In many respects, we have been thoroughly spoiled by the internet. We’re so used to accessing information without obstruction that having to pay for information sometimes comes as a shock. Publicly available websites and free apps disguise the vast amount of programming expertise needed to create and host these tools and websites in the first place.
This is particularly true of web analytics packages, which are used to determine how a particular website performs by studying the behaviour of individual visitors and quantifying search engine appeal. Is it really fair to expect free analytics software to evaluate browser sizes or track how each visitor navigates around our website? And if these sophisticated services are available without charge, how do their developers manage to balance their books?
Paying their way
There are several business models enabling software as a service (SaaS) providers to offer free analytics software:
- As a loss leader, attracting customers to the brand and building trust in other products.
- To lock people into other (paid-for) services that dovetail with the free package.
- Through conventional in-site or in-app advertising/sponsorship.
- A basic service augmented with paid-for extensions and unlocks.
Even setting aside the popular freemium model outlined in point #4 above, there are a number of income-generating options for analytics developers to consider:
- Free trials, which automatically charge a fee unless the user closes their account.
- Monthly subscriptions.
- One-off fees for unlimited access.
- Incremental cost scales depending on the number of devices/complexity of reports.
For the purposes of this feature, we will consider the relative merits of free and paid analytics tools, regardless of how they’re funded. However, it’s also worth considering at the outset whether you would accept clients being bombarded with pop-up adverts while you’re giving them a presentation, or whether a long-term subscription offers good value for the one-off redesign of a company website. The most expensive platforms can cost thousands of pounds a month – loose change to a FTSE100 company, but unthinkable for a startup or small business.
The best things in life aren’t free
It may come as a surprise to consider how many web services you already pay for. It quickly becomes necessary to pay for additional Dropbox storage, while Zoom video calls incur a charge 40 minutes into every conversation. Most companies will adopt Oracle or SQL Server databases ahead of free alternatives, and even Linux distros like SUSE and Redhat cost money. People pay for these services simply because they outperform no-cost rivals, and similar sentiments often apply to free analytics software.
Analytics tools also extend beyond monitoring site traffic. A good package will deliver social listening, picking up on conversations, tweets or mentions of your company. It should support competitor analysis, potentially even reporting on how these rivals fare against their own competitors. Premium packages might identify industry influencers, while detailed reporting and visualisations condense reams of data into PowerPoint-friendly slides and infographics.
Free to air
Free analytics software may be perfectly sufficient if your needs are fairly limited. These are some of the best no-cost platforms currently available, chosen for their unusual features or depth of functionality:
- Google Analytics. As the world’s leading search engine, Google already collates vast quantities of user data and audience tracking. Making this available to the very people generating that data in the first place is an obvious next step. Google only charges for its comprehensive roster of tracking and analysis tools if you upgrade to the premium 360 version. This is useful for highly technical functions like query-time imports and attribution modelling, though the standard package will be fine for most firms.
- Piwik. Elevating itself above competitors with a mobile app and unlimited data storage, Piwik transcends its Monty Python-esque name with a wealth of features. The sheer complexity of its dashboard can be off-putting or welcome, depending how far you want to drill down into user statistics. The use of plugin-based adjustable widgets is also ideal for anyone familiar with WordPress.
- SEMrush. One of SEMrush’s USPs is the ability to search any site, not just your own. Data is presented in dynamic ways, while live updates of keyword data and competitor analysis are great for companies in fast-moving or competitive markets. Users are restricted to ten requests per day before having to pay for a Pro account, and many of the advanced features are only available to paying customers.
- Clicky. While multiple websites or high traffic volumes incur a monthly cost, the basic version of Clicky will be fine for single-site small businesses. A straightforward and intuitive interface provides real-time data and user heat maps,both of which are unusual among free analytics tools. It serves up extensive information on where each visitor came from, and how they navigated around your site.
You get what you pay for
Paying for analytics software opens up a whole world of detailed reporting and audience tracking. These are a few leading paid-for platforms worthy of consideration:
- Moz PRO. Moz offer a free Keyword Explorer tool, but their Pro package is among the best paid-for suites available. And while its wealth of functionality makes navigation unwieldy at first, a browser toolbar and ‘opportunity’ recommendations are unique attributes. Moz’s domain authority system has been widely copied, but not bettered.
- Hootsuite. This offers numerous listening, identification and engagement services. A tiered subscription model means some paid versions lack certain features, but the concise representation of data makes Hootsuite easy to use. Open-source integrations also benefit end users by ensuring it dovetails with Yammer, SharePoint, and other social workplace platforms.
- Kissmetrics. Kissmetrics isn’t quite as comprehensive as Google Analytics, but it is easier to use and more intuitive. Its dashboard design is a cut above Google’s version, and the ability to analyse changes in website traffic behaviour (through bespoke Path Reports) is advantageous for platforms that are regularly revised.
- Mint. Far more affordable than the packages above, Mint’s modest one-off fee provides a self-hosted and downloadable package that can be customised to suit your specific requirements. Reports are compiled using real-time statistics, and information is presented in a user-friendly way that even industry beginners can get to grips with.