Where Do Your Site's Visitors Come From?

Chris Bruce

Understanding how visitors interact with your site is central to its success, and understanding the terms and meanings behind the process is the first step when it comes to properly interpreting your stats...

OK, we all hear about how “this site gets a million hits a day” or “that site has 200 unique visitors a day,” etc. But how do these sites find out all this information and what does it mean?

Statistics about who (or what) is visiting your site are generated by the server and stored in logs.

As your Web server runs, it dumps information into these log files—they contain information about the user and which specific area of your website they are trying to access. But these log files are not really formatted for human consumption, so you need a log analyzer to sift through the millions of records in these files and show something useful.

There are many commercial and open source log file analyzers out there. You are no doubt familiar with Webtrends, one of the larger commercial log analyzers. But there are many open-source (yes free!) log analyzers—like AWStats, Webalizer, and Analog. AWStats is probably one of the better open source log analyzers out there and works for both Linux and Windows. Most log analyzers break down the information based on daily and monthly totals. But how it organizes this information is most important for gauging your website traffic.

Here’s a breakdown of the terms:

Every time a page, image, or file is requested it is counted as a hit. This can be misleading in some cases. For instance, if you have a page full of images, the page will count as a hit, and every image will also count as a hit. So these “million hits per day” sites don't really mean much, unless you know what kind of hits they are.

Page Views and Page URLs
Now, page views are like hits, but page views are only recorded when a page is actually viewed. It ignores images and files. This is a much more realistic number for gauging site performance. Page URLs give you the top most viewed pages on your site.

Unique Visitors
This is a counter of individual people that visit your site. This is not always accurate, especially for AOL web surfers. If a person comes to your site and browses through 15 different pages, this will still only count as 1 unique visitor.

Good log analyzers will figure out where people originated before they came to your site. This is great for determining how your affiliate programs are working and is used to see which search engines people are coming from. The log analyzer will typically figure out the search engines and give you simple names like Google or Lycos. Some log analyzers can even track what the search terms (e.g. the exact words you entered into Google) were.

Authenticated Users
This shows statistics about individual users who have entered a username and password to access your site. This is often used on adult sites to determine if someone is sharing their password. It will tell you how many hits a specific user has made. If you see someone with a million hits in one day, you can suspect that the password has been shared.

Visit Duration
This gives you the average time users spend viewing your site. Again, this is not always accurate, but can be a good resource to determine how long the average viewer is visiting your site.

Not everyone visiting your site is a live person. Almost all search engines use software programs to “spider” your site to get information for their search engine. This section will tell you which spiders are visiting your site and who they are. Sometimes you can see where a client may have used a software engine to grab all of your content.

Entry and Exit Pages
Entry pages list the top pages that users land on when entering your site. This can also be used to track affiliates if you have specific doorway pages for your affiliates. This can also give you an idea of which pages are being linked to. Exit pages list the top pages that people view right before leaving your site. It is not always accurate, but can be used to determine where you might place ads.

Browsers and Operating Systems
“Browsers” refers to the statistics about the different browser versions that are visiting your site. This can be important when determining if you should use that “Microsoft-only” feature or not. “Operating Systems” is just like the “Browsers” section but refers to the statistics for specific operating systems and versions.

Again, if you want to understand more about who is visiting your site, you need a good log analyzer. Knowing your visitors is the key to getting more visitors so you can evaluate the performance of your website and make it stand apart from the crowd.

Chris Bruce is a programmer at Bionic Pixels specializing in server-side web development.