Chances are, whenever you do anything on any website in the world, Google knows about it. That's because half of the top million sites use Google Analytics to track everywhere you go. Nearly 2/3rds of the top 10,000 sites use Google Analytics. And out of all 186 million active web sites in the world, including a huge number of spam or parked domains, nearly 16 million of them use Google Analytics.

Even Freelock.com uses Google Analytics, but not for much longer. Piwik Dashboard

If you are trying to get results of one kind or another from your website, analyzing your visitor traffic is critical. It's how you can measure what content works, where people go, how long they stay on your site, and more. Using analytics you can find who links to you, what search terms lead to your site, and how effective your marketing campaigns are. For any growing business that depends on their web site for business, this is essential information.

The problem is, it's not just the site owners that have access to this data. Google can not only see all your statistics, but they could also aggregate it with all the other sites using Google Analytics, and they certainly have the ability to track an individual user across all of them.

In other words, Google knows just about everywhere you go, in great detail. And if you use Google Analytics on your site, you're providing them with yet another remote sensor to collect information about where people go on the Internet.

Is this a bad thing?

Not by itself. There's a lot of good things Google might do with this data, particularly given that they are trying to get the best search results for their customers. For example, if they correlated your Internet browsing with others with similar tastes, they might be able to deliver even more relevant search results customized just for you.

They could certainly use the traffic measures to reward sites that have low bounce rates (the percentage of visitors who leave after visiting only one page) and high average times per visit, which could help make their search rankings more relevant.

And clever researchers with access to this enormous store of data might find ways of mining it to reach creative conclusions, much like the Google Flu Trends site used the behaviors of people using search to identify when and where there were outbreaks of influenza with faster notice than the Centers for Disease Control were able to provide (at least until the major news outlets picked up the story and added a new factor to the search data).

Who cares? The privacy battle is over, and we've lost

This much data about you in the hands of a single entity seems to me like a horrible invasion of privacy. Yet I'm talking about one source of data in an ocean of sensors tracking every credit card transaction you make, every phone call or text you do. We all make this tradeoff between privacy and convenience every day in countless ways, nearly always on the side of convenience. And that's what keeps large companies running (and sometimes ruining) our economy.

I happen to think that our economy would be a whole lot healthier with many more small and medium-sized businesses, and fewer (none?) gigantic monopolistic ones. Every site that uses Google Analytics in some small way is handing more power to Google. And while they haven't abused that power (yet, to our knowledge), there's always a danger they could.

And in the case of analytics, I recently stumbled across a really easy, effective alternative, Piwik.

Open Source Analytics

Page transitions Piwik is an open source analytics package you can run on your own servers. And if you do, only you have access to the analytics -- Google can't get this information, Piwik doesn't collect it, nobody else can include your site data in any Machiavellian plans for evil. You're taking a tiny, but very real stand in favor of the privacy of your site visitors, compared to using Google Analytics.

But that's just the "feel good" part of it. I stumbled across Piwik last fall, but didn't try it out until last month. When I did, I was very impressed. It answers all the questions about my visitors I ever used Google Analytics for -- and to me it seems much easier to figure out, use, and customize. I'm able to put on my dashboard the metrics I'm most interested in -- live traffic, visits, unique visitors, search key words, social links followed, referring sites, browser version and screen size. I find the interface far more usable than Google Analytics, at least for my occasional use, far less confusing. I particularly like being able to click on the "transitions" icon next to any page report to see where people came from and went to after visiting a particular page, and the "Open Row Evolution" to show you a snapshot of how traffic has changed over time for any item in the report.

But one other feature really stands out for me: Emailed reports. Every week, our Piwik installation now sends me a summary of the key metrics I care about in email, fresh at the start of the week.

So not only is Piwik one way you can take a tiny stand for data privacy, but in many ways it seems like a better analytics package than Google Analytics, at least for my needs.

Hey, you're still tracking me!

Page statistics over time Yes, we are. But we're not sharing that tracking information with the mega uber massive database that is tracking half the known Internet. And we respect your privacy should you choose to opt out.

You can, of course, opt out of all of these tracking methods. The European Union passed a law last year that mandates that sites only collect "necessary" data, or be transparent about what they are collecting. There are new technical standards for opting out, including Do Not Track. There are older approaches to blocking tracking such as disabling cookies, 3rd party Javascript, and running script blockers, though these definitely get in the way of convenience when things don't work the way the web site you're visiting expects.

I want to use Piwik on my site!

If you'd like to try this out, head over to the Piwik Demo Site and give it a try. If you're an active Freelock customer, we'd be happy to add you to our Piwik server at no charge -- you are giving us access to your data if we do this, but that can really help us make sure we're providing adequate server resources for your site, and give us some data to work with when advising how best to make your site more effective for your business or organization.

Let us know if you'd like to give this a try, it's a pretty quick setup in Drupal and we can get you started right away!

More reading

Here are some links to stories I used as resources when writing this article, definitely interesting reading if you want to know more!

  • http://trends.builtwith.com/analytics/Google-Analytics
  • http://marketingland.com/google-analytics-is-installed-on-more-than-10-million-websites-9935
  • http://w3techs.com/technologies/overview/traffic_analysis/all
  • http://news.netcraft.com/archives/2013/04/02/april-2013-web-server-survey.html
  • http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/2013/04/european-regulators-blast-google-for-continued-eu-privacy-violations/
  • http://donottrack.us/
  • http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Data_Protection_Directive
  • http://piwik.org/privacy/
  • http://xkcd.com/792/
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Freelock News

We've been having a break-through year, and things are very exciting around here. In 2012, our revenue grew 45% over 2011, our team grew from 6 to 10, and we had zero turnover. We set some aggressive goals for 2013, and we hit our Q1 target on the last work day of the quarter! Now at 11, soon to be 12, we've run out of space in our Fremont home for the past 4 1/2 years.

Our new home is the Journal of Commerce building, downtown in Pioneer Square. Please update any addresses you have for us to:

83 Columbia Street, Suite 401
Seattle, WA 98104

Our phone number is unchanged at 206-577-0540, and we'll be all moved in during the 3rd week of April!

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