Self-hosted web analytics tracking

It amazes me now to think how little tracking I used to do on my various web “experiments” only a few short years ago. However, there was a time when a mere web counter, perhaps displayed on web pages themselves, was enough to yield some level of satisfaction, or dissatisfaction in many a case. Things have come a long way since then and we now seem to have analytics packages all around us. In fact, we don’t even have to dig into our pockets to get our hands on the means to peruse this sort of information either.

At this point, I need to admit that I am known to make use of a few simultaneously but thoughts about reducing their number are coming to mind but there’ll be more on that later. Given that this site is hosted using WordPress software, it should come as no surprise that Automattic’s own plugin has been set into action to see how things are going. The main focus is on the total number of visits by day, week and month with a breakdown showing what pages are doing well as well as an indication of how people came to the site and what links they followed while there. Don’t go expecting details of your visitors like the software that they are using and the country where they are accessing the site with this minimalist option and satisfaction should head your way.

There is next to no way of discussing the subject of website analytics without mentioning Google’s comprehensive offering in the area. You have to admit that it’s comprehensive with perhaps the only bugbear being the lack of live tracking. That need has been addressed very effectively by Woopra, even if its WordPress plugin will not work with IE6. Otherwise, you need the desktop application (being written in Java, it’s a cross-platform affair and I have had it going in both Windows and Linux) but that works well too. Apart maybe from the lack of campaigns, Woopra supplies as good as all of the information that its main competitor provides. It certainly doe what I would need from it.

However, while they can be free as in beer, there are a some costs associated with using using external services like Google Analytics and Woopra. Their means of tracking your web pages for you is by executing a piece of JavaScript that needs to be added to every page. If you have everything set to use a common header or footer page, that shouldn’t be too laborious and there are plugins for publishing platforms like WordPress too. This way of working means that if anyone has JavaScript disabled or decides not to enable JavaScript for the requisite hosts while using the NoScript extension with Firefox, then your numbers are scuppered. Saying that, the same concerns probably any JavaScript code that you may want to execute but there’s another cost again: the calls to external websites can, even with the best attention in the world, slow down the loading of your own pages. Not only is additional JavaScript being run but there also is the latency caused by servers having to communicate across the web.

A self-hosted analytics package would avoid the latter and I found one recently through Lifehacker. Amazingly, it has been around for a while and I hadn’t known about it but I can’t say that I was actively looking for it either. Piwik, formerly known as PHPMyVisites, is the name of my discovery and it seems not too immature either. In fact, I’d venture that it does next to everything that Google Analytics does. While I’d prefer that it used PHP, JavaScript is its means of tracking web pages too. Nevertheless, page loading is still faster than with Google Analytics and/or Woopra and Firefox/NoScript users would only have to allow JavaScript for one site too. If you have had experience with installing PHP/MySQL powered publishing platforms like WordPress, Textpattern and such like, then putting Piwik in place is no ordeal. You may find yourself changing folder access but uploading of the required files, the specification of database credentials and adding an administration user is all fairly standard stuff. I have the thing tracking this edifice as well as my outdoor activities (hillwalking/cycling/photography) web presence and I cannot say that I have any complaints so we’ll see how it goes from here.