Analytics Alternatives for Small Projects
Andreea Năstase

Andreea Năstase

Analytics Alternatives for Small Projects

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There are now over 60 privacy-minded Google Analytics competitors to choose from, either for free or the cost of a couple of coffees in your nearest coffee shop. Here you can read about some of the main contenders I researched for a small side project. Doing this helped me not only pick a solution, but also solidify my own beliefs on privacy, summed up as: measure only what you need.

Criteria

The side project in question is a blog (not this one), and I don’t know to what extent it may or may not be a long-term project.

  • I wanted something simple, easy to install, and with a sufficient degree of control.
  • I wanted some detailed page counts but not overwhelming dashboards. For example, 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 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 an EU country where GDPR is enacted.

Why care about this at all?

Sometime in the last decade, tracking people everywhere across the internet became the norm. I witnessed this trend in my previous roles and found it sad that people expect analytics to be everywhere, particularly on editorial websites not funded outside the web.

As one developer noted, “most people don’t use Google Analytics because they’re overwhelmingly impressed by it, but just because it’s free.” Google Analytics happens to collect a lot of information, but most people don't think about it once the job is done and the data starts rolling in. If anything, at first maybe we were all particularly impressed by how much we could know. But this is an illusion, and most clients I've worked with found themselves swamped in data that's neither informative, nor cheap to process and analyze.

“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

Like many of the creators putting out a new wave of tools, I'd also like to see less tracking, or at least more thoughtful monitoring if it's necessary. If not for leaner, faster websites and a good user experience, then at least to bring back some of the trust lost along the way.

For those willing and able, there are alternatives to adding extra analytics scripts. For example, hosting providers sometimes offer lightweight analytics (e.g., Cloudflare), or it's possible to analyze log files (e.g., with a tool like GoAccess).

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

Common feature set in modern analytics tools

The creators of Fathom compiled a list of what’s now considered a common feature set in a comparison article of them vs. competition. I reproduced 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 hyper-privacy-focused people may already have installed. It always updates with new domains, so it's a good idea to keep an eye on it in case the tool you're using ends up on that list.

Contenders

At the time of writing, I found over 60 options, though not all are created equal (maintained, user-friendly, visually appealing, and so on). These are just a few that seemed active and reasonably popular on tech sites and social networks in the last two years.

1. GoatCounter

GoatCounter is an open-source analytics tool created by a Dutch indie developer living in Indonesia.

Martin Tournoij, the creator, wrote about how he started to make a living out of GoatCounter in 2019. I particularly like the visual approach with at-a-glance stats for popular pages because it offers a quick way to spot if an older post suddenly became more popular, for example, if someone shared it somewhere. Accessibility is a high priority for Martin, and the interface works well with assistive technology such as screen readers. Depending on your usage, you might want to know about the license under which it operates and his rationale for choosing it.

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

2. Plausible

Plausible is a sleek and straightforward solo developer project that started in 2019 in London. It’s similar in spirit to GoatCounter, Fathom, and SimpleAnalytics. However, it’s the most affordable paid version and has a sleek, modern dashboard design.

It also doesn’t use cookies to track users, tracks less data, and can be affordable. 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 simple, at least compared to the complexity of 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; only daily and hourly aggregates are stored on the server. If you choose to self-host Fathom, you'll find it supports three database engines: PostgreSQL, MySQL, SQLite. Lastly, for those who 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

SimpleAnalytics rivals Fathom and is the work of two developers in the Netherlands. They also don’t use cookies, which means no need to add any extra banners.

Their user-facing work is open source, and the servers are 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 [and] 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 as much information as Google Analytics can provide, self-host your data, and remain privacy compliant.

It’s an open-source project originating from the PHP community and is free for small use cases or paid for large projects. Matomo offers both a self-hosted and cloud solution, GDPR manager, automatic deletion of data, anonymized tracking, offer 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?”

  1. GoatCounter - the least fussy and most affordable, though a donation is recommended
  2. Plausible - similar in price and features to GoatCounter, and still affordable at $6/mo for people who appreciate a different aesthetic
  3. A tie between SimpleAnalytics and Fathom given their pricing plans

Bigger sites and agencies may benefit from using Matomo or Snowplow, which are extremely valid, but I ruled out given the unnecessary complexity for my use case.

I went with GoatCounter to start with, and I will see how things progress in the trial before I contribute. Installation was super simple, so I’ll write an update once there’s actual content and traffic.

Thanks for taking the time to read! I hope this helped you discover or even select a new analytics tool.

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