Knowing the basic statistics of your website are essential to growing your site, but good stat packages can cost $100/month or more. Thankfully, most growing websites don’t need the vast array of stats that these packages provide. Most sites only need to know three stats, broken down by day:
- Page Views
Now you may be thinking, “Can’t I get those from the free web stats that my web host gives me?” Maybe. But probably not. Yes, you may get page views and visits, but they’re likely not very accurate.
Most stat packages calculate web stats by looking at your web logs, but that’s an inexact science in most cases because…
- Stats calculated from web logs have to determine unique visitors based on IP address. Many users get to your site through a proxy server, though (most notably AOL users), and proxy servers group all users under just a handful of IP addresses that change from page request to page request–leaving the stat package to have to estimate how many uniques those IP addresses represent.
- Proxy servers also cache pages from your site, serving them from their server instead of yours. So, you never see those page requests at all.
- Stats calculated from web logs often can’t tell the difference between an actual page request and a request for another type of file. This is especially problematic if your site features an RSS feed. Since you may have thousands of users subscribed to your feed, and since those users request the feed every hour or so, those tend to add up very quickly. If those are reported as actual page views, your stats can swell dramatically.
- A vast number of the requests to your site come from search engine spiders. Those are usually filtered out of your stats, but if they aren’t, your reported number of uniques and page views can swell even more.
Just how much can these factors skew your stats? Often not by much. In other cases, though, it can be very quite severe–reflecting many times more visitors and page views than you’re actually getting.
A more accurate way of measuring stats is by calculating them on the client side, rather than by looking at the web logs. Each time a user requests a page, they also request a small, invisible image that records information about that request. This method gets around the proxy server problem altogether, records only real page views, and search engine spiders won’t request those images, so the stats aren’t skewed that way either. It’s a great solution, and the one that major stat providers like Omniture, Google Analytics and WebSideStory all use.
All those cost money, though, except for Google Analytics, which is currently closed to new accounts (and isn’t very good anyway). Thankfully, there’s an easy way to track your basic stats more accurately–one that actually pays you to run it. What is it? Google AdSense.
Never thought about using AdSense for stats? Most people haven’t. Look at it, though. It gives you everything you need, is highly reliable, and uses the client-side method that’s way more accurate than stat software that uses your web logs. In every case I’ve seen, ad software like AdSense provided a much more accurate view of the site’s performance–accurately measuring basic stats just as well as the full-blown stat packages mentioned above.
And, of course, AdSense actually pays you to run it.
Don’t want to clutter your site with ads? Or maybe you just don’t want to run AdSense in particular. That’s okay. They have some very small ad units, including link units, that are very unobtrusive and could be tucked into a corner of your pages somewhere.
A very small price to pay for great stats, and you may end up making quite a bundle off of it.