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Simplify for Success - Conversation with Adriaan van Rossum


Adriaan van Rossum was on #SimplifyForSuccess, a podcast series presented by Meru Data and hosted by Priya Keshav.


Adriaan talked about a more privacy-preserving analytics platform called Simple Analytics and other alternatives to Google Analytics.

Thank you to Fesliyan Studios for the background music. *Views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the view of Meru Data.*










Listen to the full podcast here:


Transcript:


Priya Keshav:

Hello everyone, welcome to our podcast around simplifying for success. Simplification requires discipline and clarity of thought. This is not often easy in today's rapid-paced work environment. We've invited a few colleagues in data and information governance space to share their strategies and approaches for simplification. In today's episode, we will talk to Adriaan van Rossum, one of the founders of Simple Analytics. After the recent decision by the Austrian Data Protection Authority against the use of Google Analytics, many are searching for alternatives. I'm sure you'll find this podcast insightful.

Hi Adrian, welcome to the show.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Hi Priya, thanks for having me.

Priya Keshav:

So tell me a little Bit about yourself and how did you get started on Simple Analytics.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah sure. So it was about four years ago and that I started Simple Analytics but before that, I had some experience as a web developer. I'm from the Netherlands, now live in Amsterdam and I always had an interest in building websites, I learned from people around me and I also learned that you could do a lot of stuff that is not super privacy-friendly. And as a developer, I think and many other developers probably notice is, you know, to look what the web is capable of.

For example, when I started building websites, it was still possible to get someone's clipboard history. So you would copy-paste something in a Word document, you would visit the website and that website could get your clipboard. So it could be very personal data, right? Like you copy-paste everything. So this made me realize that hey if this is possible, how would it be for the end user? Like it's no one expects this. So then it started to, yeah, be of an interest of how this all works, and then I basically started to have interest in privacy and what it entails. But then it was like, always a little bit on the background and didn't really do something in privacy that much, but I always had an interest in it. And then like four years ago, it was in 2018, I needed to install some analytics tags for a customer. And I was like, yeah, I don't really want to do this. I'm kind of...yeah, I don't want to feed all this data to Google Analytics. So what should I do? What is the alternative? And I didn't really find an alternative that suited my needs.

And then I realized, like, maybe I should build it myself. So, then I started building Simple Analytics, a super simple version at the time and people already had an interest in it. Like there were quite some people that just wanted to know how many page views they had or how many pages were visited. So for them, it was already like providing value and in the years after we developed the platform, we did quite a bit. And also, GDPR made a few of those changes in the landscape that people actually need to use something more privacy-friendly.

Priya Keshav:

So obviously, after the recent Austrian Data Protection authorities’ decision on Google Analytics, you know, use privacy-friendly alternatives to Google Analytics, which maybe not four years ago, in my mind at least, I would have never thought about it till then, right? Like you kind of just assumed that that's a default, go-to. So now it has become a lot more relevant and people realize that there aren't that many alternatives at all. So, tell me a little bit more about what Simple Analytics does and how is it different from Google. I mean, I understand that it is more privacy preserving, but I was kind of fascinated to read some of your blogs in terms of...you don't collect actual IP addresses, you don't collect a number of attributes that are sort of default with Google, for example.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah, yeah, so there's quite a difference between Google Analytics and Simple Analytics. Although we use it quite a bit to say, like, what is Simple Analytics, we'll just say it's a privacy-first alternative to Google Analytics, so people instantly get it. But there's quite some differences. For example, our interfaces are completely different, like we have a one-page dashboard versus a very complex dashboard in Google Analytics. We are very lightweight, they are quite heavyweight, but there's also some things that are better to calculate if you track people, that make sense, right? So if I can track a person from page to page, like how long the session was for that person, how many pages they visited, which pages they visited. So that's the kind of information you can't really gather without tracking people. So we have Simple Analytics, we decided we want to have a way that we at least can show the unique pageviews and normal pageviews. The time and pace...all that stuff, that's still doable without invading the privacy. So for example, how we do our visitors is we check if they came from a different website or came from the same website. If it's from the same website, then we know this is a non-unique pageview and with Google, it's like a cookie that's placed or an IP address, or a hash or like that where they will track you for a longer period of time. And that's also one of the bigger difference with Simple Analytics and other competitors as well. Also, privacy-friendly competitors, most of them still use the IP address in a certain way and I don't really think that's the best idea. Because if you still use it for one week, then we need to trust you on that. And you can still track a person for the whole week or a day or something like that. And I think it's a bit of a gray zone to be in. And with Simple Analytics, you always want to be like I'm not sure this is legally accepted and you will never get any privacy issues with that. So we go for a different way, and that's without any IP address or fingerprinting or tracking or whatsoever.

Priya Keshav:

So tell me a little bit more. So, it makes sense that it is obviously a lot more privacy-preserving, and as a customer, when you're browsing the site, when you know they're not fingerprinting you and they're not tracking your IP address, you feel a lot more safer. But having said that, if we, let's, say, have a website like ours where we don't have shopping carts and you're not doing complex analytics, all you're trying to do is to understand how useful your page is for your customers. This makes sense, but if I am, let's say I am a retailer and I am trying to understand bounce rates, I'm trying to understand abandoned cart tracking or I'm trying to also do some cross-target advertising and things like that. So how do, I mean, without tracking IP addresses and without doing any of that, I can't get some of those things to work anymore, right? Like pretty much I couldn't kind of look at abandoned carts if I don't know who the user is.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah, so we need to change our mindset a bit. Like, before we could do everything we wanted on the Internet and track everything we wanted. And now there's regulations saying, like hey, we will protect individuals that visit your website. You're not allowed to do so anymore. And there are so many things that are not allowed anymore because of that. I think we're going in the right direction, but we really need to think differently. So, do we need to collect this data? Do we really do something with the data if we have collected it? All those kinds of questions are very important to ask internally, or with your team like hey is this really needed? And of course, if e-commerce or something like that, it's very much based on own tracking, right? Like how is the flow going? How many people come in? How many shopping carts are filled and stuff like that? So we need to be very creative in finding ways to still get those numbers, but then in a different way and they will be less accurate but that's the tradeoff that we have to do with taking the more private path. And yeah, in the last few years we really didn't care about it at all and, I think, if it was forbidden at that time, we would have developed so many different ways to get valuable insights in those and those key numbers. So it's just a matter of time, and then there's plenty of products to choose from, and people are known to like, OK, we can't do this, but maybe we should do this. And then you find a solution to problems that you need answers for.

Priya Keshav:

So there are alternatives to Simple Analytics and Google, right? Would you want to kind of talk a little bit about where you fall and how you compare and contrast against some of your competition.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah, so I briefly said something about it that we are more in the green zone than in the grey zone. As in we are not European business, which makes it easier also for our customers to choose us because we need to follow local regulations and we need to have our servers within Europe as well. And how we're different from different tools, it really depends on the tool, but I would say we are at the far end spectrum of privacy. So we take privacy a bit further than most of them. Like there's a lot of tools around owning the data, for example, that you are the data owner yourself. With Simple, that's also the case, but we go one step further and we say like it's not only that you own the data, but we want to be 100% sure that you collected data in a privacy acceptable way, where you don't consent for. So that's also a difference with some tools, and we always try to pick the best privacy solution within our reach that we can provide.

Priya Keshav:

Let’s talk about this concept of data ownership. Our podcast listeners, we have a broad spectrum of people on how they sort of interpret data ownership. You obviously mentioned that with Simple Analytic,s you are a service provider, so the company that sort of owns the data and it is their data. And then there are some privacy-friendly products which kind of start with that concept but with Google Analytics, you don't own the data.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah, yeah, you don't own the data if you're using Google Analytics, yeah.

Priya Keshav:

Why do you think so?

Adriaan van Rossum:

Because you you're basically giving them the data for themselves, like also you sign some terms when using Google Analytics saying like hey, we can use this data in other platforms, which in my mind means like you can use it in Google AdWords as well, which is something that really makes sense from the Google perspective, right? So they have this amount huge amount of data coming from all the websites around the Internet which they can use to for their other products like Google Ads and Google Search. It's pretty clear that you don't own the data with Google Analytics because they use it for so many other things than the service they provide to you. And then, and I think, that's the whole problem with services that are free. Like if you don't pay for our service, then then the company needs to find a way to pay for that, right? So, Google has found their way and Simple chose to just charge money for it. So we don't need to have other ways to sell data from our customers, so we can really say it's your data and we don't care about it, like you can delete it. You can. You can do whatever with the data you want.

Priya Keshav:

So in other words, you don't really use the data for anything. You don't further sell the data, you don't analyze that data, you don't process that data in any other way. So it's, basically, you're a service provider providing service to the customer.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah and there's also customers that just use this for collecting data. So they say like OK we trust you guys with collecting the data in a legal way. Just send the data our way or they get the data out of our systems and then they process it themselves in their own tools. So that's also a way that that people use Simple.

Priya Keshav:

And you mentioned that since you're a European company, the data is hosted in Europe and so you don't have to worry about cross-border transfer of data which has been one of the issues with Google. Tell me a little bit more about your product being light, right? How does that make a difference to a website when it is lighter compared to what Google Analytics provides?

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah, so there's basically two ways to look at it, so you can say like the website loading time is important. So how fast your website loads for the visitor, and it can also be lightweight in the UX wise, right? So we have a lightweight tool, so it's easy to understand and the dashboard and stuff like that. But the first one, the loading time is quite important for loading your website. If you want to score certain points basically on how fast your website is, if it takes like a second too long, then maybe someone leaves your website and you lost that customer. So you don't really want to have that, you want to have like a performing website and Google provides some tools to check if your website is performing. They use certain indicators and they call it core web vitals and there's basically a few ways to calculate if your website is still fast and they say they will use these metrics also in their search algorithms. So you probably perform better if your website loads faster, you perform better in the Google search ranking, which is great. So they provide some tools for that and for the end-user, it's nice because you have a website that shows up on top of the search. So we did some tests with Simple Analytics on the website and then with Google Analytics and then we compare those two, and the funny thing is that you can get like 100 points for your website so without any script we had like 98.2 points. So that's without any analytics. And then we added Simple Analytics and then we had like 98.0. So there's only .2 difference. And then we changed Simple Analytics to Google Analytics and then we got like 88.9. So that's like basically 10 points below the highest number. So you can see that there's a huge difference when using Google Analytics versus Simple Analytics just based on their own algorithms and their own core web vital indicators. So it was quite interesting to see and that's what we mean when we say lightweight and it almost has no impact on the performance of your website. While Google Analytics has way bigger impacts on your website.

Priya Keshav:

So, another topic that I kind of want to drill down further and so you don't track IP addresses, but you can tell, maybe not with precision, that, let's say, Priya visited your website from Houston, but you could tell that Priya visited somewhere from Texas or how does that work? Like, can you tell us? Yes, you said you have to make some compromises, but it would be nice to kind of understand how much of a compromise it is?

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah, exactly. So we will not know if Priya visited three times, we also don't know if the same user visited three times. And what we can see is that the user is from a certain country. So the country is something that basically the browser sends the time zone of the user to the website. So if you're and that's the part we collect, so we collect the time zone from the browser so we don't have to touch the IP address? So then the time zone could be anything like, it could be anything, for example Europe, Amsterdam is a time zone So then in our in our system we all match like oh this is from Amsterdam. Well then it's in the Netherlands, so then we still know it's a person from the Netherlands. We don't know anything more from that person and just that their time zone was set to the Netherlands and this works quite well because every country has one or more time zones. And most of the time zones of all the machines are automatically set up. So if you travel, your time zone changes, it is basically the same as on your phone you have. If you have the time and if you travel, the time changes with the location you're at and then also the time zone changes in the browser. So that's basically the way it works and we think that's a great approach. But at the same time, what also could be a solution is that you get the IP address or the time that a person visits your website and you just check like hey is this IP address from a certain country and then you just drop the IP address but you still have the country. And I think that's still fine because you're not saving the IP address and you're just matching it with a database that's already in your system, so it's not that you store the IP address ever, it's just that you match it with a database. I think that's also a good solution, but yeah again, we are a little bit on the safe side, so we use the time zone and we don't touch the IP address.

Priya Keshav:

So in that sense, I'd like to kind of make it relevant to US users listening to this podcast. So in this case, you're probably going to be able to say that Priya visited in the central time zone, but you may not be able to pinpoint whether I'm in Chicago or I’m in Texas or I’m in Illinois or Texas. So you can't give me a state-specific or a city-specific location information, but you can give me an approximate saying that it's US and in the central region.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah I can say it's in the US that's what we will store so we won’t even say the central region, we will just say US.

Priya Keshav:

Sounds good. Any other closing thoughts that you would like to share.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Well, I think the whole privacy thing is now really starting up and you see that we've we briefly touched it with Google Analytics with that they are already forbidden in a few countries in Europe and I think I really feel this is just the beginning. So if businesses still think like, oh, we can probably wait a bit, it's just a matter of time that you really have to do something about it. So I would say that for most businesses, it's very important to already look at a few solutions because it takes a while before you implement, right? So, probably you want to know what data you get, you want to test a few tools and, I think that it's important to take that step now because it's only going further and more privacy minded. There's many regulations that are being created in the EU as well for even further down or more privacy for the individuals. So, it's just a matter of time that you can't use the tools that you're already using, so better get familiar with the tools that you can use and try to find a mindset that allows to get the numbers in a different way without getting the number from one specific version so you don't see like hey, Priya visited this website three times, but a person named X or whatever visited this website three times. And this for the end-user or for the analysts or the marketers, it's all fine. Like they don't care about the name of the person. So if we take little steps in that direction, I think we'll be better for every visitor.

Priya Keshav:

No, I totally agree with you, right? But I'm just going to speak from a perspective of an analytics person or somebody within the corporation making these decisions, right? Last 10-15 years, we've sort of evolved into this model, not purposefully, but it just sort of happened, right? Because it's possible and there were a number of things that we never considered, so there was no alternative to Google Analytics, right? So nobody was thinking about data ownership. They were just thinking in terms of oh, I could just do this and now I can get all this information about my website, that's pretty interesting, right?

And sometimes you also had this notion that I could collect all this data, I'm not sure if I'm going to use it but maybe I should keep it because I want to figure out how I'm going to use it, right? And so, like you mentioned, I may never be interested in knowing if Priya visited the website. I mean, we're only interested in aggregate numbers, but I don't know what I want. The decision to collect doesn't kind of quite correlate with the decision to use, so the idea is let's collect as much as we want now because we haven't made decisions on what we're going to use. And so when you start with the usage, you may realize that you have collected and this is actual statistics that I'm giving you- which is about 80% of the data that people collect, they don't use or they don't know how to use or even if they know how to use it, they don't trust that data because it's either outdated or it's partial or whatever, so they end up using about 20%. But they don't have insights into the 20% they use, so they make decisions that are very broad because it makes more sense, right? It's safer, so privacy was never a consideration, and it has taken all these regulations, a lot of awareness to start thinking, and I think, most of us have dual roles and I'm saying this also, you know, when I'm a customer and when I'm being tracked, I don't like it. But when I am an analytics person, I just worry about what if I need this information and I somehow made the wrong decision, right? So, I don't want to be the decision maker, so in some ways it takes 15 years of going a certain path, you have to unwind and now think differently. It takes time.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah, and then it takes a lot of like curves as well because you will probably make a few mistakes along the way, right? Like oh, you think like this will answer my question and then later you realize this didn't answer my question. So, then you miss some information but I think it's important to get out of this mindset of indeed when you're saying like, let's collect 100% and then see what we need, because that's not a viable solution anymore. And yeah, it takes time too, but I think we're getting there.

Priya Keshav:

Well, thank you so much for your time, Adrian. And of course, we need a lot of solutions, right. So, most of the time, as a privacy professional, when I talk to customers, and we're sort of thinking about alternatives. When you don't understand the alternatives, it's much more difficult to kind of figure out the path forward. It just feels like there's so many changes, but I don't know what the new normal should look like. And so, in some ways, having more privacy friendly technologies kind of also provides you alternatives to think about, and where in the spectrum somebody wants to kind of select whether the most privacy friendly one, like you said in the green zone or something in the gray zone, that would be their choice to make in their journey. But at least being aware and knowing that there are choices is a step forward.

Adriaan van Rossum:

Yeah, exactly, and there's more and more choices popping up right like it's also a market. So yeah, that's great.

Priya Keshav:

Thank you so much.

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