Hacks 1–13: Introduction

Many people consider the “basics” of web measurement anything but. Loaded with confusing and ambiguous terminology, dependent on any number of potentially fallacious assumptions, and often considered the domain of data-loving geeks, no wonder business people have historically eschewed web data analysis for softer and fuzzier endeavors like paid usability studies and online surveys.

But no longer!

Web measurement applications and the vendors that provide them have made great strides in the last few years, making their applications easier to understand and easier to use. The major players are starting to agree on a common vocabulary and working through some of the historical problems with data collection. More and more business people have responded, taking interest in web measurement and actually assigning resources to analyze the resulting data.

Funny how a major economic downturn and the enforcement of fiscal responsibility will motivate people to make decisions based on available data, not just their gut instinct.

Why Measure Your Site?

Most companies measure their web activity because they have an interest in knowing how well their marketing and advertising budget is being spent. Consider the plight of the average vice president of Internet marketing for a company of any appreciable size. He is likely responsible for the web site, email messaging, banner advertising, paid keyword marketing, organic search, internal search, content, and the online extension of the brand. Given this list and the associated costs of developing and maintaining each piece of marketing collateral, how could he possibly hope to make good decisions without data?

Whether you’re in charge of site design and development, usability, marketing, customer communication, customer support, lead generation, online sales, brand messaging, product marketing—trust me, this list goes on and on—you need web measurement data to help inform your job.

Think about it. Do you want your airline pilot flying based on available atmospheric and flight pattern data or gut feel? Do you want your doctor to recommend a treatment after just glancing at you or would you like her to run a few tests? Do you want your automobile mechanic to recommend service for your car after just giving it a listen?

Our entire world is run using data collected from the environment around us. Why would you think your web site is any different?

A Brief History of Web Site Measurement

The practical history of web site measurement goes something like this:

In the beginning there was WebTrends and WebTrends was good. Eventually WebTrends became less good and the market rapidly expanded to well over 50 vendors (which is probably about 45 more than the world really needs).

A touch glib, perhaps, but that’s really it. WebTrends Corporation of Portland, Oregon struck on the classic “right place, right time” mix and became an overnight success. At one point claiming over 55,000 customers worldwide, WebTrends had a very successful initial public offering but eventually succumbed to their own successes, failing to respond quickly enough to changes in the market. Fortunately, WebTrends has since recovered and is widely considered to be a market leader.

Because web measurement is such a good idea, eventually every Tom, Dick, and Harry started getting into the scene, and applications started popping up like mushrooms in an Oregon winter. Conservative estimates currently peg the number of vendors at well over 100 worldwide. Names like “Click-Tracks,” “Clicklab,” “Clickstream,” and “Clickcadence” abound. Analysts are currently predicting a contraction of the web measurement market around the largest and most successful vendors—companies like WebTrends, Omniture, WebSideStory, Coremetrics, Sane Solutions, and a handful of others.

For a visual history of the marketplace, visit www.webanalyticsdemystified.com/history.asp, where the author maintains a PDF outlining the emergence of vendors and application functionality.

What Web Measurement Is Not

Web site measurement is a lot of valuable things, many of which you’ll read about in this book, but it is none of the following:

  • Usability testing

  • Performance monitoring

  • A replacement for smart, careful marketing

  • A proxy for intelligent, informed people

  • A silver bullet

The first two items—usability testing and performance monitoring—are closely related fields that can contribute data to and benefit from web measurement, but they are not web measurement. The third and fourth items—careful marketing and intelligent people—are not web measurement; they are the beneficiaries of web measurement data and applications. When you use the hacks in this book, you can do smarter and more careful marketing. The hacks will ideally be run by intelligent, informed data analysts, and these analysts will be smarter and better informed for having read this book. Silver bullets exist only in the movies.

Why Not “Web Analytics?”

The term web analytics, though commonly used, is slightly less accurate than the term web measurement. Here’s the distinction:

Web measurement

The act of gathering data and parsing it into a useful and human-readable form (e.g., reports)

Web analytics

The act of interpreting measurement reports so that organizations can take some action.

About the “Build Your Own” Hacks

Interspersed throughout this book you will find “Build Your Own Web Measurement Application” hacks. These hacks will show you how to write a simple program to collect web measurement data and analyze it, adding functionality with each subsequent hack based on the chapter’s theme. We included these hacks not because there is any pressing need for another measurement solution—although we do believe this to be the only open source web measurement application that uses JavaScript page tags—but because we believe the exercise to be instructional. Reading these hacks will help you better understand the more packaged (and pretty) applications.

Because of the recent explosion of the use of RSS to syndicate content and publish weblogs, we’ve also added two hacks showing you how to build your own RSS tracking application. The analyzer, based on a very simple JavaScript page tag, is written in Perl and is based loosely on the “Build Your Own Web Measurement Application” hacks, essentially demonstrating how to take a good idea and extend it. Because there are no known client-side applications for measuring activity for RSS feeds, our hope is that if you’re into that kind of thing, these hacks will be of interest to you.


The minimum requirements you should have, or be willing to learn, before attempting to build you own web measurement or RSS tracking application with our guidance are as follows:

  • Reasonably strong understanding of the Perl programming language, although we’ll make an effort to describe what’s going on in plain text, too.

  • Reasonably strong knowledge of how your filesystem works so that you’re able to correctly set file permissions.

  • Access to a Web server, and the ability to modify its configuration.

  • Basic knowledge of P3P, including knowing how to change document headers to return a compact P3P policy.

  • Patience and a desire to learn how web measurement applications all work at their core!

All of the files and code necessary to run the application described throughout the book are available at http://www.webanalyticsdemystified.com/byo and are freely available as open source code.

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