Web Design, Part 6
Reading Your Web Log
Dan Knight - 2000.05.20
You've got your site up and running. You know people are visiting it, because they send you email (you do have a contact link on every page, don't you). You've even registered with some search engines, joined a banner exchange or Web ring, and received a few links from other sites.
But how do you measure your success?
By measuring your traffic. You can put a "hitometer" on your home page or even all of your pages, but that's not the most convenient way of looking at site traffic. What you really want is a tool that will analyze your site logs. If your site is being hosted by someone else, they may already have Analog or some other program installed.
Every site will have different traffic patterns. For most sites, the home page will have the most traffic, but whether that's nearly all your site traffic (portals, headline news sites) or a small percentage of it depends on the nature of your site. Here at Low End Mac, it varies from day to day, ranging between 15 and 20% of our site traffic.
Page by Page
Analog and other log analysis programs can list the pages and other files on your site sorted by how many times each file was served. By checking the logs regularly, you can see patterns develop, such as:
- A year ago, the iMac Channel home page was our second most popular page. Today it lags well behind the Power Mac Page. Was the iMac a flash in the pan? Are there that many more Power Mac users today? Have we changed the Power Mac Page to make it a more popular target?
- Editorial content will tend to rise quickly, then slow down. For instance, we usually post new articles about 9:00 P.M. Eastern Time. A new article might get 100 hits the first night, 2,000 the following day, 500 more the day after that, and 200 more the third full day it's up. A month later, nobody may remember it - or it may still be generating a few hits a day and become an Internet gem.
- You can tell which parts of a site are the busiest, which the least visited. We get a lot of hits in the Power Macs section, with the most on the Power Mac 6100. We don't get a whole lot of traffic in the Lisa section or too many hits on the obscure Macintosh IIvi, what wasn't even sold in the U.S. market.
- You can analyze traffic to see not only which articles are popular, but then try to correlate them by author and topic. Mac Daniel columns about early Power Macs and internet connections seem to do very well; articles about specific less-popular computers don't generate as much traffic.
That's probably the first thing you'll want to know: how many hits on your home page and which pages are popular. Then you have to decide what to do about it. When we discovered the Power Mac index was our #2 page, we decided to make it a richer resource and added links to Power Mac-related articles, which only made it more popular.
On the other hand, when we discovered our Mac Webmasters section just wasn't getting much traffic, we found someone else to take those pages to their site. They were good, but not popular enough to keep putting our efforts into.
The Big Picture
The figure most webmasters have on the tip of their tongue is total pages served per month ("hits" for short). It's taken us three years, but we're in the half-million pages per month range. Apple computer is somewhere around 10 million, if I recall correctly.
Total successful requests for pages is one of the first statistics a good log analyzer will give you. It's a real ego booster.
The other "vital statistic," and probably equally important to potential sponsors, is the number of unique visitors per month. Our average is roughly one-fourth of the total hits, but that will vary from site to site.
Some programs can go further, telling you how often people visit: every day, once a month, etc. They may also determine how many pages each person visits. Our overall average is two visits per month and two pages per visit, but some people visit Low End Mac every day. Some even make it their home page.
You can tell Analog to display information of GIF, JPEG, and other file types - or not. I don't really care how often you see the graphics; I just want to know which pages you're visiting. Other webmasters feel otherwise.
Log analyzers can also break your traffic into other reports, displaying hits for each day of the month, each day of the week, and each hour of the day. I've found weekend traffic tends to be lower than weekday traffic, and a lot less people visit Low End Mac between 02.00 and 7:00 a.m. than during the middle of the day.
That kind of information can help you determine what time of day to do your site updates (before heavy traffic, not after) and if you want to do weekend updates or not. Because of persistently poor weekend traffic, Low End Mac rarely posts new content between Thursday night and late Sunday. We do post new links to other sites, but rarely new articles on our own site.
Depending on the information your server tracks, you may even be able to learn where the traffic is coming from. The referrer reports for Low End Mac show that about two-thirds of our traffic comes from links within our site. The remaining one-third comes from MacSurfer's Headline News, Google, Pico Search (our site's search engine), AltaVista, and a number of other places.
The referrer report is a reminder of the importance of links and search engines. Most of our outside traffic comes from links on other sites. That's why it pays to send out PR mailings, to make sure other sites know about your articles and have the opportunity to link to them.
Registering with search engines is also crucial. Somewhere around 10% of our traffic comes from search engines, or nearly 30% of hits from outside sites. But the real success is our own search engine handled for free by Pico Search. It lets visitors search Low End Mac quickly and accounts for 2% of our total traffic. In fact, we've made Pico Search more prominent because of the great success people have had using it to find pages on our site.
The almost depressing statistic is that about 40% of you are reading this on Windows computers. On the other hand, this also indicates that even when you're using Windows, you're thinking Macintosh. I guess that is a good thing.
Another report you really should check is failed links. The failure report let me know of a few bad links within the site - pages that had disappeared, graphics that had been removed but still had live links, typos in links, and other problems. One significant issue with some servers, as I've learned the hard way, is the importance of case in links. LEM.GIF and lem.gif may be the same file as far as your server is concerned, or it may believe they are completely different. For consistency, and unless you know you'll never change servers, stick with lowercase text in file names.
As a webmaster, you probably know a lot about the content of your site. Web logs let you know how that content is being accessed. It can point out both your strengths and weaknesses, letting you decide where to focus your efforts.
In the end, it will help you run your site more effectively.
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