From Recharger Magazine:

Web Scene Investigation: Ways to Dig up the Dirt on Your Web Site

On television’s CSI, the good-guy Crime Scene Investigators always get their criminal. They use high-tech (sometimes impossibly high-tech) gadgets and tools to discover evidence and connections missed by the average investigator. Putting it all together, they learn the truth. When trying to learn if your Web site is an effective form of marketing, you may need to think like a member of the CSI team. Look at the hidden evidence, analyze and come to a natural conclusion.

A great way to learn how your Web site is used (or not used) by your customers is to ask them. When you get a new customer, it can be helpful to your entire sales and marketing staff to know how the customer found you, whether it was through your Web site, print ads or word of mouth. This type of marketing research is very helpful, but is not the only way to get a picture of the effectiveness of your site.

Behind the Scenes

Every Web site is hosted on a server. This server runs a software system that allows specific information to be shared across the Internet as requests and responses. The Web host’s software system (popular examples include the Apache HTTP Server and Microsoft’s Internet Information Services) is the backbone of the site and using it will allow you to get a few ideas of what is happening with your site.

When a customer goes to your Web site, his or her browser (e.g., Internet Explorer or Netscape) “requests” the information from your Web server. Your Web server “replies” with the needed information and the information is rendered as your site in the customer’s Web browser. Every request, reply and error is recorded in a set of files in the Web-hosting system. Looking at those files can give you a good idea of what kinds of activity your site is getting. It can be hard to make sense of the raw file, so there are many tools that can help you make sense of the files by providing better organization and graphics to display the information.

Analysis Tools

Apache is the most common Web-server system, and the most popular log-analysis tool for it is Webalizer. This free tool uses the raw files and puts the information into an easy-to-understand Web-based report. The Webalizer analysis collects the evidence of customer visits and can help you understand which pages on your site are popular, which are not as popular and how many people are visiting your site. It can be very helpful to have your Web site designer help explain the report and why some pages (seemingly for no reason) are more popular that other pages. The Webalizer report breaks down the information and organizes it by month.

Within each month, there are daily and hourly statistics, a list of the pages on your site that have been visited, the entry and exit pages (which page each visitor went to first and which one each visitor was looking at just prior to leaving the site), the users’ browser types, and more. Among the most helpful information in the report is the referrers and search information. The referral information tells you what outside sites have linked to your site and caused a visit to your site. The value of business-to-business relationships can easily be quantified with the hard numbers presented.

The search information indicates the search words that led visitors to your sites. The words or phrases that led to a visit are clearly listed, which can be helpful when considering the importance of the destination page. If, for example, many of your visitors arrive by searching for the phrase “happy toner,” you may want to go to the page that says “happy toner” and make sure that your corporate message is clear on that page. Visitors often enter a site from a “middle” page — not through the home page. To find this out, just check the “entry” pages listed on the report. If many visitors are entering from pages other than your top-level ones, check that these pages have good navigation and complete contact information as well. The report can often be a little confusing and it is helpful to read the information at the Webalizer site so that you don’t misunderstand the report. Since it just reports the hard numbers from the files, often the real meaning is just under the surface.

If your site is hosted by a commercial hosting service, you probably won’t be able to access the log files directly, but there is probably a system set up for you to view an analysis of the logs. Webalizer may already be available on your server. If not, head to the Webalizer site and download the installation files. While the installation can sometimes be confusing, the reports it produces can make up for the headache. Note that you (or your system administrator) will need administrator-level access to your Web server to install the Webalizer.

Apache is the most common Web-server system, but there are also tools available if you are using the Microsoft IIS system. For IIS, one popular professional product, WebTrend’s Log Analyzer, is pricey (starting at $499) but does have a free trial. Also, Sawmill has an effective analysis tool for the Windows, Mac and UNIX environments. It costs quite a bit less and also has a free trial.

If, since the launch of your Web site, your business volume seems to be up or down, you can use the log files and these analysis tools to check the evidence, make connections and determine if your Web site is a guilty partner or innocent bystander. Just like on CSI, the case is closed.

Benjamin Hubble is owner of El Visible Design, a full-service Web design firm. Contact him at ben@elvisible.com or visit www.elvisible.com.

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