Analytics Alternatives for Small Projects
Andreea Năstase

Andreea Năstase

Analytics Alternatives for Small Projects

There are now over 60 privacy-minded competitors to Google Analytics you can choose from, starting at free or as little as a few dollars per month. This is an overview of the main contenders I researched for a small side project. The exercise helped me crystallize and codify my own views on privacy, which can be summed up as: measure only what you need.

My criteria

My side project is a blog, not this one, and I don’t know to what extent it may or may not take off.

  • I wanted something simple, easy to install, and with sufficient degree of control.
  • I wanted some detailed page counts, but not overwhelming dashboards. With Cloudflare as my DNS service I get some unique visitors stats but nothing else that would help a content-based side project.
  • I wanted to support a small developers or companies without pressure to grow fast in short periods of time, preferably with transparent business models and fee structures.
  • I didn’t want to self host, or be forced to display a cookie banner (like using Google Analytics would have required), since the site was aimed at a EU country where GDPR is enacted.

Why care about this at all?

Some time in the last decade, tracking people across the internet became the norm. I witnessed this growth in my previous jobs, and how we now expect analytics to be everywhere; particularly on editorial websites not funded outside the web.

Like many of the creators of this new wave of tools, I’d also like to see less, or more thoughtful tracking. If not for leaner, faster websites and a good user experience, then at least for making people debate and question how much data is needed and what happens with it.

As one developer noted, “most people don’t use Google Analytics because they’re overwhelmingly impressed by it, but just because it’s free.” And it happens to collect a lot of information, but what happens after isn’t many people’s immediate concern.

“Many [site owners] just want to see how much traffic is going to the pages on their site, and where that traffic is coming from. So it’s not surprising that a number of simpler, more open tools have taken off in the past few years.”Ben Hoyt

For those willing or able, there are alternatives to adding extra analytics scripts. Hosting providers sometimes offer analytics, or it's possible to analyze log files (e.g. with something like GoAccess).

But for everyone else, a script or a plugin is still easier, be it self-hosted or hosted in the cloud by the developer.

Common-ish features in modern analytics tools

Fathom compiled a list of what’s now a common feature set in a comparison article of them vs. competition. I reproduce it here and tweaked it slightly based on what I’ve seen in demos and websites.

You'll find:

  • Light, intuitive dashboards — typically a single page with JavaScript or a bit of React
  • Email reports (weekly, monthly, or perhaps customizable)
  • Ability to self-host or pick a cloud solution offered by the developer
  • Easy to install, lightweight script or plugin/integration (e.g. for website builders)
  • Control over data ownership and storage
  • No tracking of personal details or data (zero PII collected), in line with GDPR and other privacy laws
  • No use of cookies
  • Traffic-based pricing models
  • In some cases and/or on some pricing plans, custom domains, to bypass adblockers

On that last note, it’s useful to be aware of Peter Lowe’s Ad and tracking server list, which some uber-privacy-conscious people may have installed, to which domains are always added.

Contenders

There are over 60 competitors out there, but not all are equal, maintained, user-friendly, and so on. I picked a few that seemed active and reasonably popular on tech sites and social networks in the last two years.

1. GoatCounter

GoatCounter is a simple, open-source, and not overly-designed tool made by a Dutch indie developer living in Indonesia.

Martin Tournoij, the creator, started making a living out of GoatCounter in 2019, so it doesn’t look like it may go away anytime soon. I particularly like the visual approach with at-a-glance stats for popular pages, allowing a quick way to spot if a page suddenly went viral. Accessibility is a high-priority feature for him, and the interface works well with assistive technology such as screen readers. If you care, you might want to be aware of is the license under which it operates, and the rationale for choosing it.

GoatCounter pricing starts at free for small users (with a donation recommended), and the next tier is $5 for 100,000 page views per month.

2. Plausible

Plausible is also a sleek and simple lone-developer operation started in London in 2019. It’s similar in spirit to GoatCounter, Fathom and SimpleAnalytics. It’s the cheapest of the series, and has a sleek, modern dashboard design.

It also doesn’t use cookies to track users, tracks less data, and can be affordable. cheaper. If you care, the server code is written in Elixir. One potential downside is that it doesn’t have the option to self-host, although they’ve recently experimented for a way to do that through Docker.

Plausible pricing starts at /$6 per month for for 10,000 page views (excluding annual billing discounts).

3. Fathom

Fathom is a basic, lightweight and opinionated analytics solution made by two US developers who want to stay independent. It’s very basic compared to Google Analytics or Matomo, described later, but comparable to Plausible and SimpleAnalytics (the next in line)

From a HackerNews thread and their site there are: no geo/location metrics, browser metrics, goals or custom events. They also don’t use cookies, and you can add unlimited tracking accounts to one installation. No personal information is tracked (or stored), at all. Only daily and hourly aggregates are stored on the server. You can also choose to self-host Fathom; Supports 3 database engines: PostgreSQL, MySQL, SQLite. And if you care, it’s written in Go.

Fathom pricing starts at $14 per month for up to 100,000 total page views across unlimited sites (excluding annual billing discounts).

4. SimpleAnalytics

A rival to Fathom, also done by two developers in the Netherlands. They also don’t use cookies, which means no banners.

Their user-facing scripts are open sourced, and the servers are also based in the Netherlands (where EU privacy laws apply). Isotropic, a small agency in New York who wrote about their experience with these new analytics tools said it has a “really neat feature that displays recent tweets that mention you. This makes it a bit unique from others”

SimpleAnalytics pricing starts at $19 per month for up to 100,000 page views (excluding annual billing discounts).

5. Matomo

The closest thing to Google Analytics in terms of features and complexity. Seems like a popular choice if you want a lot of information in the style of Google Analytics, self-host your data, and still be privacy compliant.

It’s an open source project that started out in the PHP community, and free for small use cases or paid for large projects. Offers both a self-hosted and cloud solution, GDPR manager, automatic deletion of data, anonymized tracking, offers opt-in and opt-out. Isotropic, the same agency mentioned above, praised its dashboard: “very similar to Google Analytics […] you can build custom dashboards, get custom reports, and track every metric of data.”

Conclusion

For a small side-project like mine, it’s almost a question of, “which indie developer would I want to support?”

The cheapest and simplest is GoatCounter because it’s free, though a donation would help.

Second place is Plausible: similar in price and features. It’s not unreasonable to fear that GoatCounter may one day no longer be the developer’s main source of income and be abandoned. And $6/mo. for fast, privacy-focused analytics for small sites is very reasonable.

The third would be a tie between SimpleAnalytics and Fathom given their pricing plan. Here, it’s more like, “which pair of indie developers do you want to support?”

Bigger sites and agencies may benefit from using Matomo or alternatives like Snowplow , which I found out about in the process but ruled out given their intended audience.

I ended up going with GoatCounter to start off with, and will see how things progress in the trial before I make a contribution. Installation was super-simple, so I’ll write an update once there’s actual content and traffic.

Hope this helped!

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