Web Design & Development Guide
Web analytics is the study of the behaviour of
visitors. In a commercial context, web analytics especially refers to
the use of data collected from a web site to determine which aspects of
the website work towards the business objectives; for example, which
landing pages encourage people to make a purchase.
Data collected almost always includes web traffic reports. It may also
include e-mail response rates, direct mail campaign data, sales and lead
information, user performance data such as click heat mapping, or other custom
metrics as needed. This data is typically compared against
key performance indicators for performance, and used to improve a web site
or marketing campaign's audience response.
Many different vendors provide web analytics
software and services.
Web analytics technologies
There are two main technological approaches to collecting web analytics data.
The first method, logfile analysis, reads the logfiles in which the web
server records all its transactions. The second method, page tagging, uses
by a web browser.
Web server logfile analysis
Web servers have always recorded all their transactions in a logfile. It was
soon realised that these logfiles could be read by a program to provide data on
the popularity of the website. Thus arose
web log analysis software.
In the early 1990s, web site statistics consisted primarily of counting the
number of client requests made to the web server. This was a reasonable method
initially, since each web site often consisted of a single HTML file. However,
with the introduction of images in HTML, and web sites that spanned multiple
HTML files, this count became less useful. The first true commercial Log
Analyzer was released by IPRO in 1994.
Two units of measure were introduced in the mid 1990s to gauge more
accurately the amount of human activity on web servers. These were page views
and visits (or sessions). A page view was defined as a
request made to the web server for a page, as opposed to a graphic, while a
visit was defined as a sequence of requests from a uniquely identified
client that expired after a certain amount of inactivity, usually 30 minutes.
The page views and visits are still commonly displayed metrics, but are now
considered rather unsophisticated measurements.
The emergence of
search engine spiders and robots in the late 1990s, along with web proxies and
dynamically assigned IP addresses for large companies and ISPs, made it more
difficult to identify unique human visitors to a website. Log analyzers
responded by tracking visits by cookies, and by ignoring requests from known spiders.
The extensive use of
also presented a problem for logfile analysis. If a person revisits a page, the
second request will often be retrieved from the browser's cache, and so no
request will be received by the web server. This means that the person's path
through the site is lost. Caching can be defeated by configuring the web server,
but this can result in degraded performance for the visitor to the website.
Concerns about the accuracy of logfile analysis in the presence of caching,
and the desire to be able to perform web analytics as an outsourced service, led
to the second data collection method, page tagging or 'Web
In the mid 1990s,
counters were commonly seen ó these were images included in a web page that
showed the number of times the image had been requested, which was an estimate
of the number of visits to that page. In the late 1990s this concept evolved to
include a small invisible image instead of a visible one, and, by using
page and the visitor. This information can then be processed remotely by a web
analytics company, and extensive statistics generated.
The web analytics service also manages the process of assigning a cookie to
the user, which can uniquely identify them during their visit and in subsequent
With the increasingly popularity of
Ajax-based solutions, an alternative to the use of an invisible image, is to
implement a call back to the server from the rendered page. In this case, when
the page is rendered on the web browser, a piece of Ajax code would call back to
the server and pass information about the client that can then be aggregated by
a web analytics company.
Logfile analysis vs page tagging
Both logfile analysis programs and page tagging solutions are readily
available to companies that wish to perform web analytics. In many cases, the
same web analytics company will offer both approaches. The question then arises
of which method a company should choose. There are advantages and disadvantages
to each approach.
Advantages of logfile analysis
The main advantages of logfile analysis over page tagging are as follows.
- The web server normally already produces logfiles, so the raw data is
already available. To collect data via page tagging requires changes to the
- The web server reliably records every transaction it makes. Page tagging
relies on the visitors' browsers co-operating, which a certain proportion
- The data is on the company's own servers, and is in a standard, rather
than a proprietary, format. This makes it easy for a company to switch
programs later, use several different programs, and analyze historical data
with a new program. Page tagging solutions involve
- Logfiles contain information on visits from search engine spiders.
Although these should not be reported as part of the human activity, it is
important data for performing
search engine optimization.
- Logfiles contain information on failed requests; page tagging only
records an event if the page is successfully viewed.
Advantages of page tagging
The main advantages of page tagging over logfile analysis are as follows.
there are fewer worries about caching.
then be collected by the remote server. For example, information about the
visitors' screen sizes, or the price of the goods they purchased, can be
added in this way. With logfile analysis, information not normally collected
by the web server can only be recorded by modifying the URL.
- Page tagging can report on events which do not involve a request to the
web server, such as interactions within
- The page tagging service manages the process of assigning cookies to
visitors; with logfile analysis, the server has to be configured to do this.
- Page tagging is available to companies who do not run their own web
Logfile analysis is almost always performed in-house. Page tagging can be
performed in-house, but it is more often provided as a third-party service. The
economic difference between these two models can also be a consideration for a
company deciding which to purchase.
- Logfile analysis typically involves a one-off software purchase;
however, some vendors are introducing maximum annual page views with
additional costs to process additional information.
- Page tagging most often involves a monthly fee, although some vendors
offer installable page tagging solutions with no additional page view costs.
Which solution is cheaper often depends on the amount of technical expertise
within the company, the vendor chosen, the amount of activity seen on the web
sites, the depth and type of information sought, and the number of distinct web
sites needing statistics.
Some companies are now producing programs which collect data through both
logfiles and page tagging. By using a hybrid method, they aim to produce more
accurate statistics than either method on its own. The first Hybrid solution was
produced in 1998 by Rufus Evison who then spun the product out to create a
company based upon the increased accuracy of hybrid methods
Other methods of data collection have been used, but are not currently widely
deployed. These include integrating the web analytics program into the web
server, and collecting data by
sniffing the network traffic passing between the web server and the outside
There is also another method of the page tagging analysis. Instead of getting
the information from the user side, when he / she opens the page, itís also
possible to let the script work on the server side. Right before a page is sent
to a user it then sends the data.
There are no globally agreed definitions within web analytics as the industry
bodies have been trying to agree definitions that are useful and definitive for
some time. The main bodies who have had input in this area have been
Jicwebs(Industry Committee for Web Standards)/ABCe (Auditing Bureau of
Circulations electronic, UK and Europe), The WAA (Web
Analytics Association, US) and to a lesser extent the IAB (Interactive
Advertising Bureau). This does not prevent the following list from being a
useful guide, suffering only slightly from ambiguity. Both the WAA and the ABCe
provide more definitive lists for those who are declaring their statistics using
the metrics defined by either.
- Hit - A request for a file from the web server. Available only in
log analysis. The number of hits received by a website is frequently cited
to assert its popularity, but this number is extremely misleading and
dramatically over-estimates popularity. A single web-page typically consists
of multiple (often dozens) of discrete files, each of which is counted as a
hit as the page is downloaded, so the number of hits is really an arbitrary
number more reflective of the complexity of individual pages on the website
than the website's actual popularity. The total number of visitors or page
views provides a more realistic and accurate assessment of popularity.
- Page View - A request for a file whose type is defined as a page
in log analysis. An occurrence of the script being run in page tagging. In
log analysis, a single page view may generate multiple hits as all the
resources required to view the page (images, .js and .css files) are also
requested from the web server.
- Visit / Session - A series of requests from the same uniquely
identified client with a set timeout. A visit is expected to contain
multiple hits (in log analysis) and page views.
- First Visit / First Session - A visit from a visitor who has not
made any previous visits.
- Visitor / Unique Visitor/UniqueUser - The uniquely identified
client generating requests on the web server (log analysis) or viewing pages
(page tagging) within a defined time period (i.e. day, week or month). A
Unique Visitor counts once within the timescale. A visitor can make multiple
visits. N.B. The Unique User is now the only mandatory metric for an
ABCe audit [].
- Repeat Visitor - A visitor that has made at least one previous
visit. The period between the last and current visit is called visitor
recency and is measured in days.
- New Visitor - A visitor that has not made any previous visits.
This definition creates a certain amount of confusion (see common confusions
below), and is sometimes substituted with analysis of first visits.
- Impression - An impression is each time an advertisement loads on
a users screen. Anytime you see a banner, that is an impression.
- Singletons - The number of visits where only a single page is
viewed. While not a useful metric in and of itself the number of singletons
is indicative of various forms of "Click Fraud" as well as being used to
calculate bounce rate and in some cases to identify automatons ("bots").
Bounce Rate / % Exit - The percentage of visits where the visitor
enters and exits at the same page without visiting any other pages on the
site in between.
Common Confusions in Web Analytics
The Hotel Problem
The hotel problem is generally the first problem encountered by a user of web
analytics. The term was first coined by Rufus Evison explaining the problem at
one of the emetrics summits and has now gained popularity as a simple expression
of the problem and its resolution.
The problem is that the unique visitors for each day in a month do not add up
to the same total as the unique visitors for that month. This appears to an
inexperienced user to be a problem in whatever analytics software they are
using. In fact it is a simple property of the metric definitions.
The way to picture the situation is by imagining a hotel. The hotel has two
rooms (Room A and Room B).
||2 Unique Users
||2 Unique Users
As the table shows, the hotel has two unique users each day over three days. The
sum of the totals with respect to the days is therefore six.
During the period each room has had two unique users. The sum of the totals
with respect to the rooms is therefore four.
In actual fact only three visitors have been in the hotel over this period.
The problem is that a person who stays in a room for two nights will get counted
twice if you count them once on each day, but is only counted once if you are
looking at the total for the period. Any software for web analytics will sum
these correctly for whatever time period, thus leading to the problem when a
user tries to compare the totals.
New Visitors + Repeat Visitors unequal to Total
Another common misconception in web analytics is that the sum of the new
visitors and the repeat visitors ought to be the total number of visitors. Again
this becomes clear if the visitors are viewed as individuals on a small scale,
but still causes a large number of complaints that analytics software cannot be
working because of a failure to understand the metrics.
Here the culprit is the metric of a new visitor. There is really no such
thing as a new visitor when you are considering a web site from an ongoing
perspective. If a visitor makes their first visit on a given day and then
returns to the web site on the same day they are both a new visitor and a repeat
visitor for that day. So if we look at them as an individual which are they? The
answer has to be both, so the definition of the metric is at fault.
A new visitor is not an individual it is a fact of the web measurement. For
this reason it is easiest to conceptualise the same facet as a first visit (or
first session). This resolves the conflict and so removes the confusion. Nobody
expects the number of first visits to add to the number of repeat visitors to
give the total number of visitors. The metric will have the same number as the
new visitors, but it is clearer that it will not add in this fashion.
On the day in question there was a first visit made by our chosen individual.
There was also a repeat visit made by the same individual. The number of first
visits and the number of repeat visits will add up to the total number of visits
for that day.
Web analytics methods
Problems with cookies
Historically, vendors of page-tagging analytics solutions have used
third-party cookies, that is cookies sent from the vendor's domain instead of
the domain of the website being browsed. Third-party cookies can handle visitors
who cross multiple unrelated domains within the company's site, since the cookie
is always handled by the vendor's servers.
However, third-party cookies in principle allow tracking an individual user
across the sites of different companies, allowing the analytics vendor to
collate the user's activity on sites where he provided personal information with
his activity on other sites where he thought he was anonymous. Although web
analytics companies deny doing this, other companies such as companies supplying
banner ads have done so. Privacy concerns about cookies have therefore led a noticeable minority of
users to block or delete third-party cookies. In 2005, some reports showed that
about 28% of Internet users blocked third-party cookies and 22% deleted them at
least once a month
Most vendors of page tagging solutions have now moved to provide at least the
option of using first-party cookies (cookies assigned from the client
Another problem is cookie deletion. When web analytics depend on cookies to
identify unique visitors, the statistics are dependent on a persistent cookie to
hold a unique visitor ID. When users delete cookies, they usually delete both
first- and third-party cookies. If this is done between interactions with the
site, the user will appear as a first-time visitor at their next interaction
point. Without a persistent and unique visitor id, conversions, click-stream
analysis, and other metrics dependent on the activities of a unique visitor over
time, cannot be accurate.
Cookies are used because IP addresses are not always unique to users and may
be shared by large groups or proxies. Other methods of uniquely identifying a
user are technically challenging and would limit the trackable audience or would
be considered suspicious. Cookies are the selected option because they reach the
lowest common denominator without using technologies regarded as spyware.
Unique landing pages vs referrals for campaign
Tracking the amount of activity generated through advertising relationships
with external web sites through the referrals reports available in most web
analytics packages is significantly less accurate than using unique landing
Referring URLs are an unreliable source of information for the following
- They may or may not be provided by the web browser.
- They may or may not be recorded by the web server.
- They can be obfuscated intentionally by web browsers that wish to browse
- They can be distorted or hidden by redirects, intentionally or not.
Directories of web analytics vendors: