Four Low-Cost Web Site Analytics Services

If you want to understand what makes your site successful, you need to analyze its traffic patterns. These four packages let you do that at low (or no) cost.

May 31, 2006

19 Min Read
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Everyone who's anyone has a Web site these days, and that goes doubly for businesses. However, it isn't enough to simply have a good site — you have to understand what about your site is successful, and what is not. This makes understanding user traffic patterns to, on, and away from your site critical for its success.

Web site analytics services can show you how effective your Web site is and allow you to quantify how much it is helping your business. For example, if you're running an e-commerce site, you need to know which products are viewed and how far through the purchasing process each customer advances. It's also important to know the effectiveness of e-mail marketing campaigns and how many of your customers are repeat customers.

Four Analytics Services

•  Introduction•  Google Analytics•  IndexTools 8.5

•  nextSTAT 4.0•  VisiStat 3.0

•  Are Cookies A Problem?

Similarly, if you're running a content-heavy site that relies on ad revenue, you need to know how many unique visitors there are and how many pages each visitor views. You'll also want to monitor which topics keep readers' attention longer and understand click-stream patterns so you can provide visitors with the content they want, organized in a way that makes sense.

The products reviewed here — Google Analytics, Index Tools E-Business 8.5, nextSTAT 4.0 Standard Edition, and VisiStat 3.0 — are all good (and, at under $60/month, inexpensive) solutions for a small business that wants to get into Web site analytics. One key way in which they differ is the frequency with which visitor data refreshes. Google Analytics updates approximately every six hours, while Index Tools and VisiStat collect and display data instantly. Some, like VisiStat, are very easy to use, whereas Google Analytics is somewhat more complex and powerful. All four of the services reviewed here rely on snippets of JavaScript placed on each page to track users.

If, by the way, you find that these products don't offer the kind of functionality you need for your professional site, you probably need to look at the next tier. These services, which include Omniture SiteCatalyst and WebSideStory HBX Analytics, offer such features as custom reporting, custom analyses, and the ability to track custom variables. All include site overlay features and full click-path statistics. The services in this class also offer more integration with other data sources to provide easier and more accurate e-commerce and campaign analytics. And, as you might image, they are also much more expensive.If you're a small business, however, one of the following services may suffice. Since they tend to offer a free trial period, the best thing to do is to sign up and see what you can learn about your site. If the information is valuable, then keep the service. If it's not, then keep shopping.

Google Analytics
The secret to understanding Google Analytics (formerly known as Urchin) is that it is all about e-commerce. The service is tightly integrated with Google Adwords, and makes it very easy to import cost and impression data from Adwords. An ROI report tells you immediately the return on investment for each Adword that you've purchased.

In order to track each Adword, it's necessary to create a custom URL (and potentially a custom landing page) containing a variable that indicates the traffic came from that Adword. Google Analytics automates this with a check box, making it very easy to track the traffic generated from each Adword.

Google Analytics offers statistics about other aspects of your site as well, using a series of pre-set views, including the Executive view with summary reports; the Marketer view with a marketing summary, CPC (cost per click) reports, conversion summary, site overlay and defined funnel navigation; and the Webmaster view with content summary, defined funnel navigation, entrance bounce rates, goal tracking, and Web design parameters. These are very handy; however, it would be better if Google allowed users to build customized views.

Four Analytics Services

•  Introduction

•  Google Analytics•  IndexTools 8.5•  nextSTAT 4.0•  VisiStat 3.0

•  Are Cookies A Problem?

Reports are grouped into three major categories. Marketing Optimization reports show all the different ways that users came to your site (for example, CPC vs. Organic Conversions is interesting because this shows how many site visitors clicked on ads or search terms to get to your site). Content Optimization reports show where users went within your site. E-commerce Analysis allows you to pull in e-commerce sales data and calculate ROI to understand who your buyers are and where they came from.

It's possible to sort any report by column; if you hover your cursor over the red chevron at the left of each item, you can see pie or bar charts that compare one date range or visitor segment to another.

Another useful report is the Geographic Map Overlay, which shows a graphic of the world with dots representing site visitors. Results can be sorted and displayed in different time groupings such as daily, monthly, or yearly. Date ranges can be compared in almost any report — a powerful feature.

It's very easy to toggle between multiple Web sites using a convenient drop-down bar (other services, such as VisiStat, require you to log out and log back in again to monitor multiple sites). You can export data to tab separated text, Excel, or XML, or to format reports for printing.

The major drawback to Google Analytics is that, because it's subscription-only, you have to apply for the service and then wait. And wait. I've spoken with people who have waited months. Once you do get the service, you'll probably like it — it contains a lot of informative reports, and although a lot of reports are cluttered and difficult to understand, the information is solid once you understand the system. It's also free.

IndexTools 8.5 E-Business Edition
IndexTools 8.5 E-Business Edition provides access to real-time data through a series of easy-to-understand reports, allowing users to quickly understand the metrics surrounding their Web sites. Easily customizable dashboards put the reports that you want at your fingertips. In addition, user roles can be assigned, so that certain users see only certain reports when they log in; for example, a company statistician might need all the details, but the CEO might want just a quick summary report.

I liked how easy and streamlined it was to select a custom date range with Index Tools. At the top left corner of every page is a calendar that shows the currently selected date range; all that you have to do is click Custom and then select the new date range. It's possible to select by the day, month, quarter, or year.

There are some interesting reports under the Activity report menu, such as Page Views per Session, Average Length of Visit, Top Browsing Hours, and Most Active Server Hours. Index Tools allows you to set what it calls "goals" — specific actions taken by a user on a site — such as downloading a document, viewing a certain page, or placing a certain item in a shopping cart that can be incorporated into results. For example, if you're having a sale on widgets this month, you can immediately see how many widgets you sold yesterday (the goal) when you log in.

Four Analytics Services

•  Introduction•  Google Analytics•  IndexTools 8.5

•  nextSTAT 4.0•  VisiStat 3.0

•  Are Cookies A Problem?

The Last Visitors report shows a great deal of information about the most recent visitors to your site, including the date and time they visited, IP address, ISP, geographical location, and whether they are a new or repeat visitor. Especially interesting are the entry page, the visit path, the referring URL, and whether or not they bought something (and for how much) — they provide insight into browsing and purchasing habits on your site. This report gives you an instant snapshot of the most recent activity on your site.

One powerful feature is the ability to add a cross-reference filter to any report at any time simply by clicking the Show Filters button. This means that, for example, you could add a filter for state or origin to the First Time Visitors report so that you can find out which first-time visitors were from Florida. It's possible to filter by any bit of data that Index Tools collects, and you can have multiple filters to really dig down to the segment that interests you.

Also, many reports feature a Compare button that pops up another calendar and lets you select a date range to compare with the current report. This makes it easy to compare the number of unique visitors this week to the number of visitors this week last year.

IndexTools offers a number of add-ons. For an additional $29.95 per month, Index Tools users can purchase the Live Cost Analysis plug-in, which captures cost information from a Google Adwords account using the Google API. The Path Explorer, for $100, establishes a site overlay that quickly and easily displays user click-stream information on top of the actual links on your site.

In short, IndexTools has a great mix of powerful features, informative reports and context-sensitive help. It's a good platform for learning Web site analytics and then digging deeper into it by filtering. It's easy to use and has a complete help system so you shouldn't be intimidated by it. Index Tools is definitely the leader in this particular pack.

nextSTAT 4.0 Standard Edition

nextSTAT 4.0 unfortunately sacrifices in-depth analysis for ease of use. Its reports are simple and elementary, showing the least information of any service covered here. In other words, it's easy to use because there are so few features.

The interface is clean and nicely designed, making it simple to browse around the different reports. A calendar at the top left lets you select a date or date range by days, months, or weeks. The context-sensitive help is excellent — both informative and accurate. It's possible to toggle between sites that you manage using a drop-down box in the top-left corner.

All reports can be filtered by a minimum and maximum number of visited pages, a minimum and maximum number of minutes on the site, an advertising campaign, whether the visitor is new or returning, a minimum and maximum number of days since the last visit, or whether or not the visitor "converted" (i.e., bought something). This allows you to create some interesting reports — for example, all visitors who browsed a minimum of five pages on the site and bought something. Reports can be saved as a PDF, exported to Excel/CSV, or printed.The General Summary report, for example, shows information about visitors (the total number of visitors, the number of new visitors and returning visitors, the site bounce rate and the average time on the site), visits (the number of return visits, the percentage of visits less than 90 seconds long, and the average visits per visitor), and page views (the average time per page and the average page views per visit). The General Summary also lets you know how many people visit your site, how many return, and how long they stay.

Four Analytics Services

•  Introduction•  Google Analytics•  IndexTools 8.5•  nextSTAT 4.0

•  VisiStat 3.0

•  Are Cookies A Problem?

Under the Traffic Patterns menu, there are the typical Unique Visitors, Visits, and Page Views reports. Under the Navigation menu, the Visited Pages report shows each page visited during the selected date range. A standout feature is that next to each listed page is an icon that, when clicked, will display the path analysis for visitors of that page; i.e., whether it was an entry page, exit page, or simply a page in a lengthier click path.

The Marketing menu holds some interesting reports, such as Conversion Tracking and Campaign Tracking, both of which are set up under the Site Setting tab at the top of the page. There reports let you know, respectively, how successful your site is at making sales and how successful your marketing campaigns are. You can get a pretty good idea of where your site's visitors originate using the Search Engine, Search Engine By Keywords, and Referring Pages reports. The Keywords report shows the most common keywords used to find your site; this report is essential to targeting your pay-per-click advertising appropriately.

Under the Demographics menu it is possible to view visitors by Countries, Regions, Cities, or Languages. These reports can be useful in targeting local advertising. The cleverly named Technographics menu contains reports about Browsers, Operating Systems, Color Depths, Cookies, ISPs, and more. These reports can be useful in formatting your Web site so that it can be best viewed by those who come to visit.

NextSTAT provides a fairly standard set of reports, some of which are useful, but frankly, that's just not good enough for the most expensive service in this review. It's a fine product, just not at this price.

VisiStat 3.0
VisiStat 3.0's power lies in its live reporting. It's possible to view live site visitors and see who is on the site, what they are viewing, and what their click path is. It's also possible to launch a "statcasting" window on your desktop, which will keep a running count of page views and show the city and state of your site's most recent visitor. Referral links can also be displayed on the fly so you know how visitors reached your Web site.

VisiStat 3.0 allows you to report by date range, but not to compare two date ranges, which means you can't really follow trends — for example, what visitors in March purchased as compared to visitors in April. VisiStat 3.0 also offers only two charts: page views and unique visitors by day or hour. Most data is displayed in lists.

There are also two add-ons available. For an additional $4.95/month, PageAlarm will access your site every 15 minutes and send you an e-mail or text alert if it goes down. For $9.95/month, AdCaM allows you to set up and launch advertising campaigns using a three-step wizard; the wizard simplifies custom-coding the URL and landing page. AdCaM also tracks pay-per-click advertising campaigns.

Four Analytics Services

•  Introduction•  Google Analytics•  IndexTools 8.5

•  nextSTAT 4.0•  VisiStat 3.0

•  Are Cookies A Problem?

After logging in to VisiStat 3.0, the first page you see is the Launch Page, which displays page views by hour for the current day, page views by day for the current week, and information from the AdCaM and PageAlarm add-on modules. Icons located at the top of your screen give you access to two reports: Page Popularity and Geographic Information. Page Popularity shows you each page viewed within a selectable date range. You can also view it as a monthly report of page views, unique visitors, daily page views, and total unique visitors sorted by city/region; as well as daily page views of that page for the current calendar year. Clicking on a date will show you the hourly breakdown of page views on your site for that day. Clicking on an hour shows you unique visitor details for that hour, such as geographical location, referral URL, ISP information, and click path.

Geographic Information presents the location of each page view as closely as it can be determined from the visitor's IP address. This can be viewed by All Countries, US Map, Canadian Map, or City Detail. If your business provides services to a particular geographic region, it's to know which percentage of your customers are from that geographic region so you can appropriately target advertising. The ISP Report displays an international listing of your visitors' ISPs.

A Search Engine Keywords report, selectable by date range, tracks the keywords used on major search engines such as Google, Yahoo, and MSN to search for your Web site. You can also see the most common keywords and key phrases for each search engine. A Top 10 Keywords report shows the top keywords for the past month. Finally, the Keyword Trending report shows the most common keywords and key phrases on a monthly basis for the past three months — this is an extremely powerful aid in deciding which ads to buy and where.

VisiStat excels at providing real-time data in an easy-to-interpret format, although it could use some more e-commerce features. Its keyword tracking features are strong and will simplify pay-per-click advertising — but it won't tell you who bought what and why. However, VisiStat is a compelling choice for $15 per month

Are Cookies A Problem For Analytics Services?

While most site owners understand the importance of using analytics software to measure site traffic, some Web surfers don't see it that way -- and neither does some anti-spyware software.

Last year, Omniture, which produces a leading Web analytics package, earned some rather dubious media coverage when it was revealed that its software left cookies called "" on the machines of the unsuspecting. Most analytics software apps leave cookies behind in order to track their visitors; however, many people are irritated by the use of cookies at all, and feel that their usage is a violation of privacy.

Omniture took its lumps on this, in large part due to the obscure name of the cookie, which made it seem that the software vendor had something to hide. To compound matters, the domain led nowhere. (That's since been changed and the URL now leads to a page that explains what the cookie is and how users can opt out of the process.)

Many experts feel that the whole "cookie hype" has largely been due to media coverage. "Cookies are the lowest concern of any of type of spyware," says Joe Telafici, director of operations for McAfee Avert Labs. "The concern is that someone could build a profile of you. Is that well founded? I haven't heard of anything," says Telafici. "It's probably unlikely to affect single site owners. You still will likely get all the information you need."

The controversy resulted in some spyware sweepers picking up these types of cookies -- and, as a result, it's probable that a lot of users deleted them. So if the cookies are dumped, how useful are the analytics products? Not very.As a result, when shopping for Web analytics software, it may be worthwhile to ensure that visitors to your site understand the business purpose of the company that is providing the application, says Michael Stebbins, vice president of marketing at ClickTracks, a Web analytics software vendor. "ClickTracks' purpose is to sell licenses of Web analytics tools, software and services," says Stebbins. "We are not selling advertising. We are not interested in collecting personally identifiable information...With the information we do collect, [ClickTrack's clients] can make marketing decisions. Any smart marketing decision is based on aggregate behavior, not individual behavior."So, you might wonder, why all the hoopla? "Cookies were one of the earliest forms of online tracking available," says McAfee's Telafici. "There was a lot of controversy when they first came out. Privacy advocates worry about businesses having the ability to know about you. Some people would just prefer to remain anonymous."

So if you're using an analytics package, you may want to dedicate a page to explaining exactly what you're doing for those users who may be reluctant to permit cookies on their systems. The extra bit of explanation may lead to more accurate statistics. — Jennifer Bosavage

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