Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Understanding analytic reporting software: important for webmaster, important for ISP tech support employees

If you’re developing a web business of any kind, for e-commerce (whether on the scale of Best Buy or a local kitchen) or for publishing (of the Dooce – Heather Armstrong variety) with advertising, one of the important areas in running the business is selecting and using analytics software and reports.

I’ve been accustomed to Urchin for about five years. Sometime ago it was acquired by Google, and most of the technical documentation about it is there. If you use shared web hosting for your website, you will have to call their tech support when there are issues with Urchin or any statistics package. In practice, one problem that occurs is that it seems to stop running. Typically, the ISP has paid for one “group” license for its operation for all of its subscribers in one data center. Actually, the ISP will keep logs (unparsed by customer) and periodically make your portion of the log visible, and run the reports periodically. Even if they stop running, the ISP will still have the data. But tech support persons answering phones often don’t know how to support the product, which requires quite a bit of knowledge to administer. The typical problems turn out to be whether the scheduler is running, or whether the log files are available or whether the stats database was corrupted (left open during a system stop). There may be problems with logs filling up and having to “switch”. In any case, there are elaborate procedures (in Unix or Windows environments) for the ISP to recapture your data and get your reports caught up. A typical references on this problem is this. Webmasters who encounter this problem and who use shared web hosting may want to poin this link out to their ISP. There is also an "Urchin Experts" FAQ page here.

From the point of view of an employee in a data center, familiarity with Urchin and with other analytics software sounds like an important job skill.

Bloggers and personal website owners can also subscribe to Google Analytics, which appears to focus more on human visitors (Urchin rolls in statistics from bots and robots also). There is an essay about this on Imulus by “George” here.

An important concept is the Bounce Rate, which relates to the percentage of visits that are “bounces” where a visitor does not leave the page within a specified time period (often 30 seconds). The Wiki discussion is here.
Bounce rates give an indication of the effectiveness of an entry page in attracting human traffic. Bounce rates are probably higher for blogs than for static sites, but the bounce rates on individual entries in blogs tend to go down with time as the number of visits counted increases.

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