Doing site analytics without the evil

This post is part disclosure to readers, part unsolicited shout-out to a tech tool that's probably unfamiliar – but perhaps useful to your own web projects.

I'm talking about Matomo, an open-source analytics dashboard that positions itself as an alternative to Google Analytics. It's the sort of thing I loooooooove these days, since I'm trying to phase out as many products as possible from tech's Frightful Five corporate giants. (That colorful bit of shorthand was coined by New York Times tech columnist Farhad Manjoo in reference to Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft collectively.)

I've self-hosted Matomo in the past for use in several personal projects, when it was branded under its original name Piwik. Recently, I signed up for a new hosted instance, to make maintenance a little easier and support the project financially, and I've now added Matomo tracker code to Indizr's site pages.

My use case for Matomo is pretty straightforward: I just want some good aggregate numbers on metrics like monthly unique visitors, pageviews, and other traffic stats for the Indizr blog, to help me see if the content is resonating with  its intended audience.

Based on my earlier experience with Matomo, I'm confident it can fill that need more than adequately.

Of course, Google Analytics could do the same thing. But there are also some key differences that I believe will make Matomo more friendly to my site's visitors:

  • There is no algorithmic secret sauce at work under the hood. Matomo is all open source under GPL v3.0 license. Want to know how it works? Just go look at the code yourself.
  • There is no built-in conflict of interest from a business standpoint, since Matomo doesn't sell ads itself. Every time you implement Google Analytics as a site publisher, or feed data into it regarding your site visits as a user, you're helping Google get a little smarter at doing the core thing that generated 86 percent of its parent company's revenue last year. You don't think they just give away Google Analytics out of pure altruism, do you?
  • In no way is Matomo contributing to the death of publishers. To the contrary, anyone can self-host it for free on your own server. Or you can pay a fee to Matomo to provide hosting and support, which is how they make money. That's it. Very straightforward – and non-harmful to the people actually producing the content.
  • Neither Matomo nor Indizr is trying to triangulate your site visits to other available information to "psychographically" profile you. These are the type of data practices that famously got Cambridge Analytica in trouble, and they're still practiced throughout the tech industry in less headline-grabbing ways, including at Google.

I also think psychographic profiling is still widely misunderstood by a lot of laymen, especially anyone who says he or she "has nothing to hide" from the platforms doing data collection. In essence, psychographics entails not just collecting data on you to use at face value, but also using that information as a tool to sleuth out the details you didn't explicitly tell the platform.

To use a simple example, Google might take a database that includes details A and B about you, another that tells them B and C, and then they connect A to C, which neither of the original datasets did. This is in part why the ads Google posts to the web pages you visit sometimes seem "creepy," or at least uncannily on the nose according to your interests that you never shared with Google.

I'm not interested in helping to feed that beast anymore, though it would be helpful to know at a high level how many people are visiting my website. Matomo is a good compromise solution that will allow me to do that, minus all the evil parts.

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