I use Google Analytics for visitor stats on this blog. Not because I’m trying to direct-market to my readers or become Big Brother, but for a number of simple reasons:

  • It’s simple - no software for me to update, and nothing that needs to run on my server and read through giant log files every night. Google does it all for me.
  • It gives a lot more information than I can get from just web server logs.
  • Because of Google’s “big brother” tracking, and the vast number of sites that they track people on, I can tell things I’d have no other way of knowing, like how long someone stayed on my page.
  • They tell me useful stats like which search keywords brought the most people to my site and which posts are the most popular, which I keep in mind when writing new stuff and updating older posts.
  • They tell me information about client operating system and browser version, which I think tells quite a bit about my audience.
  • As far as I know, they’re pretty good at filtering out anything other than an actual human visitor.
  • They tell me stats that have no real use to me, but are just cook - like what countries my visitors are from, what type of Internet connection they’re on, their screen resolution, etc.

Obviously not for google, but for me, all of these stats are totally anonymous - I just get percentages or numbers of visits, it’s not like I can see all of the details per-IP address. The most important aspect to me is just the ease of use - I sign up and put a little snippet of code on my pages, and I get an amazing dashboard interface with all of this information. Nothing to install and update on my server, and (most importantly, since I’m now running everything of mine on one virtualized server) no massive program to run as a cron job that has to read all my server log files.

Last week I was talking with a couple of my co-workers, specifically about the stats that I get from Google Analytics. While I know it’s not uncommon to run NoScript especially among the more security- and privacy-conscious groups of people, I was a bit disturbed to hear that they all block Google’s tracking code in their browsers via NoScript. I assume there’s also a percentage of people who still just turn off JavaScript alltogether (although I can’t imagine how they use the modern Web), and many who use the Google Analytics Opt-Out feature. So, especially with as technical an audience as I have, I guess that means I’m likely missing a large number of visitors in my stats. On one hand, I want to respect the privacy of my visitors, and respect their desire to opt-out of advanced tracking. On the other hand, since I no longer parse web server logs for statistics, these privacy-conscious visitors aren’t even showing up in what I think of as my monthly visit count, or in my information on what posts and search keywords are most popular, which I only use for “good” purposes - to make my blog more useful. So that’s a bit of a conundrum.

I’ll admit that I do run Google AdSense Ads on my blog, and I’m sure there are some people who block the ads. On one hand, that upsets me a bit; I run this blog to try and share information that I find or learn with others, and the hosting costs aren’t insignificant. If I can get paid to just show some ads, to try and help offset the cost of running the site, I think that’s good. And if other people can help support the site by just letting the ads stay on the page, why not? On the other hand, my hosting costs $50/month (granted the server also handles all of my email, and a whole bunch of other sites). I’ve been participating in Google AdSense since March 5, 2010 (two years and two weeks), and my “estimated earnings” are currently $80. The payout is in $100 increments. So, I haven’t seen a cent from it in two years, so I’ve given up being concerned with it. If you want to be nice, and find my posts interesting, click on one of the ads. Unfortunately, unless I get famous, the ads aren’t going to come close to offsetting even part of the cost of running the site.

Google itself says, “In order for Google Analytics to record a visit, the visitor must have JavaScript, images, and cookies enabled for your website.” There seems to be some buzz about this on the ‘net, and I’ve seen a number of (translated; original post in Dutch) posts advocating building a request to a Google Analytics GIF manually on the server side, and then including it as an image element inside a <noscript> tag in the page. While this is probably one of the nicer solutions (and much more likely to reduce double-counting), it doesn’t capture any of the advanced data (screen resolution, etc.) that JavaScript-based Analytics does, and more importantly, I imagine that many of the Ad blocking extensions also block traffic to google-analytics.com, so this is an incremental improvement at best. There are also quite a few posts about how to make a request to Analytics purely server-side. This has a few disadvantages as well; it bypasses the google domain blacklisting problem that the client-side image has, but it also means you lose the client IP address (and therefore geolocation), and that you double-track any user who allows javascript (so you need a separate profile, and then need to average out the results). It also means that you track every search engine and bot that crawls your site, and possibly every person who clicks a link and then hits “back” before the page finishes loading. I found another blogger who commented about the wide disparity he saw between Google Analytics, the StatsPress WordPress plugin, and AWstats (a server-side log file analyzer).

So what’s the solution?

Most of the options have a down side, but I’m looking for something that’s the best I can reasonably do. As much as I’d rather not, I’m going to look into self-hosted alternatives to Google Analytics (a self-hosted JavaScript-based stats provider), in the hopes that NoScript users will be more friendly to scripts coming from my own domain, and sending requests to my own domain, than ones from Google or other major trackers. I don’t think I want to try anything that parses web server logs as a primary approach, as I don’t think I could ever get a meaningful comparison to Google Analytics or something else JavaScript-based.

I did have one other idea which I think is interesting, though a bit of an overhead. I could have Apache (or, more likely, a Perl script called in the Apache configuration) generate a random string for each request, and save it in an Apache environment variable. The environment variable would then be added to a field in the server logs, and also added (via PHP or whatever else generates the pages server-side) as a custom parameter for the JS tracking code, enabling page hits to be correlated between the JS tracking and the server logs. Assuming the JS tacking backend stores its data in a sane format (and as raw data, not just aggregated), and at the cost of a serious performance penalty, a server-side statistics program like AWstats or Webalizer could be patched to lookup the unique identifier in the JS stats data store, and ignore all hits which were tracked that way.

I’m going to start by looking into self-hosted open source alternatives to Google Analytics, which I’ll post about sometime hopefully soon.


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