Web Analytics Tools – Brief Introduction, History and Description
The following is the first of a three-part series to be published over the next few weeks to help you make sure you have the best web analytics tool to effectively meet your needs.
Here at Market Vantage, we are big fans of web analytics. In fact, one of the reasons we enjoy our work in the field of Internet marketing is that on the Web, so many things can be tracked and measured. This allows us to see the results of campaigns or changes to a website and understand how the market responds. Because of this, Internet marketing can be a lot more scientific and technical than traditional marketing, advertising and public relations. It’s no surprise that Market Vantage’s team members have former careers in engineering, science and accounting.
Web analytics tools sprang into existence as soon as websites began appearing. The first tools were rudimentary, such as visitor counters you could download for free and put on your website so everyone could see they were the 1,000th visitor. Since the mid-to-late 90’s webservers from Apache, Netscape and Microsoft have been tracking everything that happens on each hosted website in server log files, or weblogs. Weblogs are text files containing a record for each visit, page load, and image viewed, etc. in chronological order. Typically a new file or set of files is created each day, and folders are used to organize these files. Depending on the traffic to your site, these files can grow to be very large and in general are extremely difficult to interpret manually in a meaningful way. But software programs called log analyzers can crunch all of that data and organize it into graphs, charts and lists, making it much easier for humans to understand. Many web hosting companies still provide log analyzers for their customers (examples are AWstats and Webalyzer) free of charge, and some professional web analytics products continue to use this approach today.
Over the years, another class of web analytics tools has taken over the lead in terms of market share. These are based on a technology called page-tagging in which you paste a snippet of code onto each page of your website. This code sends data about each website visitor to a remote server – sort of a remote version of the server log file. Using a browser, you can log into your web analytics account on the remote server to see your charts and graphs. The reason page tagging tools have become more popular than log analyzers is their relative ease of installation and use — plus the fact that Google has been providing such a tool, called Google Analytics, free of charge for several years.
There is one notable functional difference between page tagging and log analyzer tools for web analytics. A page tagging tool begins gathering information from the moment the account is created and the code is installed on the web pages. There is no way to look back historically beyond that moment in time. Log analyzers, on the other hand, take advantage of the log files automatically collected by most webservers. The data from long ago is there, just waiting to be mined. So if you need to see some data from the past and you don’t have a page tagging tool installed, you’ll need a log analyzer.