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Big tech finally challenges Fathom Analytics

Jack Ellis
Written by Jack Ellis
September 29, 2020 · Return to blog

We knew this day would come, we just didn’t know it would be so soon. Cloudflare has stormed into the privacy-focused analytics arena and launched a free, privacy-focused analytics solution.

When a multi-billion dollar company comes for you

It all started yesterday when we saw a Cloudflare tweet: “Would you be interested in a privacy-sensitive, accurate, and easy way for website owners to track analytics on their websites? #CloudflareChat”. We jumped in saying that this was already being done, and our customers flooded into the responses too. After all, we wouldn’t want to encourage a company with a $12.5 billion market cap to step into an area that is only occupied by self-funded, small businesses.

Well today, I woke up to an unexpected bombshell. They announced that they would be offering a completely free privacy-first analytics solution. Damn, that was quick. Only yesterday, Paul and I were talking about how we might have to adapt if a multi-billion dollar giant like Cloudflare was going to try and squash smaller competitors. Because up until now, the only companies existing in the privacy-first analytics space have been small, bootstrapped companies.

Cloudflare’s big mistakes

It’s certainly interesting that Cloudflare didn’t just announce “analytics” as an addition. They intentionally chose to position themselves as a “privacy-first” analytics solution. We have spent over 2 years creating this niche. Big tech has known about it for a long time, and we’ve been approached by numerous multi-billion dollar venture capital firms, so we knew that a big tech company was going to try and capitalize on this area at some point.

Less accurate data

They chose to not fingerprint visitors, which is a good step for privacy, but the solution they landed on isn’t good. How do we know that? Because it’s one we considered in the past and experimented with. The approach is that if they have an external HTTP referer, they are a “visit”. So my understanding is that if 100 people loaded your website once in the morning, and then loaded it again in the afternoon, that would count as 200 visits. Which isn’t great if you’re trying to have more accurate analytics. As I say, we tried this but we landed on a hashing method that tracks uniques without being able to tie them back to a user. An approach for advert/analytics companies in the past has been to fingerprint a user and then tie that fingerprint to browsing activity or advert activity. But this isn’t privacy-friendly at all. So we invented a GDPR / ePrivacy compliant analytics technique that can track visits without tying a fingerprint to a user. We may be biased, but we think our solution is the best on the market.

People don’t want multi-billion dollar companies

Cloudflare currently has a market capitalization of $12.5 billion and isn't yet a profitable company. Cloudflare knows that bootstrapped companies were doing well in the space, with Fathom Analytics being the leader and creator of that space, and they think they can satisfy the privacy-focused consumer. What they’re missing is that people are sick of multi-billion dollar companies that control too much of the web.

People are starting to become wary of multi-billion dollar corporations because they’ve seen what can happen, especially when they’re not profitable. Facebook used to be everyone’s favorite website, and then they started selling our data. Google was once a beloved search engine company, but they had investor returns they had to deliver on. This is what people worry about when the topic of big tech enters the room. Speaking of Google, this brings me to another point.

Too much centralization

Cloudflare is taking control of more and more market share of the internet because they offer so many free services. The problem is, the internet isn’t meant to be centralized like this, because when they go down, the whole internet suffers. And people are very aware of the problems that too much centralization causes.

Invading your privacy on their blog

People are becoming more aware of how websites are tracking them. One hacker news user pointed out that Cloudflare already sends your data to 22 different companies through trackers in their blog. We took a look at the website ourselves and Brave shows that Cloudflare’s blog is trying to send our browsing activity to Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other companies.

Cloudflare spy pixels

Over the last few months, we’ve seen numerous companies trying to capitalize on “privacy-first”, and I’ve been pessimistically saying that “privacy-focused” is just a marketing gimmick these days. The above image proves it. You cannot claim to care about visitor privacy in the same blog post that embeds spy pixels from some of the worst, most privacy-invasive companies in the world.

They only let you query one week of data

At time of writing, users paying $200/month are only able to see one week of analytics data. A Cloudflare employee has said they're working on extending it to 30 days, but that's useless. How can you have an analytics product that only shows you 30 days of data? I didn't see this mentioned anywhere in their announcement blog post and only became aware of this when browsing Twitter. My mind is blown.

Is it even free?

At this moment in time, despite them announcing things as “free”, it looks like free users cannot use privacy-first analytics. A confusing announcement but they say they are introducing javascript-based analytics in the future. They’ve said they’re putting the “finishing touches” on it. Which brings us to the next point.

Spread too thin

When a company attempts to do everything, they end up creating Google+, Microsoft Zune, or Fire Phone. Billion-dollar corporations want a slice of every pie possible, spread themselves too thin, and end up with a mediocre product. Netlify did the same thing. Although smaller, with only $97.1 million in venture capital, they wanted a slice of the privacy-focused analytics pie and they released an awful product. We speak about that in our Fathom vs competition article. And analytics software is hard to build & run. Especially at scale. They present a whole series of new challenges.

What does this mean for small companies like us?

We’ve received a huge amount of support following Cloudflare’s announcement. But we’ve competed with billion-dollar companies that offer free alternatives since our inception. This is not new to us.

But competition drives innovation, and this is great for us. We are already working hard to make Fathom Analytics better and better, and this provides us with a bucketload of additional energy. This isn’t our first David and Goliath.

And to wrap this all up, I ask just one question:

Would you rather analytics from a company whose sole focus is analytics, or a company who does analytics as one of 20 other things - it’s their new shiny toy now, but what will it be in a year?

Posted in knowledge

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