By the Numbers: Believe What You See

Contrary to what some people might think, website statistics were not invented by the Brothers Grimm. They’re not fairy tales, nor are they numbers pulled out of thin air by College Johnnies who want to show how smart they are. Website statistics are built on real-world data, and they can tell you a lot about what your website is — or is not — doing for your business.

Basic programs like AWSTATS, SmarterStats and Webalizer pull information directly from your website’s web server log, then organize and display it in a comprehensible format. A web server log is a very rich data source that keeps track of nearly everything that happens regarding your website. They’re not infallible, however. In particular, database-driven websites that use dynamic languages like PHP, .NET and ASP can do a lot of things that never show up in a server log.

Advanced analytical programs such as Google Analytics and Adobe Web Analytics (formerly Omniture) provide better information about dynamic websites because they collect their own data about your site vistiors’ activities. They track a number of behaviors that are overlooked in server logs, albeit sometimes at a slight cost to server performance.

The point to bear in mind when you’re looking at your website’s statistics is that there’s no guesswork involved. What’s recorded in the server logs, or in the data collected by an analytics program, is what’s really happening on your website. Statistics don’t always tell you why something is happening — although thorough analysis can often provide the answer — but their record of what is happening is inarguable.

Do 90 percent of the visitors who land on your site’s “Contact Us” page leave without submitting the contact form? It doesn’t do any good to argue that they should fill out the form because it’s so cool; there’s something about the form your potential customers don’t like, so it needs to be fixed. Is 75 percent of the traffic to your site looking only at the home page, then leaving? Then no matter how wonderful the design might be, it’s not working.

There’s no believing or disbelieving involved. Web site stats are the Joe Friday of online marketing: Just the facts. Sometimes those facts may be cold, cruel and painful — but the good news is that they are always something you can work to improve.