutions was so I wouldn't have to put that stupid banner on my website. Protecting your privacy as a visitor to this website was just an added bonus. Sorry 😞
Privacy-focused analytics services that I considered
To some people, this will be the most interesting part of the blog post. To others, it will be useless and boring. Feel free to skip this.
Here's the best list of privacy-focused analytics services that I found. There aren't actually that many services like this, because most analytics services actually differentiate themselves from Google Analytics by giving you even more detailed information about the users on your website. Of the privacy-focused solutions, many of them seemed very "enterprisey" (like Matomo, Plausible and Fathom), which I ruled out because they didn't seem like a good fit for a personal blog.
Here's the list of the finalists I considered using:
- GoatCounter - Open-source, bare-bones analytics tool. GDPR compliant, so no cookie banner required. Made and run by one person, who seems like a nice guy. Free, with the option to pay if you want to. Created exactly for the use case of a personal website. The downside is that the UI/UX looks pretty bad (sorry, Martin).
- Netlify Analytics - This is only an option if you're hosting your site on Netlify, but I am. Great UI/UX. Supported by a relatively successful company, so it probably won't disappear any time soon. All analytics are server-side, which means no cookies or adding any tracking code to your website. Getting started is as simple as flipping a switch from the admin dashboard. The downside is it costs $9/month.
If I had to pick one of these, I would've gone with Netlify Analytics. The fact that it's completely server-side appeals to me, because that's how I think analytics should work. Although GoatCounter is free, the simplistic UI bothers me. And although Simple Analytics seems cool, I can't justify spending $19/month on a website that doesn't make any money. But I could almost justify spending $9/month on a website that doesn't make any money, which is why Netlify Analytics is the winner for me. I probably would have used Netlify Analytics, despite its cost, if it weren't for the other reason I decided against using analytics on my blog...
I'm better off not knowing how many page views I'm getting
Going back to my earlier discussion about why I might want analytics on my site, the three reasons I gave were making money, tailoring my content effectively, and knowing if I had become famous. But other than boosting my ego, the only value of knowing if I had become famous would be profiting off of my blog somehow, which goes back to the money thing.
So really, having analytics could help me in three ways:
- Making me money
- Influencing what I write about
- Boosting my ego
I'll go over the first two points in detail, but regarding the ego thing, I'll just say that having my ego boosted would probably do me more harm than good 🙂
First of all, if you didn't know, making money from a blog is hard. If real news sites can't figure out how to make their businesses profitable online, what chance do I have? Sure, there are some notable authors who have built highly profitable blogs, like Ben Thompson (Stratechery). But I think they're the exception. Also, the people making money from a newsletter are typically writing about topics that will help their readers make money directly or indirectly, which justifies the price for the newsletter.
But I don't want to be locked into writing about "business" things. Also, even if I could turn my blog into my full-time job, I don't think I would enjoy that. Blogging is fun as a hobby, but I bet it would be a lot less fun (and more stressful) if it was my primary source of income.
Alternatively, I could just slap some ads on my blog for some passive income, but with the traffic I assume I'm getting, I wouldn't make much money that way. I'd also have to give up on protecting my reader's privacy so I could have targeted ads. It just doesn't seem worth it for a few buck (or pennies) a month.
Writing things that people want to read
To some extent I want to write things that people will want to read. When I'm thinking of what to write about, I definitely consider what topics people will find interesting. My strategy is I try to write articles (and headlines) that sound like something I would read if I saw it while browsing Hacker News.
But I'm only guessing. With analytics, I could cut out the guesswork and know exactly which articles and topics attract the most views.
My fear is that, with that level of insight, it would unconsciously affect my writing. Over time, I would lose sight of my original reason for creating this blog (because I enjoy writing) and begin writing just to maximize my page views, even if I'm not making money from the additional page views.
For more on this, check out my post on "Doing It for the Likes".
Although I've personally decided not to use analytics on my website, don't take this as a rallying-cry against analytics. Analytics are great, and are vital for most websites. Analytics enable companies and creators to make data-driven decisions on the best way to improve their website, product, or service, which is how it should always be done.
But for my own blog, my goal is to write for my own enjoyment. And that's something that no analytics tool can help me with.
Actually, this post is a rallying-cry against something. Cookie banners. Cookie banners suck 😅