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Edinburgh Web Development

Piwik web analytics

Alternative to Google Analytics?

by Iain Wilson

21 October 2015
piwik

When it comes to web analytics we're long-time users of Google Analytics, even using it back when it used to be Urchin!

It gives a huge amount of information and facilities, but the frequent criticism it gets is that it is too complicated to operate unless you're super technical.  Also many people are uncomfortable with yet more 'big data' being mined by Google.

So when I heard about the (free) Piwik web analytics from Daniel Turner, of Edinburgh software company Quirkos Software, I thought we'd give it a shot.

Piwik has been around since 2007 and currently runs on nearly 1 million sites.  It's also recommended by the French CNIL data protection body. So it is tried and tested and obviously worth having a look at.

We've had it running now for about three weeks, including a couple of installs and an upgrade.  So at this point it's worth stepping back and taking some stock.

Installation

There are two aspects to the installation

  • Server install of the Piwik software.
  • Installation of collection software on the website.

Server installation

First thing is that the Piwik software has to live somewhere - a server. This is perceived as one of Piwik's biggest plus points by many - it puts you in control, not some corporate behemoth.

You can either put it on your own server or use Piwik's Cloud service, which is chargeable.  

If you've got some web development experience, putting it on your own server is pretty straightforward - it needs Apache, a MySQL database and one or two specific server modules which would be availalbe on most web hosting packages.  

Once you've installed it on a server, the software can handle stats coming in from lots of different website.

Website page installation

This is almost exactly the same as Google Analytics - a small piece of Javascript needs to be placed on every page.  It also has the option to use a tiny image for this instead of the Javascript, but we didn't try this.

Logging on

You access the stats by logging onto the server.  Ideally, you've bought a SSL certificate for your server, otherwise your username and password are whizzing around in clear air.

Once logged in, you are presented with a general dashboard and stats options on the right column, very much like Google Analytics.  The dashboard is customisable.

One immediate UI benefit here is that if you have multiple sites, it is really easy to swap between the dashboards for them, unlike the rigmarole that GA puts you through.

The super-user administrator can create new users, giving them access to stats from all or selected sites.

The Stats

The stats are definitely less comprehensive than the mass available from GA but all the key ones are there.

  • Visitors
  • Visitor Maps
  • Page Views
  • Time on page
  • Referrers
  • Devices
  • Real-time map

Importantly, all these key stats are pretty easy and quick to find.

Want to go a little further? Goals, downloads, outlinks, events, site search and more are available. Most

Basic goals are very easy to setup but you can also get more complicated and use events and the Javascript Tracker API to record custom events similar to GA. of these things are simpler to set up than GA.  For example, downloads and outlinks don't need any setup at all - ever tried to track downloads in GA?  

There's also an API if you want to retrieve stats programatically. And there are 3rd party plugins available to do more esoteric things.

Visually, all the key stuff is easy to find in Piwik.  The terminology is logical and in the main, self-evident.

I particularly like the Visitor Log where you can very quickly see visitor activity and trace their details for any time or day.

What is it missing?  You can do some custom reporting via segmentation filtering but GA is way ahead in that respect. There is unsurprisingly no integration with Google Adwords data or Google webmaster tools and I don't think you can do any A/B comparisons.  No doubt there many other things in the depths of GA that Piwik can't do.

But it is a sophisticated package.  The more you use the basic stats, the more you see additional features that you didn't initially spot.

Accuracy of results

When I compared some of the Piwik metrics with those of GA I was surprised to find that in some cases they were quite different.  Piwik stats were always lower.

On investigation, it seemed that visits to the home page (index.php) and direct visits to the domain name (also the home page) didn't seem to be counted the same by the two systems - Piwik was always much lower than GA.  I also found that GA sometimes found a page view that Piwik hadn't. 

Why this was happening, I don't know.  GA's handling of the home page is always a thing of mystery anyway, so I wasn't that concerned about that, but missing page views was not good.  Obviously, if my server wasn't performing, that could be the cause, but I've no reason to suspect that. 

In general, taking out the home page issue, the stats pretty much matched GA's.

I also found that Piwik's initial handling of geolocation was pretty useless.  My visits from Edinburgh were interpreted as being from the US.  But this was easily corrected by installing one of MaxMind’s GeoIP databases.

Mobile App

Piwik has a mobile app which provides most of the desktop software stats and facilities on IOS and Android.  It's handy, quick and once again the visual presentation is easy to understand.

Conclusions

I've been pleasantly surprised by Piwik.  I like the visual presentation and how quickly you can find information and set up custom items.  Will we keep using it?  Yes, I think so. It is just so easy to startup the Piwik app and view what is going on.

Will we stop using GA?  No, when we need a special report or filter, I think we will still be going back to GA for a while.

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Iain Wilson is Director at Blot Design.     Follow on

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