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Bypass ad-blockers with custom domains

Written by Paul Jarvis
April 15, 2020 · Return to blog

Ad-blockers and privacy-focused web analytics platforms like ours should be on the same team. We’re both trying to make the web a safer and more anonymous place, free from personal data being tracked. Unfortunately that’s not the case.

Since Fathom Analytics started, we have been committed to digital privacy and have never collected any personally identifiable information from visitors—making us GDPR, CCPA and PECR compliant. Heck, we don’t even store user agents/IP addresses in our queue.

The problem is, some ad-blocking browser extensions see most widely-used external javascript as evil in general, and block it completely. This makes sense when blocking scripts that track personal data for retargeting or even to block analytics companies who don’t care about user privacy. But it doesn’t make sense to block scripts like Fathom Analytics. In fact, one fundamental argument for not blocking privacy-focused analytics tools is that it’s more beneficial to the world as a whole, because it leads to people ditching Google Analytics because it’s blocked everywhere, whilst privacy-focused services are not. Since these ad-blocking companies are not willing to work with us, we’ve decided to take things into our own hands.

To prevent ad-blockers from blocking stats for your website (if your visitors use those browser extensions), we’ve come up with a solution that’s both ingenious (not to toot our own horn or anything, but toot, toot!), and easy to implement for all of our customers.

Use a custom domain to bypass ad-blocking

Fathom Analytics now allows customers to create and use their own domains in their tracking code. The way we approach things is that we still attempt to use our main tracker code, but we fallback to your custom domain if the Fathom URL is blocked.

Customers can also use the same custom subdomain on all of their sites (remember, every Fathom Analytics plan comes with unlimited websites), they just need to make sure they’ve modified the site ID in the tracking snippet.

Most ad-blockers won’t block scripts that come from the same domain or subdomain (otherwise all javascript on the internet would break), so our customers will be perfectly safe from ad-blockers when they use this feature. In addition, we don’t use any predictable patterns that ad-blockers can target, since both the generated subdomain and tracker filename are random.

Each Fathom Analytics account allows our customers to create unlimited custom domains, and it runs on top of our global, serverless infrastructure which is blazingly fast to load. (Note: we’ll be blogging about this for the nerdier amongst you in the future, as it was an interesting journey.)

How this works, technically speaking

By default, our analytics are loaded from our tracker code, embedded on your website using our global content delivery network (CDN). We do this to ensure our tracker code loads quickly from anywhere in the world.

Here’s where custom domains come in. In the event our tracker file cannot load using our CDN (due to ad-blocking), then we load our tracker via your custom domain. Your custom domain is pointed to our DNS service, where we have automatic fail-overs at DNS level. We then utilize Caddy to reverse proxy through to our serverless infrastructure. The best thing about our set-up is that, for about 70% of your website visitors, they’ll hit our default CDN, but then we’ll still be able to catch anybody else.

Additionally, we handle your CNAME’s SSL certificate automatically, and handle renewal, completely free of charge, so you haven’t got to worry about that.

If your custom domain finds itself blocked by an ad-blocker, you can always create a new one (which is randomly generated on our end), add the DNS entries, and use that instead. We generate random subdomains, so there’s no way ad-blockers could guess any patterns such as “stats” or “analytics”. Even our tracker filename is randomly generated, so that would be hard to block as well (and you could rename it, if it was blocked).

Wait, is it ethical to circumvent ad-blockers?

As I said at the top of this piece, privacy-focused tools should all be on the same side. We’re all working to ensure that the web is safer and a more anonymous place, free from personal data being tracked.

Fathom Analytics offers a competitive advantage over Google Analytics by dodging ad-blockers, which means our customers aren’t sending data to Google. This has been one of our main goals since the start: to make websites a black hole to big tech.

Some research has said that over 30% of internet users have ad-blockers installed, that means almost one third of traffic is not tracked in Google Analytics, but could be using a custom domain in Fathom. Remember, Google is, first and foremost, an advertising company. Advertising companies are not known for their privacy, and Wikipedia has a page dedicated to Privacy concerns regarding Google. Comparatively, our customers pay us because they want privacy for their website visitors, delivered in a simple, beautiful way. Fathom could not exist without protecting the privacy of your website visitors, and we like it that way.

Since the sole purpose of ad-blockers is to protect privacy, and Fathom Analytics already does this, blocking them doesn’t make browsing any less private. Our software already protects the privacy of visitors because we don't profile them or sell their data.

By dodging ad-blockers, simple website analytics like Fathom provide true and accurate numbers for top content, referrals and more—all without breaching anyone’s privacy. It’s a win-win.

Unlimited custom domains for our tracker file are available to every customer, starting today. If you need help setting them up, please refer to our support documentation.

And, if you aren’t a customer yet but want to make your site immune to ad-blockers, while maintaining your visitors' privacy (and GDPR compliance), sign up now for a free 7 day free trial of Fathom Analytics.

Posted in feature

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