Going Beyond Hit Counts

SAN MATEO (07/17/2000) - In the early days of e-commerce, Web site traffic analysis usually meant nothing more than installing a counter on your home page and running a simple statistics program on an external log file to track hits.

Although these figures made for great conversation around the water cooler, business leaders quickly realized that simple hit counts were both inaccurate and not nearly detailed enough for marketing purposes. Companies then began looking for more sophisticated analysis tools that would provide comprehensive information about who was visiting their Web sites and what they were doing once they got there.

With billions of dollars being poured into Internet advertising each year, determining your visitors' habits just makes sense. For example, with proper user-tracking information, you can personalize your site to the tastes and habits of your customers, thereby boosting user loyalty and increasing cross-selling and up-selling opportunities. And according to a recent PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP study, less than 5 percent of e-commerce site visitors actually make purchases, so getting serious about site analysis gives you the ammunition to make incremental or large-scale differences to your site, and that can mean the difference between landing a sale and losing a customer to the competition. Site analysis does not have to be complicated: For example, simply drilling down into your site's referrer data -- an indication of the external pages and sites that end-users have been using to access your site -- can help determine the effectiveness of your latest ad campaign.

Fortunately, software vendors have answered the site-analysis call with a panoply of new products at virtually every price point that captures information beyond hit rates. The least expensive Web traffic analyzers typically cost US$5,000 or less, but of course they also provide the least information. If you're just dabbling, you might even find freeware utilities, such as Wusage and Analog, a good start. But you probably wouldn't want to base your next multimillion dollar ad campaign on the strength of reporting tools such as these. Unfortunately, high-end Web site analysis packages cost between $40,000 and $500,000, and that doesn't even include hardware and staffing costs.

Hoping to offload some of the typical up-front technical and financial burdens, several ASPs (application service providers) have begun to throw service-based analysis tools into their mix of services. Solutions such as WebSideStory's HitBox Enterprise, Coremetrics' eLuminate, and Keylime Software's i-Echoes offer online access to the provider's respective enterprise-grade analysis tools for a monthly fee. Under the ASP model, you don't have to invest in hardware infrastructure or training, the program can be running immediately, and sometimes you can even get consulting services as part of the deal. Then again, the usual disadvantages of ASP-based software, such as the fact that a third party will have access to your closely guarded secrets, also apply.

Web logging

Cost and implementation issues aside, what kinds of information should you be looking for? One place to start a site analysis is your Web server's access log. Every time a user requests a page on your site, that request is recorded in the access log. Usually written in CLF (Common Log Format), an access log record contains seven fields, including the date and time of a request and the IP address or DNS host name of the browser. Sometimes this basic information is all you need.

But if you're looking for more, ECLF (Extended Common Log Format) may be what you need. ECLF provides advanced features such as the ability to track referring pages and identify cookies. Providing even more mechanisms to record user data has become standard practice for Web server vendors, such as Microsoft, although this facility is usually server-dependent.

Moreover, many software vendors now offer tools that let you extrapolate information from access logs, ranging from installable solutions such as WebTrends Enterprise Reporting Server and MediaHouse Software's Statistics Server LiveStats to online services such as MyComputer.com's SuperStats Professional. These packages provide enterprise-class features that can't be found in a simple access log; for example, you can get snapshots of the number of unique visitors, the total number of visitor sessions, and the average visitor session length. You also get useful bonuses such as configurable report tables and graphs and support for both single servers and server clusters.

Moreover, built-in security lets you grant various levels of access rights to your staff.

Furthermore, some Web site analysis tools also enable you to perform real-time log analysis. For example, with MediaHouse's LiveStats, you can view a snapshot of how many users are currently visiting your site, which pages they're looking at, and how long they have been poking around the site.

Behavior modeling

One drawback to log analysis is that it doesn't always provide information for high-level marketing concerns, such as browser-to-buyer conversion rates, revenue per customer, and visitor-history tracking. To fill those needs, several behavioral analysis software packages and services have entered the marketplace.

Products such as WebTrends CommerceTrends and NetGenesis NetAnalysis, as well as a raft of new ASP offerings, let you produce behavioral profiles of your entire online audience. They run off small snippets of HTML code, or meta data, which you must insert throughout your entire site's code. The code executes upon page load, initiating the data collection process. That data usually is stored in a secured relational database on a separate server, which allows you to perform data-mining functions in real time without hurting your Web server's performance.

You end up with a set of concise reports on visitor behavior that indicates who visited your site, where they came from, what they used on your site, and when and why they left. For example, a report could reveal that many of your visitors leave your site somewhere during checkout before actually completing the transaction. Revisiting that process could reveal glitches in the process which causes potential customers to hop out of the checkout line. You also can track the number of first-time visitors and buyers during subsequent visits to your site, an excellent way of measuring the performance of ad campaigns beyond the duration of the campaign itself as well as traffic driven to your site from affiliate programs and sites.

Clearly, the right combination of log analysis and behavioral profiling can have a direct impact on the success of a Web site. Moreover, the kind of information you get from proactive analysis is very difficult to capture in the real world but relatively easy to aggregate online. And the availability of ASP and in-house options makes these tools more accessible than ever.

Technical Analyst Todd Coopee can be reached at todd_coopee@infoworld.com.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Analyzing Web site traffic

Business Case: Knowing how many visitors access your company's Web site and what they're doing once they get there can have a huge impact on the design and usability of your site. Both services and in-house solutions can be used to increase brand awareness, user loyalty, and sales.

Technology Case: Web site analysis finally has advanced beyond the stage of rudimentary Web server log-file analysis. A variety of installable and hosted solutions are now available to provide a complete profile of your site's visitors and their habits.

Pros:

+ Encourages site personalization and user loyalty+ Measures the performance of marketing and advertising campaigns+ Lets you eliminate bottlenecks, errors, and infrequently accessed pages+ Enables more efficient site developmentCons:

- Can be costly to implement

- ASP-based analysis tools present possible security risks.

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