Internet University: Traffic and Measurement - How it All Happens

Last month, while discussing the 302 Redirect, I casually threw around some concepts that I assumed everyone was familiar with. Our readers quickly let me know that media folks, unlike Web developers, speak in English, not code, and I should really take another stab at explaining Web server logs and real-time tracking software (things that allow webmasters, marketing departments, and ad executives to see what’s really happening on their websites).

First, the foundation of it all: Web server software. This is what delivers Web pages (typically written in HTML) to Internet browsers like Netscape or Internet Explorer. These Web serving applications, typically Microsoft’s IIS or Apache, keep detailed records — logs — of everything they do. These logs contain information such as the location of the resource delivered (text, images, ads, etc.), when the request for the resource was made, how long the request took to complete, and the IP address of the browser that made the request. A single Web serving application can do all this almost instantaneously for many different websites.

This "who, when, what, where, and how" of delivering Web content to the end user can prove very useful when evaluating business goals, future marketing trends, and advertising effectiveness. As always, nothing this useful is ever easy to access or interpret. First, if you try to open log files in MS Word or some other text program, your computer will probably crash. Also, in order to find out which page of a given website was the most popular during a given period of time, you’d have to hand-count its appearances in the logs — a virtually impossible task Also, customization is important. The webmaster might want to see the resources that took the longest to load, in order, while the sales people may be interested in the most and least visited sections of their site.

The bottom line is, unless you’re proficient in translating long strings of numbers into words, you’ll have to use a special program. The program I recommend is HitBox Enterprise from WebSideStory. Since 1996, WebSideStory has been conducting real-time Web traffic analysis by inserting tiny bits of code into the Web pages of its clients (the roster includes The Walt Disney Internet Group, Sun Microsystems, and CBS SportsLine). That tiny code executes when the page is loaded onto the surfer’s browser, collects all the necessary information, and translates it into custom site activity reports that WebSideStory’s clients can easily work with via a simple Web interface. Also, HitBox boasts real-time services, which is great for ad campaign testing.

It may be a tangled web of numbers and stats out there, but thanks to HitBox, there is hope and help in making sense of site traffic statistics. —Mark Kecko is Technology Director at MediaPost

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