Site Update…

Seen as its the start of a new month I thought I’d post a follow up to my post on the site overhaul. It hasn’t actually been a month yet, but the tracking statistics are based on calendar months. The short story is that visitor numbers are up, with 446 visitors recorded since the Piwik instance went live (13th Jan) until the end of the month. This beats all my previous records and is only for part of a month. My old GA figures were putting me at around 300 visits per month, though this had slipped recently. So, either there is a large difference in the way the two systems measure visitors or my push to actually put up some content is working! The fact that roughly half my visits are coming from search engines and are coming to newer posts on the site supports my theory that the push is working.

Having said that I’ve slacked off a bit recently (this is only my second post this week). This is mainly because I’ve been putting a lot of work into SwallowCatcher, managing to get a release out earlier this week. Hopefully, in the coming weeks I’ll be able to balance both projects.

In terms of the other action points I had for the site:

  • Google Ads are still here. This is primarily because AdBard have not approved my account yet. I’ve even queried this via their support address and had no response, so I don’t know what’s going on there.
  • Flattr is here! And its actually making me some money, with a total of three flattrs last month. Please, if you like my stuff consider flattring me, it’ll help pay for the site and encourage me to produce more content and software.
  • I have a new theme! Although its just an off the shelf one for now, I haven’t modified it.
  • More pages: well, I’ve posted the project section and a project page for SwallowCatcher. There’s still more I want to do and I haven’t got around to doing a proper profile page or online CV yet.
  • More content: well that speaks for itself. The last month has been a time of unprecedented blogging activity for me. I’m really quite enjoying it and its made its way into my mental todo list for each week, which is a good sign.

That’s just about all there is to it. For those that are interested in SwallowCatcher, since I released on Tuesday I’ve been working fixing some of the issues identified in the release notes and those that people have reported to me. I’ve also been using it day to day to download my podcasts and fixing any issues I encounter. In fact, tonight was the first time I’ve opened my laptop in the last two days. The laptop’s primary use for the last few months has been downloading podcasts when I’m at uni. Now SwallowCatcher is just about filling that niche! I’ll hopefully post an officially updated version sometime over the weekend, with the announcement again going out here.

Review: Piwik Analytics Software

If you read my previous post regarding the site overhaul that I’m currently doing you will have seen me mention that I’m now using the Piwik Open Source Analytics Package in place of Google Analytics. Well I’ve had it running for a few days and have played around with it a bit, so I thought I’d review it. I’m going to start with my reasons for moving from GA and then move along and score it on several different criteria:

  • Installation and Setup
  • Site integration
  • User interface
  • Extensibility (API availability)
  • Overall impressions (documentation, community, etc.)

The philosophical argument

As well as the obvious benefit (from a Freedom perspective) of using one less proprietary web service, there is also another reason that I switched away from Google Analytics. Basically, this was privacy. For a while I’ve been using technologies to limit the amount of data which leaks from my browser as I navigate the web, in order to reduce the amount of profiling of my web activities. This isn’t because I have anything to hide. I just don’t like the idea of large companies building up a huge database on me, without my permission. The upshot of this is that I found myself in the slightly hypocritical situation of blocking GA in my own browser, but using it to track others on my site.

The solution was obvious, remove GA from my site. However, I didn’t want to lose the valuable information that it provides me with. Also, I don’t have a problem with site owners collecting data that can help them, just with them sharing it with 3rd parties such as Google, who then build it into their larger profiling efforts. A quick search turned up Piwik which aims to provide a full featured GA replacement that you can run on your own server. Because site owners run their own instances, they remain in charge of their tracking of users, retain ownership of the data and best of all don’t give any data to Google.

With the aim of responsible and unobtrusive tracking in mind I’ve added a page to my site to allow users to Opt-out of the Piwik tracking by means of a cookie. The link is also accessible from the sidebar under the copyright notice. I’m afraid some of the text on that page is pretty difficult to see with my current theme, but I’m working on this. For now just uncheck the check box to opt-out.

Right, on to the main event, the actual review…

1. Installation and Setup

There’s actually not much to say here, which is because installation was ridiculously easy! I just downloaded the zip to my sever (with wget) and unzipped it into my server root directory. This produced a directory called ‘piwik’ and a ‘How to Install Piwik.html’ file, which if you point your browser at it will redirect you to the installation instructions. The rest of the installation was fairly simple, following the instructions I pointed my browser at the ‘/piwik/’ directory of my site and was greeted by the installer. Following this was really easy, you’ll need to create a MySQL database when prompted for the database info, but that’s about as hard as it gets. Towards the end you’ll be prompted to setup your site with Piwik which involves entering a few details about the site, then you’ll be provided with a snippet of JavaScript to add to your site template. Which leads me neatly into the next section…

2. Site Integration

I didn’t copy and paste the JavaScript into my template, instead opting to install the WP-Piwik addon for WordPress. This made the set up easy and also gave me a widget on my WordPress admin dashboard which gives me a nice overview of my site visits. As I already said I was also able to add a widget to the site to enable visitors to opt-out of tracking. This was also simple, just involving a copy and paste of a couple of lines of HTML from one of the settings pages into a WordPress page. Easy!

You can also integrate Piwik widgets with your site, by following the instructions in the documentation, this is a neat feature, especially if you have a custom start page set in your web browser (something which I have yet to get around to making).

I also investigated the campaigns functionality in order to track entries to my site from the RSS feed. This is really simple to use, all you have to do is append the query string ‘?piwik_campaign=NAME’, where NAME is the name of your campaign to the end of a URL, to have it show up under that campaign. I found that I could integrate this with WordPress pretty well by adding the following snippet of code to the functions.php file of my theme:

If you now check the URLs in your RSS feeds, they will all have the query string added and clicks will be attributed to the ‘RSS’ campaign in Piwik.

3. User Interface

The Piwik user interface is really nice. I’ve included some screenshots below, so that you can make up your own mind. It’s pretty similar to the GA user interface, only cleaner and all the AJAX stuff makes it feel really responsive. I also love the real time tracking widget, which is something GA totally lacks. The only bad thing about the UI is the requirement of Flash for the graphs. I hate Flash and it doesn’t have a reliable 64-bit Linux version, which means I only have it installed on my netbook. Oh, and before you ask, I tried it with Gnash and it didn’t work!

4. Extensibility

By extensibility, I was primarily interested in API access. There’s certainly no shortage of this with two APIs listed on the documentation page. One API is for performing tracking, which I didn’t need given my usage of the WordPress plugin. I looked instead at the analytics API, which allows you to access all the data through simple HTTP requests. I was able to write a simple Python script to email me my main statistics once a day, in about an hour (including working out how the Python email and smtplib modules work!). Performing an Piwik API call in Python is as simple as:

Of course, as it’s Python its ridiculously simple!

Of course, if you find something that you can’t do with the API (which is unlikely, because it seems to cover everything), the you can access the data in the database – because it’s in YOUR database. You can also back-up and secure your data exactly how you want to. This is something that GA just can’t compete with!

5. Overall Impressions

My impressions of Piwik as a project have been really good. The documentation is excellent and there seems to be a good community behind it. As a product its a pleasure to use, really easy to install and just works. The reliance on flash for the graphs is a bit disappointing, but perhaps this will change in the future as HTML5 matures. Here are the obligatory scores:

  • Installation and Setup – 5/5
  • Site Integration – 4/5
  • User Interface – 3/5
  • Extensibility – 5/5

Overall Score: 4/5

Verdict: If your currently using Google Analytics, stop it! (and use this instead)

Giving this site an overhaul…

Things are changing…

I’m currently in the process of giving this site an overhaul, with the intention of increasing the number of visitors I get. I’m also going to experiment with various ways to try and support the site (with the eventual aim of making the site self sufficient). So far I’ve changed a couple of things:

  • I’ve added a proper image gallery thanks to the NextGEN Gallery plugin. This isn’t really intended to increase visitor numbers but gives me an easier way to share my photos, without surrendering them to Facebook! You can view my public gallery now, but I still need to upload more photos.
  • I’ve switched away from Google Analytics, to a self hosted Piwik instance. This lets me take control of my tracking data and for visitors to my site it means that your usage data stays between you and me, without Google butting in! I’m also going to add the opt-out button to the side bar for anyone who really doesn’t want to share their data. So far I’m really pleased with Piwik, hopefully I’ll review it when its been running for a bit longer.

Here’s what’s in the pipeline:

  • Removing Google Ads: basically they’re not making me any money and I’m increasingly objecting to the tracking/profiling they do. I’m going to replace them with AdBard, but I’m still waiting for my account to be approved.
  • I also want to experiment with Flattr: which as well as hopefully making me some money, will allow me to give something back to other people producing content I like.
  • A new site theme: probably a modified version of an already available theme. I want something clean and I want to be able to personalise it easily. Suggestions will be gratefully received! (via the comments on this post).
  • More pages: I really need a better about page and I also want to do a digital CV. I’m also thinking about project pages for the coding projects I’m working on.
  • More content: obviously, the secret to getting more visitors lies in having more quality content. I happen to think my content is of good quality and some of it scores pretty highly in related google searches. I just need more of it! This comes down to having the time to blog and stuff to blog about. I’m trying to set aside more time for blogging and think of more topics to blog about. Be prepared to see a wider range of content hopefully appearing soon.

I’m approaching this, as I initially approached blogging, as an experiment. I don’t know how far I’ll get, but I’ll report on my progress as I go. If anyone has anything they want to share or their own experiences from promoting their own site, please feel free to comment.