Can I run my website without using cookies? Part 2

Can I run my website without using cookies? Here's a plate of cookies. It's 7 month on; how have I found it?

A while ago I wrote an article about whether I could run my website using no cookies. This is part 2 where I’ll share my experiences. To be honest, this article has taken me much longer to write because I’ve been focusing on my client projects so much over the last 6 months.

If you haven’t had a chance to read Part 1 on going cookieless, I recommend having a read first.

There’s one thing I’d like to add before I start. I’ve seen many tweets lately about people being frustrated by the amount of popups they’re presented with when visiting a website. I’ll admit, I’m one of those frustrated people. Now, more than ever, it’s important to consider what we ask of our readers. After all, they’re landing on your website to do one thing. Look at the website.

It’s worth taking a step back and asking yourself whether you need all those popups on the website. Would there be a more user friendly way of asking for that information? Some examples of those popups are: a cookies notification (I’ve had some websites not let me see the content I want unless I accept their cookies), a newsletter popup (both when entering the website, and when I try to leave), a popup asking me whether I want to receive push notifications (I never do), and notifications about whether I was to download this website’s app. That’s a lot. Some lesser seen ones are things like general marketing popups telling me about new products.

It’s an overabundance of popups like this that sharpens my resolve on having as few, or no, popups of any kind.

Let’s start with a recap

A recap is probably sensible. Last year I decided to see whether I could go cookieless because of the GDPR that was coming into force. I’d seen a lot of popups from different websites in general which strengthened my want to remove as much as possible.

I said at the time that I wouldn’t rule out using some things that set cookies in the future. After all, I have aspirations to create some online training around creating user friendly forms (from accessible design through to coding the PHP/Javascript). If I have a training area on my website I’ll at least need a session cookie so users aren’t logged out every time they visit another page. That’s for future me to worry about though.

At the time I simply wanted to see if I could go cookieless and how that would work in todays world of websites.

Recap: What cookies did I find?

I found cookies set by a Social Sharin plugin. I’d already been looking at whether those social sharing buttons were worth the disk space they were taking up on my host (not much I grant you, but it makes a point). I wrote about whether Social Sharing buttons are actually useful here, if you want to have a read.

I removed the Social Sharing plugin. It wasn’t too useful, and realistically it was getting in the way of the content a little (especially on mobile).

Google Analytics

Google Analytics was removed. I raised the question in part 1 of this of what I was going to do to see how engagement was on my website.

The plan was to use the data collected by the website host (I may need to look at that as well) along with Google Search Console to show me how my website was appearing in searches and tell me things like Click Through Rate. I was also going to use Twitter Analytics as I share my articles through there mostly and it’d give me a bit of insight into engagement.

So what were my findings?

Well there are three main questions I’ve asked myself to analyse how this went:

  • Do I think this has improved usability overall?
  • How have I found monitoring engagement without analytics?
  • What are my thoughts on privacy and cookies now I’ve done this?

I’d love to run some usability testing with real candidates as part of a larger UX study into my website. Perhaps one day I will. For now, my findings are anecdotal.

The actual action of running a website without cookies is easy. Delete everything that set cookies. Simple. What I needed to look at is how that impacts me and the website.

Let’s dive in.

Findings: Do I think this has improved usability overall?

My findings here come, in part, from using other websites that either have lots of popups or no popups at all.

I mentioned earlier the general frustration with an overabundance of popups when trying to just read someone’s blog post, or read a page in general. Personally, those things sometimes negatively affect my experience of that website both because of the frustration, and because it distracts me from what could be a nicely designed website.

Based on my experience of other websites, and knowing I have nothing that pops up on this website, I’d like to think it does help usability.

As you now know, I don’t rely on analytics data at the moment. I’d like to hear from any readers in the comments as to whether you prefer no popups and how you think it affects usability.

Findings: How have I found monitoring engagement without analytics?

This was probably the biggest thing for me, and I’m sure it would be for a lot of people. I used to look at Google Analytics a lot. I like statistics and so I wasn’t sure how I was going to get on without it.

The biggest change for me is that I’ve found I focus much less on those statistics. I can’t say whether there are other factors at play here. There could be. The amount of client project work I’ve had to do over the last six to eight months has likely had an impact as well.

What have I used instead of analytics?

As I mentioned before: Google Search Console, Twitter Analytics, and Awstats on my website host’s CPanel. It’s relatively basic stuff, but it’s given me a good idea of how many people visit my website.

There’s another aspect I’ve used more though. Post/article comments. I’ll write more about it below.

Google Search Console

Google Search Console has been really useful to see how my website overall is performing in search. It means if I want to test some changes out SEO wise, I can analyse the results. No Google Analytics needed. Although Google Analytics has more data, Google Search Console has given me enough to draw useful conclusions about my website’s performance.

Twitter Analytics

This hasn’t been as instrumental as I thought it would be. Part of that is because I just don’t check it as much as I thought I would. This itself is probably because I’m less statistically focused now.

Sometimes Twitter Analytics is useful to see how my posts on that platform are being engaged with. Sometimes I might like to see how many people have clicked on a link to my website I posted. Other than that it has a back seat in my tools pile.

CPanel Awstats

I use this pretty sparingly, but it gives me basic information about how many requests for pages have been made on certain days. It isn’t anywhere as detailed as Google Analytics, and it isn’t sophisticated enough to only tell me what views of what pages were real people.

However, the CPanel Awstats application on my web server does give me just enough information to tell me roughly how many people are viewing my website, and which pages are being requested the most.

Combined with the other methods I’ve been using this has been quite enough for me.

Post/Article Comments

Comments both on social media and on the articles I write on this website are, realistically, a direct reflection of how people are engaging with what I write. Not everyone will comment, and that’s ok.

Let’s pick a figure out of the air. Let’s say 5% of my website’s visitors make comments (it’s a random percentage just for argument’s sake. That percentage is, if the quality of the articles I writing stays high, going to stay the same.

If I see more people adding meaningful comments then I know the article is resonating with readers. Perhaps more importantly I simply enjoy hearing from people and what they thought of my writing and my ideas. Because of that, the comments on what I write is more important than anything else I look at.

Findings: What are my thoughts on privacy and cookies now I’ve done this?

I’ve been running my website without cookies (so without detailed analytics information and social sharing buttons) for around 7 months.

Do I think, in general, I’m better off? Absolutely. It might not work for everyone. I’m able to be comfortable with the analytics information I do get. Also, I’m quite happy not having social sharing buttons on my website.

I’m also quite happy that I’m not needlessly collecting tracking information on my readers more than I need to. It’s much more intentional. I’d be quite happy if other websites did the same. In fact, doing this has made me realise just how much websites do track us. I try to not just accept any cookie settings a website may want me to. I’m more likely now to not accept cookies as my go to position, rather than just accepting whatever they recommend.

Will I always be cookieless?

Probably not. I’ve mentioned at the start of this that at some point I’d like to build a training section, or a new website for training, for things like contact forms.

In that case, I’d need a few cookies to manage the logins for users. Otherwise, people would be logged out each time they go to a new page because browsers won’t remember you otherwise.

What about Google Analytics or similar services? Will I ever use them?

This article has ended up mostly being about analytics. I think it’s because tracking is one of the most popular reasons for having cookies on a website.

Will I ever use them again? I probably will at some point. However, I know I’m going to be much more intentional with it. At the moment, the only time I think I’ll use analytics on my own website is when I want to do a bit of User Experience analysis.

In that case, I’ll probably use something like Google Analytics for a few weeks (with a notification of course, as it’s unavoidable with GDPR and I like to be transparent). I could use that information to see how people are interacting with my website on a more granular scale. That can inform wider User Experience work and let me improve my website further for the people that visit.

But, after those few weeks I’ll remove the analytics again.

In an ideal world I’d pay for some usability testing and feedback from real users. That would be better. No analytics, but genuinely useful information from actual users and other real testing.

Conclusion

It’s been a pretty good experiment. I’ve certainly learnt a lot from it. Mostly, what I’ve learnt is that I just don’t need detailed analytics all the time. I’m happy without it, and I’m comfortable that I’ll be more intentional with it if I do need to use it in the future.

If you haven’t read the first part of this yet, feel free to have a read here.

I’m sure you’ve realised by now that I don’t have any real analytics. So, if you liked this article (or if you didn’t or if you have something to add), I’d be ecstatic if you’d leave me a comment below. Thanks!

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4 responses to “Can I run my website without using cookies? Part 2”

  1. Ann says:

    I want to create a site for kids that do not track kids COPPA appliance. I am concerned that shated hosting have cookies
    That is beyond my control. Do you know of a hosting co that gives an option not to have cookies ans ip tracking? Thanks.

    • Scott Cole says:

      Hi Ann,

      I can’t speak for all hosts, but so far as I’m aware cookies aren’t usually set automatically by the host. I host with SiteGround, and by removing any WordPress plugins that set cookies (most don’t set cookies), and by removing things like Google Analytics tracking code, I was able to get to a point where my website doesn’t set any cookies at all, and I’m on a Shared Hosting server currently.

      In terms of tracking and recording IP addresses, most (if not all) hosts will probably use Awstats (a program in CPanel to show you data on page visits etc.

      I spoke with my host about this, and due to the recent GDPR they removed the ability to see IP addresses in Awstats. However, there are Raw Access Logs I’m able to view which DO contain the IP addresses of computers viewing my website (although they are not user friendly and identifying anyone would be a bit of a mission).

      SiteGround have said that on a shared hosting account there isn’t the control available to stop those IP addresses being retained in the Raw Access Logs. However, on a dedicated hosting server (which you can get through SiteGround, and probably most hosts) you should have the control available to stop the Raw Access Logs being saved (or perhaps just stop it from recording the IP addresses).

      I hope that helps a little 🙂

  2. Rob Crews says:

    I found this really useful and I thought I’d let you know (as you don’t have GA!). I’m about to do what you did, removing the cookie-creating parts of my site. I think it makes sense, for the same reasons that you’ve outlined in your two posts.

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