Stats for Success

Stephen Yagielowicz
For many website operators, the subject of stats analysis often boils down to a simple matter of asking this basic question: "How many visitors did my website receive?" But while this information is good to know for comparative purposes, it can be a useless gauge of your website's overall health.

More sophisticated webmasters will invest time and energy in developing a deeper understanding of their website's visitors; going beyond the raw numbers in an attempt to profile how each visitor arrived at the website, what they did while visiting, where they left the site — and why — along with a host of other factors and identifiers that can serve as a valuable source of market information.

The following is a brief introduction to some of the useful information that server logs provide, as well as some strategies for exploiting this knowledge for profit.

The first category of information that server stats can convey is a basic overview of website activity, including the number of "hits" the website received broken down by such categories as total hits, the average hits per day and average hits per visitor. It's important to remember that one "hit" is one separate server call requesting a file, image or other resource — and as such, one web page may require dozens (even hundreds) of hits to be delivered.

While hit counts are often mistakenly represented as visitor counts, they do serve a vital function in forming the basis for more meaningful measures, such as failed requests and page views.

Addressing failed requests is vital, as it shows the sources of "404" page-not-found errors and other problems that your website's visitors are encountering, while tracking the actual page views will help you to gain an understanding of your website's popularity with its visitors.

For example, the average number of page views per visitor will provide an indication of how well your website addresses the surfer's needs and expectations — the higher this number, the more pages each visitor viewed, thus the more engaging he or she found your website. If this number is "1," then your visitors are hitting your homepage (or other landing page) and then leaving without visiting any of your other pages, which obviously is not a good sign.

Monitoring the average number of unique visitors per day will allow you to measure the growth of your website. Analyzing the average amount of bandwidth each visitor uses will help paysite operators set reasonable trial prices based on their overhead and help TGP gallery submitters determine whether or not their galleries are a cost-effective method of promotion.

Activity Statistics
While general statistics can provide an overview of what is happening, your server log's activity statistics will tell you "when" it is happening. The information is typically broken down by each day, by the hour of day, the day of the week and on a monthly basis.

This information is useful on a number of levels. For example, knowing your website's busiest — and slowest — days and operating hours allows for better timing of backup and other maintenance tasks while facilitating load balancing and bandwidth allocation. This information also is useful when planning or tracking promotional campaigns and other traffic influxes; it allows the webmaster to choose the optimal time to begin or modify campaigns in response to (or anticipation of) visitor activity levels.

Among the most valuable data subsets to be found in your server logs are access statistics that detail, among other things, the web pages, files and images that were viewed and the directories they're located in, as well as your website's entry and exit pages, plus the paths that visitors take while navigating your website.

The importance of this information can't be overstated, as it illustrates the popularity of your website's content as well as the way in which the visitor is exposed to it.

For example, access statistics can show you the top 10 photos or videos on your website, as well as the least popular niches, guiding future content purchases and website rollouts.

Knowing what page your visitor is arriving at also is invaluable. While many webmasters believe that their website's visitors most often come via its homepage, a look at server stats will often reveal that other sub-pages are popular landing destinations as well. This is typically the result of "deep linking" from other websites and search engines or from bookmarks set by previous visitors. An understanding of these pages can help tailor them for a more effective presentation.

Did you include a "home" link on every page? If not, add one and then watch the differences in traffic patterns and profitability in your stats. Or perhaps you don't want any visitors landing directly on these sub-pages at all (this is especially true for member areas). Your stats will show you where these traffic holes are, allowing you to tailor your access, "robots" or other files to effectively redirect visitors to your home or other desired page.

Visitor Paths
The path that the visitor takes while navigating through your website is telling as well. The sequence through which visitors are accessing the pages and files can reveal both the levels of visitor interest in your various offerings as well as any potential usability issues. Which items are the most popular? Which items are the least popular? Why?

For example, are visitors to your tour hitting your photos page more often than your videos page? You might want to highlight your photo offering and its benefits (exclusivity, high resolution, etc.) to better appeal to what your visitors are seeking, as well as rearrange your navigation and traffic flow to capitalize on this — and then monitor the results to see if it helped — or hurt. Server stats will show you the way.

The order in which pages are accessed as shown by path reports and relative access statistics should be studied for patterns. What these patterns will tell you is dependent upon your own site's layout. One important thing to look at is whether your website's visitors are behaving as you expected or seem to be searching for something else. Are they finding that "something else" on your website — or simply leaving to seek it elsewhere?

Just as important as knowing what page your visitor is arriving at, is knowing what page your visitor is leaving from. Look at the ratio between your website's first page hits and its sub-page hits: Are visitors seeing only one page and not exploring further? Why?

Does your website have a warning page? If so, look at the difference between visitors hitting the warning page in comparison to the number of visitors clicking through to hit subsequent pages. The drop off can be quite severe, and the ratio can serve as a guide to tweaking your warning page for maximum click-through rates.

How many visitors saw your join or sales page? The percentage of visitors hitting this page in relation to those hitting your home page is an indication of the effectiveness of your tour and sales tools. The higher the percentage, the better you're doing. Tweak the various elements of your tour pages and gauge your success by watching this percentage. Likewise, monitor the percentage of visitors to your join or sales page in relation to sales.

Visitor Statistics
Information about who the visitors to your website are can be most revealing. Server stats will identify information such as the hosts, top-level domains, countries, states, cities, organizations and more.

This information can be used to implement geo-targeting strategies, such as determining whether traffic volumes justify creating tours in multiple languages or providing various billing options (and to test their effectiveness).

Getting a lot of traffic from Austria? Make sure you cater to it and can process those types of transactions. Getting a lot of traffic from non-billable or high-fraud countries? Take steps to block or redirect it and check your stats to see how effective you've been. Get a lot of visitors from your hometown? Maybe your neighbors know.

What about authenticated users? Knowing how often a member accessed your website can be helpful in resolving customer service issues, such as when a "friendly fraud" case arises when a member claims he never visited the site. Your stats could prove otherwise.

Some of the most useful information that can be gleaned from stats surrounds referring sites and URLs. When answering the "where did this visitor come from?" question, "Referrer" reports let you evaluate the effectiveness of advertising campaigns and link exchanges, form the basis for affiliate payouts and traffic trades, and can help steer your marketing efforts.

How many times were your TGP galleries viewed? How many visitors clicked through to your website and then on through to your join page? How much bandwidth was used and which affiliate (if any) gets the credit? Was the resulting sales volume profitable for you? Are you receiving traffic from sources that could be legally problematic? Referrers will tell you.

Referrers also will tell you which search engines sent you traffic, as well as which search phrases and keywords the visitor initially used to find your site through any given search engine. This allows webmasters to measure the effectiveness of their ongoing SEO campaigns while suggesting alternative key phrase possibilities to gauge the "real life" productivity of pay-per-click advertising buys.

Referrer Stats
Referrer stats also will tell you about spiders and other nonhuman agents hitting your website, what they are, what they're doing, and how well you can control their actions. This includes search engine bots coming to index your website. Which pages did they index? Are you seeing a corresponding increase, or decrease, in the amount of traffic that search engine is now sending this page? What were the search terms and phrases? Effectively exploiting this information can catapult your website's traffic levels.

Finally, error reporting will highlight problem areas such as missing pages (404s) and erroneous passwords (401s), which can be an indication of member confusion — or of malicious hacking attempts. Other server errors will keep you notified of the operational health of the server and point out technical issues for admin consideration.

As you can see from this brief overview, thoroughly analyzing your website's server stats can provide a wealth of useful and profitable information through which you can make better business decisions — and keeping your eye on these details will increase your chances of success.

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