You Are Being Tracked

I have never been a big fan of online tracking. I believe that online tracking fundamentally breaks many of the precepts the web was built on, as of today, for the first time ever, I am tracking the traffic on my own personal website.

To explain how I got here, let me tell you some of the main issues I've seen with online tracking.

Tracking is slow

Online trackers are breathtakingly slow. Using the internet with an ad-blocker has become common specifically for this reason, I think: people got tired of waiting for their webpages to load. The internet is a noticably nicer place with ad-blockers and privacy blockers on.

I don't think this is the fault of any one tracker or tool. It's generally the combination of many trackers that creates these problems.

This is a huge failing for all of us, and we only have ourselves to blame. The sheer number of trackers on most websites are actively breaking the internet, but we continue to add them to every webpage like they're candy. Like candy though, they create serious health issues for our websites, and we should treat them with more caution than we are.

Most trackers dig too deep

Online trackers can be an invasion of privacy, especially when taken to their logical extreme. Simple anonomous traffic info is one thing, but many companies believe that more data is always better, and this contributes to many of the other issues with online tracking. The more we track, the more unnecessary problems we create.

In the last couple of years I have worked for dozens of companes, and every single one of them has a Google Analytics account that they barely use. Google Analytics is an incredible tool, but let's be honest here: the vast majority of people have no idea how to use all of that data. Most people care about which pages get the most traffic, and maybe some simple e-commerce and email signup metrics. That's it. We don't need to be collecting nearly as much information as we do.

Most trackers “phone home”

Your Google Analytics data is not truly private. Your Facebook tracker is not truly private. Both tools have major marketing companies behind them, and the more they're able to track about a person's online identity, the better they can advertise to them.

There's nothing inherently wrong with them doing this: they provide incredible tools for free, and as payment they harvest whatever information they need. That's how it works. But most people don't seem to know that's how this works. I've heard many people rail against retargeted ads—ads that take your browsing history into account—and then they slap a Facebook pixel on their site, enabling the same behavior they reportedly dislike.

Despite the downsides though, data can be useful...

Which is why I now have a GoatCounter on this site.

Up until today I had no idea if anyone was reading this blog or not, but I've always been curious. I've had my eyes peeled for a simple privacy aware tracker, and GoatCounter seems to fit the bill. A few things I like about it:

  • It's open source. Security through transparency, I call this. If nothing is hidden, surely there's nothing to hide, right?
  • Privacy aware. The creator of this tool has written articles on his views about online tracking, and his judgement seems sound.
  • It's fast, light, and asynchronous. No extra bloat.
  • It tracks a small number of factors: page views, page referrals, browser, rough screen size, and rough location. Nothing even remotely identifiable.
  • I own my own data. It is fully exportable and deletable at any time. No phoning home, no perpetually saved data. Full control.

This is an experiment, but a good one, I think. I'm excited to see if GoatCounter will be a tool I will continue to use for years to come.

One more thing about GoatCounter

A fun thing: you can also make your GoatCounter dashboard public. I don't know if I want to do that or not, but it would be a fun feature for specific projects, I think.

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