At least a few of the best things in life are actually free. For web site owners like me who want useful statistics on our visitors but do not want to pay for it (in either money, time or advertising) there is a slick solution: Google Analytics.
Until Google Analytics, I had mediocre statistical solutions. I monitor my site with the free versions of SiteMeter and StatCounter. However, both services offer only limited free features. Both allow you to see detailed information on your last hundred page views only. If you want more information, you need to take out your charge card.
On the too much information side, my web server of course logs every hit for all of my sites. My web host like most provides access to free Awstats reports. It does a nice job of summarizing the data in my web logs. However, the information tends to be about a day old. Moreover, since it logs everything it provides statistics that, while valid, are not always terribly meaningful. For example, I get many hits on my RSS and Atom feed links. Most of these are just machines polling my server at periodic intervals. It does not necessarily mean that someone is actually reading my content. In addition, I am too lazy to try to figure out how to tune my Apache web server and Awstats configuration files to split my three domains into separate reports. However, the price of Awstats cannot be beat, and it does give me a picture of the total volume of traffic my site is getting.
What I really care about are those who are actively reading content. SiteMeter provided a close approximation. I could look at its statistics, add in a weighting factor for my newsfeed hits and get an overall picture. Still, without paying for it I had no way to ask questions such as, “Which entry was most popular last month?” and “What search words bring the most people to my site?”
Enter Google Analytics, Google’s free web site statistics package. Finally, I have a convenient way to dig down and see the relevant information I am looking for without having to pay for it or maintain it. I also have a way to get detailed statistics beyond the last one hundred page views. Google provides it as a free service to all but the largest web sites. It is designed to work with your Google Adwords account. However, you do not need to have a Google Adwords account to use Google Analytics.
While not a perfect package, it is slick. First, its drawbacks. It is not as easy to add the metering code to your web pages as it is with SiteMeter or StatCounter. You will need to dig through your web site’s templates and add the appropriate code in the HTML headers and ask it to validate each site. Second, by default you do not get up to the minute information. Google Analytics defaults to showing you statistics through the previous day. Current information is there but you have to change your date range. Third, it cannot track your non-browser related hits. This is good and bad because much of it you would want to ignore anyhow (search engine robots come to mine). Others, like relevant hits on your newfeeds, would be useful. Fourth, it would be nice if it had an API (application programming interface). I suspect this will come soon. With an API, Sitemeter-like features such as counters that appear on your web pages could be implemented. (Some WordPress plug-in authors have already done some clever things.)
With these downsides though, look at what you get. First, there is no money or advertising. Second, it has a super-slick user interface built on top of Flash technology. It allows easy customization of your Google Analytics reports simply by dragging and dropping widgets. You can customize your dashboard to show your relevant statistics. You can also drill down to get relevant statistics easily, either by clicking on the link or by placing your mouse cursor over the relevant items on the graphics. Mouse-over dialog boxes tell you much relevant information without even needing to click. Move easily from one domain to another by selecting the domain from the selection list. Change the date criteria easily by opening up the date control and highlighting the dates you want.
Google Analytics provides a wealth of analytical information. Some of it, while relevant, can be hard to understand. What is a bounce rate anyhow? Convenient links provide more details. Data is organized into four major areas: visitor information, traffic content, sources and goals. The goals area is most useful if you are using their Google Adwords service. With it, you fine-tune your Google Adwords campaigns to help you bring in more traffic. This is where Google makes its money. If by offering you free analytics it can persuade you to open a Google Adwords account, or use it more frequently or effectively, it is good for their bottom line as well as yours.
I wish Google Analytics had a mode that allowed the public to see my statistics too. If it did, it would more resemble SiteMeter and StatCounter’s features. Perhaps this will come in some future version.
I have a feeling that Google Analytic’s free service is worrying SiteMeter, StatCounter and similar services. I got a recent notice from SiteMeter saying they will be rolling out an upgraded statistics package soon. With Google nipping at its heels, I would not be surprised if it offered expanded free services.
If you have been using SiteMeter and similar services, I think you owe it to yourself to add Google Analytics metering too.