Monday, October 27, 2008

Web Statistics

Now that your web site is up and running you want to know how many people are visiting your site and how they are finding it. Most web hosts give you access to this information (and a lot more) in the form of web statistics.

All visits to your site are logged by the server software. Log files contain information about the origin of the visitor (their IP address), the type of browser they were using, which pages they viewed, how long they stayed, whether or not they arrived from a search engine and if so, what keywords they used to locate your site. All very useful information.

The trouble is, raw log files are scary to look at and impossible to make any sense of. They are long lists of numbers and cryptic words that can only reveal their secrets with the aid of a statistics program. There are a few stats programs to choose from. They take the raw server logs and parse them into readable (and sometimes colourful) charts that are fairly easy to interpret.

Most web hosts will include a stats program as part of their hosting package. You should be able to access it through the control panel which is used to make various settings on your account. Some of the popular web stat programs are AWStats, Analog, and WebAlizer. All three of these programs are free.

Stats programs divide the information of the log files into useful categories. A summary of the data may be included at the top of the readout and tell you information such as ‘unique visitors’, ‘number of hits’, and ‘number of pages’.

Not all this information is important. The number of hits, for example, simply counts the total number of requests for any individual part of your site including graphics, script files and any other files that are part of a page. If your home page has 4 pictures and 2 other files the hit count is increased by 7 each time someone views that page.

The number of page views is important because it tells you which pages are popular. This allows you to fine-tune your site by dropping or modifying unpopular pages and making sure that popular pages link to areas that you want to promote.

Popular entry and exit pages are also worth tweaking. Visitors will not always arrive at your site through the home page, especially if they’ve found your site through a search engine. Make sure that popular entry pages contain relevant information and adjust exit pages to be more appealing. Exit pages should provide one last chance for them to buy or bookmark your site for future reference.

Referring sites show you where people are coming from. If they have found you from a search engine you will also see what keywords they used to find your site. This information tells you which keywords are important for optimizing your site. You can then design new content based on these keywords to attract even more visitors in the future.

Rather than rely on the stats produced by your server, you can hire a third party service to monitor your web site. These services range from basic ‘counter’ that usually offer less information than your server does, to comprehensive client-side stats collection.

Stats services can be useful if you need more precise information about your visitors. For example, visitors from a large organization may all appear to be the same because they all have the same IP address. Stat services can break down IP addresses into individual users.

These services can be useful for more precise monitoring of your website and for targeting specific niches. Most site owners, however, will find enough useful information in their server’s statistics.

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