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Know thy users

Measuring audience: how telling is Web traffic? Web Site Advisor hed: Know thy users dek: measuring audience: how telling is Web traffic? by Cary Griffith

Statistics don’t lie. But sometimes the stories they tell contain more fabrication than fact. Consider the ubiquitous Web site counter. Practically half of all Web sites have one. But what do they tell you?

Consider a simple example. Using a counter, you find that you get 400 visitors a day. But who are they? They could be 400 individuals coming from points all over the globe. They could be visits forwarded from the one big search engine in which you place high when people enter the word butterflies. Some of it could be your wife’s brother who enters your site every morning and clicks on refresh 50 times, just to drive up your statistics and make you feel good.

Site traffic analyses can tell more stories than high-school boys after senior prom. There’s plenty of truth to the statistics but almost no way to get into the mind of whoever generated that hit, click, or pass-through. What really happened? What were they really thinking? The best you can hope for is to accurately identify Web user activity. And for those data-gathering efforts you have plenty of traffic analysis tools to assist you, many of them free. Which tools you choose depends almost entirely on what you want to know.

Do you only need to know the number of people visiting your site? Or do you require more detailed generic information: total hits per page, most favorite and least favorite pages, duration of visits, what prompted the visit, which search engines consistently funnel visitors your way, and so forth? Or do you want to know information about individual users: Where did John Doe come from, how often does he visit, where does he go when he visits, and what does he do?

The above are three general categories of site statistics: simple counters, general site statistics, and detailed user profiles.

Simple counters

If all you want to know is your ongoing number of visitors, you’re in luck. The Web contains plenty of simple, free site counters that can be installed in only a few more minutes than it takes to finish reading this article. These counters can be set up so that their numbers are openly displayed on site home pages, or concealed so that no one views them except the site’s manager.

FrontPage, Dreamweaver, and just about all other Web management tools provide page counters that can be easily added to your site. If these don’t interest you, find one on the Web. Visit your favorite search engine and enter counter, access counter, or Web counter. You should find plenty of sites like the following: Thecounter.com, Web Counter, Wusage, TextCounter, Site Meter, and Site Tracker.

But the most widely used site statistic tool in the world isn’t designed to tell you much. If you want to know more about who’s using your site and what they’re doing, you have plenty of other analysis options, some of them free.

General site statistics

More detailed site analysis tools come in two varieties: those installed on your ISP’s server, and those that require you to enter snippets of analysis code in each of your pages. Again, some of them cost money, while others are free. The free ones usually come with strings attached, so consider them carefully.

Today most ISPs provide their clients with some traffic analysis tools. These tools range in function from simple counters (usually free), to more sophisticated tracking applications (usually not free). Several of the ISPs we talked with provide their clients with relatively sophisticated traffic analysis for around $300 to $400 per year. For example, some of them installed WebTrends, a well-known site statistic tool that provides users with all sorts of interesting data.

It’s not a bad business when you consider that the ISP acquires an annual license to relatively sophisticated tools for anywhere from $500 to $5,000. These applications can then be configured to analyze all of their client’s traffic.

Examples of the kinds of information available from tools like these include:

Total site hits per day, week, month, etc. Total number of views for particular pages Number of unique visitors, visitor sessions, duration of visits, international visitors, etc. Bandwidth load balance, server cluster load balance, and other technical administrative statistics Referents and keywords Browsers and platforms used, and many other analyses.

By now you’ve probably figured out that if it happens on the Internet, someone is tracking it. ISP site statistical tools analyze site-server logs. Server logs register and maintain an ongoing record of all site activity. And while they’re wonderful for providing you with plenty of statistics from which reports like the preceding and many others can be created, be wary of what you see. Sometimes server log analyses don’t give you a clear picture of what’s actually happening on your site.

For example, some locations use proxy servers, or one IP address through which people can surf the Net. Twenty people can use one proxy server, during which all of their visits would be registered as from a single user.

Log analysis tools also can be configured so that 10-minute visits count as distinct visits. If someone visited your site for 30 minutes, their single visit could be counted as three.

While most ISPs offer some level of traffic analysis, they are not your only option. Today any site can acquire relatively sophisticated analysis for free. Many analysis sites provide users with excellent site traffic tools by providing registered users with snippets of analysis code. The code can be entered into whatever pages a user wants to track. Once set up, the user can then visit the analysis site and review a wide variety of summary reports.

Nothing in life is truly free. For example, SiteTracker is advertised as a free service when, of course, advertising enables it to offer services for free. Every page using SiteTracker code must run a banner ad. If you don’t want to mess with the ad, you can use the service for a relatively low $5.95 per month fee.

Locating free and fee-based site traffic analysis tools is as easy as locating counters. Visit your favorite search engine, enter the phrase site statistics (or log analysis, or site traffic), and you’ll find plenty of offerings. Typical examples include:

WebTrends Accrue Software NetGenesis Mediahouse Software NetTracker SurfReport Website Reporter.

Detailed user profiles

And finally, if you have the content, services, or marketing savvy to compel visitors to register, you can easily track where they visit, how long they stay, and what they use. The username and password are frequent methods used to provide visitors with personalized access to specific sites. That same kind of tracking can be facilitated by the use of cookies-multi-digit codes automatically issued by a site and stored on the visitor’s hard drive.

A good example is Amazon.com. Make one purchase at Amazon.com and you’re forever known and tracked. They can tell how often you visit, what you view and, most important, what you buy. Based on your purchases, Amazon will welcome you by name and make personalized product suggestions.

Of course, users can easily turn off cookies. Pull-down option menus on both Internet Explorer and Netscape Navigator enable users to easily disable them. However, once you choose to deny cookies, you will find yourself constantly clicking OK in warning messages because the browser notifies you every time it detects a cookie attempt.

Registered users and cookies require the use of relatively sophisticated databases. In most instances this kind of application is going to require professional assistance from your ISP, or from vendors specializing in sophisticated user management and site statistics.

Site statistics tell stories. Are they fact, fiction, or somewhere in between? Fortunately Web site developers, managers, and owners have many different options for gathering those statistics and trying to understand the tale of Web site traffic.

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