Google is so embedded in the infrastructure of the web that you don’t always know when it’s there–but Google isn’t just tracking your movements online so it can sell ads. It also provides Google Analytics, which helps other companies and individuals identify who visits their websites, along with a host of other information, like how much time you spend on a given site, where you came from, and even where you’re located. For businesses, Google Analytics provides crucial information about their customers.
But it also tracks a lot of data. And as Google has come under fire for a host of privacy scandals and consumers have grown wary of a general lack of privacy on the internet, a series of new startups has launched in the past few months to provide privacy-centric analytics, claiming not to collect any personal data and only display simple metrics like page views, referral websites, and screen sizes in clean, pared-down interfaces.
For Paul Jarvis, a writer and developer who’s been creating websites for 20 years, Google Analytics tracks more data than he’s comfortable with, including where people live and their age range. “This isn’t cool,” he says. “I don’t want my sites to do this.” Google says that Google Analytics offers customization on what types of data website owners collect, and users who don’t want to be tracked by Google Analytics can download a browser extension that blocks it. The company also says that Google Analytics doesn’t track any personally identifiable information, which includes things like names, phone numbers, mailing or email addresses, and geographical coordinates.
In June 2018, Jarvis launched an open-source analytics platform called Fathom, which anyone can use for free (though it requires technical knowledge to set up). The simple interface is just one web page, with a graph showing page views and visitors; a column of the biggest, most important numbers many users care about, like average time on site and bounce rate; and lists of top referral sites and most popular pages on the site. Crucially, everything is aggregated. “I came to the conclusion that I need aggregate data, not personal data,” Jarvis says. “It tracks the sum of actions that are taken, but nothing about a person.”
After seeing a surge of interest from developers, Jarvis launched a paid version of the service, where he and his partner Danny van Kooten will host the analytics on one of their servers and take care of maintenance, with prices ranging from $14 per month for less than 100,000 page views per month to $79 per month if the website gets more than 10 million page views per month (Google Analytics is free). The tiny company now has about 230 paying customers, many of whom are from Europe, which makes sense given the region’s stricter data laws and greater awareness of privacy issues. Jarvis says that the company processes more payments in euros than in U.S. dollars, and has been profitable since launch.
Around the same time Fathom launched a paid service, another data analytics company launched with a similar proposition, encapsulated in its name: Simple Analytics. Amsterdam-based developer Adriaan van Rossum founded it because he became worried about how much data Google Analytics was hoovering up about people without them knowing. He built the platform on a simple concept–no cookies, those pesky trackers that follow you around the internet, at all. Van Rossum’s code, which is only two lines embedded into the web page, also honors a browser setting called “Do Not Track,” which sends a message to the analytics software requesting for the user not to be tracked (it’s not turned on by default, but is available in most browsers). Most analytics ignore this setting since website owners have to opt-in to it, but Simple Analytics respects it and doesn’t include that visitor in its metrics. “The person or the visitor or browser user should be able to say, I don’t want to be tracked,” van Rossum says.
There are a few types of people who have gravitated toward van Rossum’s platform, which costs $9 per month for less than 100,000 page views, and $49 for less than a million (an enterprise package for bigger sites is also available). Some people sign up for Simple Analytics because they care about privacy, he says; but others sign up because they prefer the simple interface. “There’s a group of people that want to have analytics but are overwhelmed with the amount of information you get from Google Analytics,” he says. “You already get a headache when you open the page.”
That’s certainly been the case for some of Fathom’s users as well, like the dieting website Paleo Leap. “We’re a very small company, and I’m the one who wears all the hats, and I don’t have time to dig very deep into analytics and conversion numbers,” says site creator Seb Noël. “I just need a tool that tells me how many visitors the site gets, what the most popular pages are, and what other sites refer to Paleo Leap. With other analytic solutions, there’s just no way not to gather other data, and I don’t like the idea of having more data points than I need.”
While Simple Analytics and Fathom are both recent additions to the world of privacy-focused data analytics, 1.5% of the internet already uses an open-source, decentralized platform called Matomo, according to the company. The project, which began in 2007, started as an open-source alternative to Google Analytics, which launched two years earlier. “When [Google] released Google Analytics, [it] was obvious to me that a certain percent of the world would want the same technology, but decentralized, where it’s not provided by a centralized corporation and you’re not dependent on them,” says Matthieu Aubry, Matomo’s founder. “If you use it on your own server, it’s impossible for us to get any data from it.”
Aubry says that 99% of Matomo users use the analytics code, which is open for anyone to use, and host their analytics on their own servers–which means that the company has no access to it whatsoever. For Aubry, that’s his way of ensuring privacy by design. United Nations, Amnesty International, NASA, and the European Commission and about 1.5 million other websites use Matomo.
But Matomo also offers significantly more robust tracking than Fathom or Simple Analytics–Aubry says it can do about 95% of what Google Analytics does. Still, there are a few key differences. Like Simple Analytics, Matomo honors Do Not Track. It was one of the first analytics platforms to anonymize IP addresses, a feature that Google introduced many years later. Matomo is also GDPR-compliant and gives its users the ability to delete information (Google is as well). And importantly, Matomo gives website owners more control over what specific pieces of data to track. “What we did is we gave people the tools to control how much they wanted to track and how precise they wanted to track,” Aubry says.
In the last few years, Matomo has focused on becoming more of a sustainable business rather than a large community project. It launched premium features for its business users that are paid, offers paid support for those that host their own analytics servers, and most recently launched a cloud service so less tech-savvy organizations can pay Matomo to host their data.
For some businesses, ensuring that analytics capture as little personal information as possible is paramount. The encrypted search engine DuckDuckGo’s entire business model is built on not tracking users, so the company built an internal analytics platform that would live up to its privacy standards. For others, it’s more a question of caution. Fathom user JSFiddle, a coding playground application for developers, uses Fathom for that reason. “As you might imagine, web developers are pretty tech-savvy people, and these days very privacy-cautious–they understand what tracking is, what is remarketing, and how scripts follow you across the internet,” Oskar Krawczyk, cofounder of JSFiddle, tells Fast Company via email. “With that in mind and the fact that I personally am not a fan of tracking, we decided to remove all external resources from JSFiddle that may potentially do tracking for remarketing purposes–obviously the biggest abuser here is Google Analytics.”
A spokesperson from Google denied that Google uses any data from Analytics as part of its advertising, but the fact that so many developers worry about it points to Google’s reputation as an opaque, data-hungry goliath. After all, the company failed to disclose its widespread location tracking of Android users and only admitted that a data breach affecting 500,000 Google+ users occurred after it was caught–not to mention that the company collects reams of data through its vast number of free services, such as Google Search, Google Maps, and Gmail.
The rise of these analytics startups speaks to a growing desire for alternatives to the corporate ecosystems controlled by giants like Google, Amazon, and Apple, a swell that has helped privacy-focused search engine DuckDuckGo reach 36 million searches in a day. There’s even an entire website dedicated to alternates to all of Google’s services.
For Aubry of Matomo, this concentration of power in the hands (or servers) of billion-dollar companies is the reason to support smaller, decentralized networks like his own that share code. “We want to control our future technology–be able to understand it, study it, see what it does beneath the hood,” he says. “And when it doesn’t work we can fix it ourselves.”