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Don't "Count" on your Hit Counter

How much money do you pull down a year? How old are you? The most common answer to both questions is "none of your business!"

Yet, for some reason, a fair number of website owners think it's prudent to share how many hits their websites receive with the general public. They do this by providing hit counters on their home pages.

Why are hit counters used?

Back in the dinosaur era of the Internet, when web pages first started becoming interactive, it was a cool and interesting novelty to post a hit counter on a website. It provided a very simple measurement of how much the website was being used. Additionally, it was a way of bragging about how many visitors the site had received - assuming that the number was brag-worthy, of course. It also showed off the web programmer's prowess.

Things have changed. These days, hit counters are usually an indicator of an amateurish site. They don't show off programming prowess, because the web is lousy with free hit counter programs that anybody can copy and paste into their web page. And, because most experienced web surfers know that hit counters can be artificially increased, their hit numbers are taken with a grain of salt.

That said, many people still mistakenly think they need a hit counter to measure their site traffic. So, if not a hit counter, what then? Analyzing the web server's activity logs is the way to go.

Web log analyzers

The computer that a website resides on is called a web server, and that web server will provide you (the site's owner, not the general public) with logs that track nearly all the activity that occurs in your website. These logs consist of rows upon rows of raw data that would make little sense to the average Joe or Jane. That's why most web servers also use a program called a web log analyzer to make sense of this data by creating meaningful reports.

What's in the web log reports?

Remember, the hit counter just provides you with the number of visitors to the page that contains the hit counter. Web logs provide this info, and much, much more. Have you ever wondered: Which browsers do most of your visitors use? How many run a Windows PC or a Mac? Which pages are the first or last to be visited? How did visitors find your site in the first place (who the "referrer" was)? All this, and other data that might never have occurred to you, is available. Want to know, geographically, where your visitors come from? Which search engines refer most often to your site, and what search phrases were used? The path most visitors take through your site, and how long they stay there? Or – and this can be imperative when performing search engine optimization – the last time (if ever), that a particular search engine visited and analyzed your site?

Drinking from a fire hose

If thinking about that much data right now makes your head spin, don't worry. Just start out by choosing an "overview" report to view the basics, such as the number of visitors, top referrers, top web browsers, and amount of bandwidth that was used.

In the meantime, the other, more obscure details are still being recorded and stored, so that at a later date you, a staffer, or your friendly neighborhood web developer can dig into those logs when needed. Note: you'll want to find out how long that web data is stored, however. Web servers have limits on how large they'll allow the web logs to become, so they'll eventually have to delete old data.

How do you get to these reports?

Going back to those hit counters – they're easy to check because you see them every time you look at your website. So where do you see these web log reports? They're located in a "secret" location on your web server (i.e. you use your web browser to view them), and they should be protected by a password.

The better web log analyzers are easy to use, providing you with a list of preconfigured, standard reports, plus the ability to create your own custom reports.

Most people, especially business people, will be hard pressed to take the time to regularly browse to the web log report location, log in, and review the reports. That's why my favorite feature of our website's log analyzer is the ability to have these reports emailed directly to me.

Nurture that site

Most sites can be improved over time by reviewing their reports and then tweaking their design or content accordingly. If you don't have the time to do it, somebody else should. A likely candidate is your web design company. They should know what the reports mean and what to look for, and can alert you to any problems.

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