The Thinker

Web statistics are untrustworthy

Like many site owners, I monitor my web traffic. And every year I rediscover what Disraeli discovered long ago. There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics. The problem with web statistics is it is often hard to discern who is lying and by how much.

Most of us site owners care principally about one thing: how many eyeballs are looking at our site. And the answer turns out to be: no one really knows for sure. If you collect statistics using a hosted package like Awstats, it will accurately tell you how many overall hits and page requests you received, but at best it will poorly discern which of these represent eyeballs on the other end, instead of search engine robots and crawlers.

Based on my research, not even the mighty Google really knows. Because Google has tons of resources to throw at the web statistics problem, I figured they should know best. But it turns out that even Google can be fooled. At least that’s what I have inferred because around June 28, 2011 the number of page views on my site per day dropped roughly in half and have stayed that way. The same was not true with SiteMeter and StatCounter, which were also tracking my site usage.

06-26-2011

307

06-27-2011

337

06-28-2011

164

06-29-2011

165

06-30-2011

155

07-01-2011

135

07-02-2011

116

Was I upset that fewer people than I thought were hitting my blog? Not really. I had been thinking for months that Google Analytics was overstating my page views since their numbers were higher than anyone else’s, including SiteMeter. Sure, a higher number is always more flattering than a lower number but the average person arriving by a search engine is not reading three pages on my site, which Google Analytics was suggesting. Get real. No, the average human comes to glance at some post it found via a search engine then quickly move on. Anyhow, as you can see, around June 28, 2011 Google Analytics started applying a new algorithm, filtering out about half the page requests it used to. What I suspect happened is that they realized they were counting as humans a whole mess of automated requests.

At least Google eventually realized their mistake. As I noted some time ago, SiteMeter simply does not care. For years it has included the Google search engine robot, among others search engines and robots among my visitors and page views. Yes, it’s technically true they visited, but clearly no human was looking at my site. I guess if the agent can fire off the embedded Javascript that pings SiteMeter, that’s good enough for SiteMeter. What’s clear is that SiteMeter has basically given up bothering to care. They were one of the first to market in this business, developed a huge market share, and now apparently is only interested in the revenue from selling ad space when you go to their site to check on your statistics.

To get an idea of what’s wrong with web statistics these days, let’s look at visits and page views for this last week. Which statistics provider would you trust? Google Analytics, SiteMeter or StatCounter?

Date

Visits

Page views

Google SiteMeter StatCounter Google SiteMeter StatCounter

10/5/11

143

149

161

174

209

188

10/6/11

125

152

153

143

195

176

10/7/11

105

130

116

124

211

139

10/8/11

80

113

97

100

150

114

10/9/11

104

131

111

119

227

135

10/10/11

149

183

175

179

259

209

10/11/11

116

164

146

123

298

159

Total

822

1022

959

962

1549

1120

Increase compared with Google Analytics

24%

17%

61%

16%

Granted, each may have different criteria for when a day begins and ends. The good news is that since Google now does a better job of filtering requests, it is now consistently showing the lowest number of visits and page requests, hence I am more likely to trust it. But since they made a major change to their count algorithm in June, it throws off all of their statistics for this site for 2011, which makes the overall statistics pretty useless.

SiteMeter obviously does not care, since you simply have to look at the visit details to see that many of them come from googlebot.com. It would be a simple matter to filter these out, but SiteMeter would rather sell ads than improve their filters. Overall, SiteMeter counts 24% more visits and 61% more page views than Google Analytics.

StatCounter appears to be doing a pretty good job. Its numbers are about 15-20% higher than Google Analytics, but at least it tracks proportionately with Google Analytics. Moreover, StatCounter clearly actively maintains its product, so it has some integrity. I have some sympathy for those in this business. It must be very confusing to provide any sort of reliable statistics because there is never any way of knowing for sure whether a human is at the other end or not. Then there are all sorts of “in the background” web hits enabled by Web 2.0 technologies, such as redrawing Google Maps. On the web anyone with the right technical knowledge can pretend to be a human. All a statistics service can really do is make reasonable inferences and continuously change their filters as new trends emerge.

Products like Google Analytics do a great job of slicing and dicing the data they decide to count. I particularly like some of the newer features, like the ability to see on a map those states and cities that are providing most of your hits, and statistics that show many mobile users you have and what kind of devices they are using. Given their inability to wholly discern human traffic from automated traffic, even those statistics are suspect. Still, they are one of the few providers capable of providing any statistics like this, and they do it for free. So even numbers that are probably somewhat off are still valuable.

The ultimate lesson for site owners: take your web statistics with a grain of salt. In particular, realize that SiteMeter is a tainted product, useless for meaningful statistics, and useful only for getting some idea of what pages were most recently viewed. In fact, you might as well get rid of your SiteMeter tracking code altogether.

 

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