I notice that some new webmasters don't really use their web statistics software to its fullest potential. The web stats software is more than just a counter that tells you how many visitors your site has received or which page is most popular. Used optimally, it can help you assess and improve your site's performance in the search engines, evaluate and augment your site's usability and navigation structure as well as locate and fix internal issues on your site. This article briefly discusses how you can use your web analytics software to its fullest.
Here are a few ways you can use your web statistics to help you improve and manage your website. They are not exhaustive, but are meant to give you pointers on how to get started in using those stats productively.
Some statistics software provide reports on what is sometimes called "Visitor Path" or "Path Through". This report shows the series of pages that your users visit when they reach your site. For example, the report may show that the visitors first arrive at your main page, and then move on to your products list and your the price list, before reaching your shopping cart page.
Some of the ways in which this report helps you include:
It helps you understand what your visitors are looking for and what they are interested in.
It helps you evaluate whether the navigational structure of your website is conducive for getting your visitors where they want to go.
It helps you see whether the information on your pages are adequate for its purpose. If you find that everyone needs to check your "Comparison of Different Models" page before they go to your ordering page, this might tell you that the information on the "Comparison" page is particularly important for your site. You might then want to evaluate whether you should integrate some of that information directly on your products page or feature list or whatever.
Many of the web analytics software provide a report on the search engine key phrases that visitors used to successfully find your site. Some software not only give a summary of the key phrases, but also breaks it down according to the pages you have on your site. For example, for your "Widget ABC" web page, the software lists which keyphrases were used by your visitors to reach that page.
Such reports help you in a few ways:
They tell you what visitors are looking for when they arrive at those pages. This helps you adjust your site accordingly.
They tell you whether the specific web page you're looking at is sufficiently search engine friendly. For example, if you think that a particular phrase appropriately describe that page, but you notice that no one seems to have ever located that page on your site using that key phrase, then perhaps that page needs some work.
If your stats software is one that tells you the specific pages on your site visitors landed on when they used those search key phrase, and you notice that your page is particularly thin on providing links for them to get to where they want, then this is your cue for polishing the page so that you can help these visitors.
For example, if they use the key phrase "Widget DEF" but the search engine leads them to your "Support" page, you might want to make sure that links to the real "Widget DEF" page appear clearly on that page so that these visitors can get to the right place in one click. Here's where the "Visitor Path" report mentioned earlier comes in useful as well. If you cross-reference that report, you can see whether such visitors ever get from the Support page to the Widget DEF page. If not, you've lost many potential sales.
Among other things, this feature can give you an understanding of which search phrases bring in visitors. If you use a pay-per-click (PPC) advertising campaign on a search engine, such as AdWords on Google the information may help you fine-tune the phrases you target in your ads.
The web statistics software can also help you with your internal website management and maintenance.
Some web analytics programs allow you to see a the list of sites (URLs) that are trying to use your bandwidth to serve images, videos, etc, on their sites, a matter I have written about in my articles, Preventing Image Bandwidth Theft With .htaccess and its PHP version, How to Protect Your Images from Bandwidth Thieves. This feature, called "Stolen Objects" in one of the software I use, tracks hotlinks to your site's resources. It is particularly important when you are paying for your bandwidth and don't feel particularly inclined on financing everybody else's websites on the Internet.
While, ideally, webmasters should test every page on their site to make sure that there are no bad internal links, in practice, mistakes do happen. Here's where the error reports in the stats program helps. These reports show you the 404 File Not Found errors on your site, the 403s, 500s and whatnot. Some statistics software also give you the specific URLs causing those errors. For internal links, such reports are a time-saver, allowing you to go straight to the page to fix the problem instead of scouring through your site (or raw web logs) looking for the page URL that caused the error. For external links, there's probably little you can do, unless you happen to own the other site making the bad link as well
Most webmasters, hosted on a commercial web hosts, probably rely on the default web statistics software provided by their web host. This is typically one of the free web statistics and analytics software that you can also download and install on your web account yourself.
Not all of these software provide sufficient information for your use. For example, I personally find that Webalizer and Analog lack many useful reports. They are probably okay if you run a simple personal site and don't plan to do much with it. Http-analyze is slightly better, but it still fails to provide useful things like key phrases, visitor paths and even little things like the referring URLs of those pesky 404 errors (it only reports the errors leaving you to look for the source yourself). Of the whole bunch of free tools found on the free log analyzers page, I think Awstats probably comes closest to providing useful information. It still lacks things like visitor path and the pages that visitors land on for specific search phrases. Note, though, that these log analyzers may require you to install them on your website itself, thus consuming valuable resources in competition with your visitors.
Another possibility is to use a third-party online web statistics services. I have a list of some free services on my Free Online Web Statistics and Analytics Services page. Not everyone likes to use such services, of course, since it means that your web statistics data is held by a third party, who can either set up a competing site using the lessons learnt about your site or sell the data to your competition. The fact that your page load time becomes dependent on the web statistics server is another reason people dislike using such services; if the service is popular, and their server is bogged down, your own web page will take ages to load as well (since your page has to reference some code or image on their server).
Among the free online services listed on that page, I think that Google Analytics and StatCounter are probably better than the rest. Both have limitations in their free offerings though; Google Analytics limits the number of page views on your site while StatCounter only provides detailed stats for the last 500 log entries (which may not equal visitors, since a single visitor can visit multiple pages on your site). There are reports unique to each of them, that is, each of them have reports that the other does not. Although there's nothing to stop you from using both services simultaneously on your pages, I recommend against it, since it will introduce even greater lag on your pages.
The web statistics that you gather from your site can be an invaluable resource to help you improve your website, its search engine visibility and even increase your sales. The trick is to know which reports are significant and how they can be useful to you in analysing your site's activity. And, of course, after all the analyzing you do, you will need to act on your new-found knowledge about your site.
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