WebTrends makes sense of Web traffic data

A Web site's task is to deliver information or services. Short of conducting detailed user surveys, monitoring and analyzing Web site logs is one of the few ways to find out whether a Web site is well-designed and serving your site's visitors, or whether your visitors are having trouble finding the information they need.

Web data collection and log analysis may not be glamorous, but they are extremely important. And these tasks are made a lot easier by NetIQ Corp.'s new version of its market-leading Web analytics software, WebTrends Reporting Center.

There are several new enhancements in Version 6.0, including the ability to compare and contrast log data via custom date ranges, and a number of reporting enhancements, including some new report export formats and the ability to search and index reports. What's more, Version 6.0 introduces the WebTrends SmartSource Data Collector, an application that simplifies the collection of data from clients about their use of your Web sites.

Assuming that the use of cookies or Web tags does not go against your agency's or department's Web site policies, SmartSource allows you to collect detailed information on Web site usage by using tags inserted into your pages to gather data from visiting clients and collect the information in a specified central location. This can be much more efficient than gathering scattered Web logs from various servers and is a welcome addition.

Those familiar with incarnations of WebTrends earlier than Version 5.0 will be surprised to find that the program's familiar and simple interface is gone.

Now WebTrends Reporting Center offers a Web-based interface that takes a bit more getting used to. I also found it somewhat slower than the old interface.

The administration module, which is the first module that comes up when you load the software, is where you manage "profiles," collections of Web sites and logs to be analyzed. I was satisfied with the number and variety of options for analysis and report creation, but the interface wasn't quite as easy to use as in earlier versions of the program.

The desktop interface, however, is a significant improvement on earlier versions. Once you select a profile with which to work, WebTrends pops up a three-panel desktop. The panels can be used to define and view the data you're collecting.

In the first panel, you can select the date range of data you want to view. I liked the flexibility in range selection, including log analysis of daily traffic, weekly traffic, monthly traffic or the traffic of a custom time period somewhere in between.

Comparing Web data from different date ranges is also easier with this new version. I created a report based on a custom date range that consisted of seven days' worth of data (spanning two calendar weeks) and then compared one month of data to another month of data. I could have also compared data by quarter or year.

Flexible comparison of dates is a small but useful enhancement to the product.

The second panel is, appropriately enough, called the table of contents — it provides quick access to the various available reports. The table of contents isn't new, but Version 6.0 adds some functionality by providing the ability to view custom date ranges side by side, creating reports in PDF format, and adding some new searching and indexing of reports.

The third and main part of the desktop is where all of the trending graphics are displayed. WebTrends relies heavily on Sun Microsystems Inc.'s Java to show a plethora of graphs that display what's going on with a Web site.

In working with clients, I have found that their Web sites have several significant issues to deal with on an ongoing basis. One big project is learning where Web visitors come from and how they move through the Web site — otherwise known as path analysis. I have found that WebTrends is an excellent tool for mining and displaying this information, using the desktop to offer various graphs and filters that sort through the tons of raw log data.

WebTrends enhances path analysis through segmentation analysis, which splits out data into three smaller pieces: visitor history, campaign history and purchase history.

Visitor history is the basic information — which pages were viewed, in what order and by whom.

Campaign history is more complex and shows the effectiveness of a marketing campaign or announcement by further breaking out the information, showing what Web site referred a visitor to the site and what campaign a particular visitor belongs to.

If visitors can make purchases on your Web site, WebTrends can break out various detailed statistics on that as well.

WebTrends also offers navigation analysis, allowing you to identify the most popular routes users take to and from pages on your Web site.

Whether you're looking to see if some of your Web pages are being viewed more or less frequently than you think, or if people are viewing your Web pages in a different order than you assumed, path analysis is valuable for providing a picture of how your visitors access your site and whether they find it useful.

Reporting is another area where WebTrends shines. You can create several different reports depending on what kind of data you want to present.

With approximately 200 canned reports — about a third of which can be customized — I could selectively include graphs and tables to show a variety of data pictures, starting with overviews and then drilling down for more detail. The reporting tools offer the flexibility to share only what you want to, filtering the most important data for a given audience and presenting it as a report in the default reporting format of HTML, Microsoft Corp. Word or Excel, or now PDF or comma separated value files.

I also liked the flexibility WebTrends offers in deployment costs to agencies and departments. Is it more cost- efficient for your agency or department to spend the money on the purchase of new Web analytics software or to outsource the whole reporting function?

You can either purchase the software, buy the hardware on which to run it and train employees to get the most out of the system, or you can have NetIQ host your reports.

Log data is easily migrated from one place to another depending on whether you conduct your hosting on-site or off.

Another sticky issue on government Web sites is how to deal with cookies. For the most part, government agencies cannot use persistent cookies to track repeat visitors to a Web site. This restriction, in place since the Clinton administration and monitored by the Office of Management and Budget, is a major problem when looking for meaningful repeat-user statistics.

WebTrends solves this with the SmartSource Data Collector. The collector offers several user-tracking methods, including third-party, first-party, or no cookies, scripting or invisible tags (otherwise known as page bugs). When the use of any type of persistent cookie or page bug can cause privacy concerns, the collector can use Java scripting to enhance client data collection, providing some but not all of the information gleaned from the cookie method. I thought this functionality was extremely flexible.

In the end, WebTrends is similar to a word processor in that 20 percent of the functionality is used roughly 80 percent of the time. The remaining 80 percent of the software's functionality may be rarely used, but you'll be glad it's there when you need it. That said, I think this new version of WebTrends adds enough new and interesting capabilities to merit the upgrade.

WebTrends runs on Microsoft Window NT 4.0 Service Pack 3 and above, Windows 2000 and Windows XP. It also runs on Sun Solaris 2.7 or 2.8 or Red Hat Inc. Linux 6.2 and above.

Garza is a freelance author and network security consultant in the Silicon Valley area of California. He can be reached at [email protected]


Analyze this

Key components of WebTrends:

* SmartSource Data Collector tracks Web site visitors through the use of cookies or other tools.

* WebTrends analysis engine aggregates and analyzes visitor data.

* WebTrends software makes the data available through reports.


WebTrends Reporting Center 6.0

Grade: B+

NetIQ Corp.

(888) 932-8736


List price for the Enterprise Edition is $10,500. General Services Administration pricing is offered by resellers.

WebTrends is a solid product for sorting and displaying the visitor data that Web servers create. Some product enhancements include flexible comparison of date ranges and SmartSource Data Collector. Agencies have the option of buying the product outright or using a NetIQ reports service.

We tested WebTrends on a Hewlett-Packard Co. Compaq ProLiant ML350 with dual Intel Corp. Xeon 2.2 GHz processors and 256M of system memory running Microsoft Corp. Windows 2000 Server.


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