Good Site Stats: When Is a Blogger Like a Bat?

For nearly two months I’ve been flying blind, at least in terms of this weblog. Without boring you with the details, I used to have a great site statistics package to track traffic to Contentious. That package was Urchin, which has become the infinitely elusive Google Analytics. (No one seems to be getting new invitations to that service, and existing invitations don’t appear to be transferable. I’m starting to wonder whether it’s really available at all.)

My new host, Westhost, is fine, but its site stat packages are unbearably lame. I experimented with the free demo of OpenTracker, and the free service StatCounter – both of which helped somewhat, but not nearly enough.

Last night, my husband the ubergeek installed the free, open-source stat package AWstats. Ah, sweet success…. Once again I have the rich data I need.

Here are the “batty” reasons why I prefer AWstats to StatCounter and OpenTracker…

My main complaint about both StatCounter and OpenTracker was that these third-party services drastically undercounted visits to my site. This is because these services don’t access my site’s server logs directly. Rather, they both rely on data provided by Javascript code that I install on my site.

I don’t know the technical whys and wherefores, but I can tell you this: The statistics yielded by StatCounter and OpenTracker were 10-20 times lower than the figures I’d seen during my long experience with Urchin. That was a bit depressing, and very frustrating.

In contrast, AWstats (since it directly analyzes my site’s server logs) yields statistics very comparable to what I saw with Urchin. This includes detail on hits to my feeds (although, of course, not the number of feed subscribers). More importantly I can see at any given time which pages to my site are attracting traffic – not just the top 10 pages, but scrolling through hundreds if I want. This data gets more interesting and useful because I know I can trust that it’s complete.

Plus, AWstats is open source. That means it’s likely to develop a lot of useful tweaks and add-ons over time, just like my favorite web browser Firefox. And, like Firefox, it’s free.

The only drawback, from my perspective, is that AWstats requires some geeky server-side expertise I don’t have. I couldn’t install it myself. But now that it is installed, it’s very easy for me to use.

SITE STATS: SECRET WEAPON FOR CONTENT STRATEGY

It seems to me that most bloggers (well, those who weren’t geeks to start with) don’t bother analyzing their site statistics in detail. They may note how many hits or unique visitors they attract, and that’s about it. This is exacerbated by the fact that most hosted blogging services (like Typepad) offer practically nothing in the way of useful site statistics. (This is why I plan to eventually transfer my new blog, The Right Conversation, from Typepad to Westhost, where I can apply AWstats to it after converting it to WordPress).

However, detailed and complete site statistics can and should be a cornerstone of any site’s content strategy

Such information can tell you which of the themes you’ve covered resonate most strongly with your audience – especially over time. It also can clue you in when something you wrote long ago has found new relevance and thus might be worth an update. Reviewing entry and exit pages can help you infer readers’ purposes and interests.

Referral statistics (which show inbound links that people have followed to your site) also can be useful, even despite the inevitable clutter of link spam.

SITE STATS VS. FULL-TEXT FEEDS

Rich site statistics can help meet a blogger’s natural need for feedback. Most of us don’t attract nearly the number of comments that we’d like, at least not consistently. That can make blogging feel like lonely work. However, site statistics can tell you which of your items intrigued people enough that they wanted to click to your site to continue reading.

A few people (very few) have complained that I don’t offer the full text of Contentious articles by feed. I have considered that option, and decided against it. One of the reasons why is that if I were to provide the full text by feed, I’d lose a valuable way to gauge what my audience finds interesting.

That is, if you could read a complete Contentious article in your feed reader, you wouldn’t have to click to my site to read beyond the excerpt. So I’d have no way of knowing about your interest. I do strive to always offer value in the excerpt teasers I offer in my feed, so even if you only read my feed you’ll get some value.

The bottom line is: I put a lot of effort into Contentious. I think for all that work I deserve at least a click to indicate interest and help keep me motivated. You’re getting a lot of value for free with this publication, and I think that modest tradeoff is fair.

…Not everyone agrees, of course, but I’ve never sought to please everyone. Welcome to life.

Maybe that’s selfish, or short-sighted, but so be it. Until I have reason to believe that a sizeable portion of my target audience is reading me solely via feed readers or mobile devices, I’m not giving up that data.

This is one of those rare occasions when I have to put my own needs for information above some people’s preference or convenience. My need for that feedback is paramount to maintaining the quality of this blog.

Think of it as blogging echolocation – which may sound batty, but it’s very practical.

I have other reasons (marketing, theft discouragement) for not offering a full-text feed, but honestly the feedback-via-stats is top of that list. I can’t do this blind.

Boy, am I glad to have my radar turned back on!

4 thoughts on Good Site Stats: When Is a Blogger Like a Bat?

  1. Amy:

    Any tips on trying to convert a blog from Typepad to WordPress? Do you have to bring every single post over by hand, or is there some slick conversion thing I don’t know about?

    –Beth

  2. I echo your comments about AWStats – I think it offers an excellent level of analytics. I also think it is not the easiest package in the world to get installed and up and running – initially, I installed it on a Windows laptop, which was relatively painless (because I have years of Windows OS experience, and intimate knowledge of IIS) – although I was never able to get the suggested IP address to Country modules to run correctly. When I migrated to Mac OS X, I found the installation more difficult – but that was because I knew nothing about Apache, and had to learn fast. Once I had AWStats installed and running (including the aforementioned IP address to country modules, which were a breeze to compile on OS X) I had the level of analytics I was used to, and a greater understanding of OS X, Perl and Apache to boot! 😉

    As it happens, I’m not currently using AWStats – when I migrated my blog to a commercial host, that host does not provide me with direct access to the logs (at least, not on the pricing package I use). The free analytics they *do* provide, though less comprehensive than AWStats, are sufficient for my current needs. If those needs change, I would go back to AWStats in a moment – either by paying for direct log access, or by switching to another host.

  3. Thanks, Beth & Koan

    Re: converting Typepad to WordPress — well, I guess I’ll write about that when I do it!

    Koan, thanks for the deeper context on AWstats. It’s reassuring to know that someone who’s very familiar with the server side of the net supports my choice.

    Now I just wish Westhost would pre-install AWstats, so their customers wouldn’t have to rely on the kindness of geeky strangers 🙂

    – Amy Gahran

  4. My daughter’s domain host (bluehost) uses AWStats. I really enjoy it’s in depth reporting. In fact, I will probably switch to Bluehost when my domain’s year is up this April.

    I use Blogger.com for my blog. I’ve been thinking of switching over to WordPad so I’ll find your notes interesting. They may not correlate exactly but I’m looking forward to any tips you might be willing to share.

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