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Web Stats: Log Files versus Page Tags, Part 1

Kristen Fowler Lindsey - Saturday, December 03, 2005

With the release of Google Analytics, it is likely that many companies, both who already have web statistics and those who may be turned on to the vital need of web stats for their online business, will be exploring options.

One basic element of web analytics that is very important in these considerations is which technology you decide to use. Currently there are two primary processes for gathering website statistics: log file information and page tags, usually with some Javascript.

What is Log File Analysis?

If you are wondering what language that last sentence was in, log files are records that are usually compiled by your hosting company that records every request made to your web server and every action it took. So for example, if someone types your website address into their browser and presses return, there are a number of commands sent to your web server to send back the html file of your home page and its dependent image and graphic files, etc.

Common tools that use this technology are AW Stats, WebTrends log analyzer, and the old Urchin 5 web log analyzer.

All of these commands are recorded, and there are a number of additional pieces of data that are recorded as well -- the visitor's IP address, where they last came from (if from another site), what keyword terms they used to search (if coming from a search engine), what browser they are using, and all sorts of stuff meaningless to a marketer.

A log file analyzer parses through this information and displays the data in a format that is useful for analysis. Keep in mind, "useful for analysis" is a general term -- there are a wide variety of log analyzer programs that barely accomplish this, if at all!

Pros of Log File Analysis

There are a few pros of log file analysis, especially when combined with some other tools to make the data even more accurate:

  • Total data control - log files live on your web server, so you have total access to them any time and others cannot access them
  • Lower cost of analytics software acquisition: once you buy your log analyzer software, you don't have any additional monthly fees to do analysis. (NOTE: there ARE some total cost of ownership costs, but I am not going to go into that today)

Cons of Log File Analysis

In my opinion, there are more cons than pros to log file analysis from a business owner or marketer's perspective (you know, the people using much of this data!):

  • Large file size - log files can be enormous, so a business needs to have adequate storage space or a back-up system to manage the files. This usually requires a good network or web administrator.
  • Not so accurate data - most log analyzers use IP addresses to count visitors. However, IP addresses are simply an address located on the Internet and do not necessarily point to a specific user. For example, a large corporation may have just one IP address for 500 people, whereas an ISP may have 1,000 IP addresses for 50,000 subscribers and assign them dynamically as users come online. You get the picture.
  • High maintenance - log file analysis can be effective when configured correctly, but that takes some expertise. I often recommend against this option for clients unless they have someone in-house who has the expertise to configure your log analyzer effectively. As you can see, "Total Cost of Ownership" of log analysis can grow when you consider staffing and expertise needed to make it work best.

In my next post I will outline the other technology for web analytics - page tags.

Are you using web analytics tools for your business currently? What are you using and has it been effective? Let me know!

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