Google Analytics (at http://analytics.google.com) is a tool to help measure traffic that arrives at your website, to determine useful information that you can make important decisions with. There is typically no cost to use Google Analytics, unless your usage requires enterprise-level performance, due to the sheer volume of traffic. Google offers a paid form of their analytics system, geared toward enterprise users, which we will not be covering here.
So, why do I say you shouldn’t use Google Analytics? It all comes down to the information, and what you plan to do with it. In general, Google tends to anonymize the data it tracks. Meaning, Google will not allow you to store anything that specifically identifies any particular user to you. In essence, Google gathers all data within Google Analytics to track how many users did a particular thing (eg; How many users visited a particular page, or, How many users use the Firefox browser, etc). No handling is given for the ability to know exactly what a particular user did. From a marketers standpoint, I may be able to make decisions on my site by what collections of users do, or do by average, but I cannot use the tracking information as a reference point for the habits of a particular user. This overall means that I cannot use the tracking information for one of the biggest potential gains to my business—the ability to know what a user is interested in, and in turn market to them directly. What if I want to show the user different information on my site if this is their second time visiting me? If my users have login accounts on my site, I may want to send an email promoting particular products and services, if I see that they have ever previously viewed certain pages on my site.
Google Analytics does not, and cannot do this.
So, if I want to track individual users, what options do I have?
There are many other tracking engines available other than Google Analytics. Many of which have the same problem: anonymizing the tracking data. You can host your own tracking engine however, by using an open source project called Piwik (http://www.piwik.org). Piwik allows you to install your own analytics system, either on the same server as your website, or on an alternate server. Installation is fairly straightforward, and in the end result, you will have all of your data available to you in a local MySQL database to query directly if your skills range that far, or in a very easy to use interface reminiscent of Google Analytics, if not.
Here is an example of the Piwik user interface:
Looking further into the data you can see individual user performance on the user profile card:
This is just an overview of the benefits of self-hosted analytics for your websites – and something we recommend that you look into. Should you not use Google Analytics at all? That is an individual choice you have to make. There is something perhaps to be said for keeping both systems in place, as each analytics tracking system has it’s own strengths and weaknesses.
– Ty Roden, Vice President of That! Company