Keeping an eye on Web traffic

Tools tell you how your site is being used

Getting your Web site up and running is only the beginning. Whether you're providing a service to the public, managing an intranet for your professional staff or selling products via the Internet, if you are going to tune your site to be more effective, you need to know as much as you can about who is visiting and where they're going within the site.

This information will not only help you evaluate your site's exposure, it will help you develop strategies for content generation and maintenance.

There are two types of Web analysis tools: those that glean data from the Web server's existing log file and those that create their own logging systems in order to generate the reports. Although infinitely more flexible, the latter group requires a great deal of customization and expense and is usually best reserved for large commerce-based Web sites or those that are unusually sophisticated.

For this comparison, we chose three of the top products — WebTrends Corp.'s Enterprise Suite, Quest Software Inc.'s Funnel Web Analyzer Enterprise and Sane Solutions LLC's NetTracker 5.0 Enterprise — which all use the log files already generated by the Web server. We were pleased to find that each of the tools is easy to set up, easy to use and capable of generating more insight into both the use and design of your site than you probably thought possible.

A typical log file contains an entry for each request to the Web server, recording basic information about who the visitors are, where they came from and where they go within the site. By adding time stamps and looking at thousands or millions of those files, a very clear picture of how your site is being used emerges. For instance, if 62 percent of visitors leave your site on the same page, perhaps it's time to redesign that page, or if 82 percent of bandwidth is being used to upload GIFs, perhaps its time to cut back on the graphics.

Also, all of the products we tested can use the extended log formats most of the major Web servers use. The extended formats include additional fields that let you know such things as what browser/ operating system combinations your visitors are using, which links they clicked on to get to your site and how many bytes they downloaded.

WebTrends Enterprise Suite

The core of the WebTrends Enterprise Suite is called Web Server Traffic Analysis, which creates dozens of reports that paint a clear picture of your site. As with all three of the applications, the information WebTrends can put together from simple log entries is amazing.

By combining statistics and charts, an administrator can get such information as which country most of the visitors are coming from and which files visitors download the most.

WebTrends has the ability to create reports in HTML, ASCII text, and Microsoft Corp. Excel and Word formats. Like the others programs, Enterprise Suite has the ability to save the information in a database so that subsequent reports can be generated quickly, rather than having to reprocess the log file.

Of the three programs, we liked the layout and design of Enterprise Suite reports the best. The pages were logically organized, drilled down to very granular information, incorporated graphs as well as text charts and even included a glossary at the bottom of each page to help define the specific categories on that page.

For example, within the Visitors and Demographics category, the report gets broken down into visitors by number of visits, new vs. returning visitors, top authenticated visitors, top visitors, top geographic regions, most active countries, North American states, most active cities, most active organizations and organization breakdown. Not only does this list represent some items the other two don't report, but the logical order in which they are presented is efficient and highly useful.

Enterprise Suite doesn't offer the kind of advertising tracking tools you'll find in the other two products, but it does offer the strongest set of tools overall and hands down the best reporting tools.

Funnel Web Analyzer Enterprise

Quest Software's Funnel Web Analyzer Enterprise was the easiest to use and the fastest of the bunch. Users can either drop the log file onto the application itself or browse to the file's location and click the Process button.

The biggest difference between Funnel Web Analyzer and the other products is its ability to look at a single Web site as the several sites it actually is. For example, even the most basic sites are actually known as three sites: the local host, the internal IP address of the machine and the resolved domain name. And in more complicated sites, several domain names could lead to the same site.

The ability to look at each site individually will ensure that a more accurate description is presented. For example, with a report based on the domain name, you can be sure you are only seeing the activity of outside viewers and not local administrative activity and intranet requests on your local network.

Although Funnel Web Analyzer can glean most of the same data and statistics as WebTrends Enterprise Suite, it doesn't do it nearly as prettily. The graphs are rougher, and the logical organization of the findings is not nearly as elegant.

Funnel Web Analyzer has the ability to configure and track advertising campaigns that you are running on other Web sites. Not only can you track referrals from each ad you place, but Funnel Web Analyzer will calculate the cost per click of each ad. In addition, if you sell ads on your site, you can use Funnel Web Analyzer to provide click-through information that tracks each time a visitor goes to an advertiser's site via an ad on your site.

NetTracker 5.0 Enterprise

Sane Solutions' NetTracker 5.0 Enterprise is unique in that it is a server-based application that can be accessed via a Web browser. That means marketing people, accountants, content providers and Web administrators can all access the same information remotely.

NetTracker also works with a database — embedded in the Professional and Enterprise editions and with Oracle Corp. or Microsoft Corp. SQL Server databases in the eBusiness edition — to create speedy reports from the latest log file information. For example, you could set NetTracker to process the log once a day at 2 a.m., and by morning, every department could generate reports in seconds from the processed logs.

Another big advantage NetTracker offers is support for a huge selection of platforms, including Solaris, Linux, AIX, Tru64 UNIX, HP-UX, BSDI, FreeBSD, Cobalt QubeIRIX, Mac OS X Server, Windows, SCO OpenServer and UnixWare. Like the other applications, NetTracker can combine logs from Web sites that are spread across multiple servers.

A Custom Report Wizard enables users to easily get the information they need without having to go into the configuration settings.

However, the reports NetTracker produces are not quite up to the standard set by WebTrends Enterprise Suite. In fact, NetTracker is the clumsiest of the three programs we tested, requiring users to navigate pull-down menus and buttons in order to get the information they are looking for. In addition, graphs are not delivered automatically.

Pick of the Litter

These are all tremendously valuable products that mine the gobs of information already being collected to clearly define the strengths and weaknesses of your Web site.

Each product has its own strengths, but choosing the right one should be easy: WebTrends Enterprise Suite offers excellent reporting; Funnel Web Analyzer Enterprise is easy to use and can create customized reports for different needs; and NetTracker Enterprise is a server-based application that is an excellent choice for a distributed environment of disparate disciplines, each needing customized reports.

Jefferson is a freelance analyst and writer based in Honolulu who has been covering technology for several years.

REPORT CARD

WebTrends Enterprise Suite 5.0a

Grade: A-

WebTrends Corp.
(503) 294-7025
www.webtrends.com

Price: $2,499.

Remarks: WebTrends Enterprise Suite is an excellent reporting tool — the best of this group in terms of logical layout and presentation. The bevy of tools and the precision and presentation of detail in the reports make this product easy to use. The enterprise version can work with sites spread across numerous servers and includes tools to analyze streaming media, proxy servers, links and URLs.

REPORT CARD

NetTracker 5.0 Enterprise

Grade: B+

Sane Solutions LLC
(800) 407-3570
www.sane.com

Price: $995.

Remarks: NetTracker Enterprise is designed to analyze traffic from multiple Web sites and FTP sites, as well as multiple proxy servers and firewalls (to monitor your organization's Web surfing patterns). Thanks to integration with a database, server-based installation and a great custom report wizard, it is an excellent choice for agencies that have various people — such as administrators and accounting and content personnel — who need different pieces of information about the site.

REPORT CARD

Funnel Web Analyzer Enterprise

Grade: B+

Quest Software Inc.
(949) 754-8000
www.quest.com

Price: $1,445.

Remarks: Funnel Web was the easiest to use and the fastest product in this group. Its straightforward layout and good reports made getting the right information simple. The ability to create customized reports means different people can work with the same data for their own purposes. The program's ability to track clickstream information, as well as keeps tabs on remote and local advertising campaigns, makes this especially effective for marketers.

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