Understanding Your Website Traffic - Getting the Raw Data
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If you really want to get your hands on a lot of data, and you don't want to be bothered with extra software or services, you might be better off getting the log files from your ISP. These contain records of every single hit on your website. From these records you can find out much the same kind of information you can get from really good tracking software. Want to know where your visitors are coming from? What pages they're visiting? How long they stay? What browsers they're using? It's all there. Your hosting company may or may not be obligated to give you access to these records; it's something to look for whenever you sign up with a web host, though, for obvious reasons.
Not all log files are the same. The four main ones are access, referrer, error, and agent. These tell you different things. All of them give you useful information, however.
An access log gives you information related to who visited your site, where they went on your site, what they looked at, and how long they stayed. You definitely want this information. Are people looking at the hot new promotion you set up, or are they more interested in something else? Are prospective buyers getting to a certain point in the purchase process, then bailing? You can find out by going over your access log.
A referrer log tells you where your visitors came from to look at your site. This is particularly helpful when your visitors come from search engines, because it will also tell you what keywords they entered. In this way, you can find out whether the search engine optimization you've done on your site has been successful.
An agent log lets you know what browser and OS your visitors used to view your site. That might not seem to be immediately useful information, but it can give your designers a clue. If you only care how your website looks and works in Internet Explorer, and you're seeing an upsurge of visitors using FireFox, guess what? You might want to change your mind about that. You could even be losing sales because certain features of your site only work with certain browsers.
Finally, an error log lets you know what errors the server generated and sent back to the client. This information can tell you how visitors are using (or trying to use) your website.
To sum up, you need to be able to see more than just that a lot of web surfers are visiting your website. Understanding your website's traffic can help you redesign your site (or at least give it a bit of a facelift) by giving you a handle on which pages are popular and which ones aren't. It can tell you who is visiting your website and where they're coming from, so you can see if your SEO campaign is successful. It can tell you what browsers to take into consideration when you design your web pages. In short, it can tell you what is and isn't working as far as boosting both your website's traffic and its conversions.
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