Thursday, February 28, 2008

HOWTO: Monitor Visitors to your Blog

You start a new blog and then write up some content on it. Once you think that you've got enough posts for people to hang around, you let your friends, family and colleagues know about your blog. And now you want the whole world to visit your blog! Fair enough.

But how do you know whether these people actually visited your blog? How do you count the number of visitors to your blog? Well, it turns out that there's quite a number of ways of doing that. There are many traffic monitoring services available out there and in this article we will take a look at a few of them.

I have been using 4 such services to track the visitors to my blog. (Note, however, that you don't have to use that many to track visitors. Even a single monitoring service can do the job.) Feedjit, SiteMeter, StatCounter and Google Analytics are those 4 services and all of them are free services.

Feedjit offers two widgets to track visitors; a traffic feed which shows the 10 most recent visits to and exits from your blog and a miniature traffic map. Both widget are updated real time (i.e. as and when visitors arrive). The traffic feed shows the location (country, city) of visitors, the referring URL, the entry page and the exit page for each visitor (all these details are not available for certain visits). This is ideal to know who's visiting from where, but it doesn't readily give a count of your visitors.

SiteMeter and StatCounter both provide counts of visits and page views per visit. In fact, both provide almost identical data though with different presentations. The tracking code from these services, which you install in your blog also displays a count of visitors.

Registering with SiteMeter is simple and installing the tracking code in your blog is pretty easy. It offers a very good set of statistics in a neat, compact format. The presentation of information in SiteMeter is what I like most about it. With respect to each visit, the visitor location, the referring URL, entry and exit pages, duration of the visit, time zone information and a lot of system stats such as the browser used, screen resolution, color depth etc are provided. Many bar and pie charts that summarize the visits are also provided. Absence of the navigation path of each visitor (i.e. what pages were viewed other than the entry and exit pages) is one of the disadvantages of SiteMeter.

StatCounter, on the other hand, provides the navigation path of each visitor which is very useful to see what people actually read once they get in. Other than that, it's almost the same set of data as provided by SiteMeter. My personal preference, however, is SiteMeter for its neat, easily comprehensible presentation of data. (Besides, I don't like the ugly counter by StatCounter displayed on the blog once we install the tracking code)

Last but certainly not least, Google Analytics (GA) is the service which offers the most complex analysis of data. As with many Google services, the user interface (i.e. presentation) is excellent. You have a configurable dashboard and you can drill down on each item on the dashboard. Visitor trends, visitor loyalty and a lot more useful stats are provided. The difficult and time consuming installation (compared to the other 3), non real time data (stats are updated only once a day) and complexity can be stated as the primary disadvantages of GA. The complexity is because of the added focus towards AdWords customers. In my view, GA is useful if you have huge amount of visitors and you want to direct these visitors to targets such as increased sales from your site. Another problem with GA is the difficulty of excluding your visits (i.e. internal visits) to the blog whereas it is just a click of a button with the other 3 services.

One thing you must remember though is that the stats, especially the visitor counts and page views, from these 4 different services are very rarely in agreement. They differ from each other depending on factors such as the time interval that makes two adjacent visits from the same person count as two visits or one visit. For example, if the same person visits your blog more than once within a space of 'x' hours, all of that will count as one visit. But this 'x' differs from service to service.

In conclusion, I can say that I check my SiteMeter stats every so often and use Google Analytics to drill down for more complex stats.