Some Web Analytics Advice

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Network Computing has published a series of readers anecdotes relating to web analytics in which there are many interesting pearls of wisdom for web managers who like digging into statistics to grasp how visitors use their web sites.

On the difficulties of working with the IT department:

I'm in marketing, not IT, so IT operations are not an issue at all. We choose to drive our Web analytics platform from our marketing group, as IT all too often emerged as a bottleneck. [Matt Belkin, Macromedia]

Having marketing and IT agree on one solution is as likely as pigs flying! [Jerome Coste, Pittsburgh]

On the fibs of ASP vendors in the Web Analytics field:

We can track anything. [Matt Belkin, Macromedia]

Using our solution is a simple 30-minute process, just insert some JavaScript on your pages, and you will instantly have full Web site tracking capabilities managed by us. [Marcus Chung, Sygate Technologies]

On what to expect from those tools:

Web analytics is a behavior tool. It's important to understand that. It can tell you what users are doing, but not why they are doing it. That is why we complement our Web analytics work with attitudinal customer data. [Matt Belkin, Macromedia]

On Log Files Analysers vs. Web Beacons ASP services:

Disk space. Our Web Trends fills a 200-GB RAID with every file NTFS compressed. The logs are only a smal part of the space. [Bill Royds, Ottawa]

We've saved a ton of money by using a hosted ASP (Omniture) and continually benefit from their industry-leading expertise. I loathe the days of having in-house data centers; the maintenance alone was a killer. [Matt Belkin, Macromedia]

I've been using all sorts of web analytics methods and, by experience, can back up pretty much everything that they say in this article. IMO, the best method available today is using a web beacon technology (a small tag embedded into HTML pages, Flash files, whatever can reach a browser and execute a javascript code) either hosted as an ASP service (I've used four different ones as of today) or in-house through something like phpOpenTracker. This is of course not something reasonable for tracking your personal weblog, but once your start having some significant traffic and get serious about understanding how people use your site, this method is way more efficient, accurate and actually cheaper than most of the log analysis packages out there.

Speaking of which, when needs, budget or pointy-haired bosses do not allow for web beacons, there are a few good log analyzers out there. I personally haven't found anything in the "free" range that is satisfying (advices welcome), so I've been using lately commercial products such as Urchin (pros: work with all "modern" browsers not just Win IE, has some sort of web beacon feature to combine best of both worlds; cons: can get expensive, limited "out of the box" reports) and Summary (pros: extensive set of reports, very fast and resource-efficient on server, one of the best "bang for the bugs" out there; cons: not easy to configure, confusing docs, interface not very user-friendly for marketing folks).

The moral of the story (executive summary) is that:

  • respective to the site audience and goals of course, web beacons are often comparatively better than log analysis, mainly in terms of possibilities, accuracy and costs

  • web analytics are behavioral (how they use your site), it does not read the mind of your audience (e.g. WTF are they doing this? ;-) ).

  • you will need to invest a significant amount of time making the most out of those tools, they help but the comprehension of your web site and its audience(s) will not come automagically from a computer

  • web analytics (and to me the whole web operation) is not the IT department's business -- and you can trust me on this one!