By Dave Collins
Founder, Shareware Promotions

I’ve now been speaking at various Shareware conferences for more years than I can count. Possibly because I think it now stands at a bewildering 11 or 12 conferences, and once I run out of fingers I’m lost.

One of the things that I’ve become well known for is repeatedly pushing the idea of log analysis, and the importance of using this information in all aspects of your business.

Yet to this day I’m frequently shocked by how many software developers fail to do so. Reasons (or excuses) include not knowing where to start, not having the right software, not having the time and so on.

I find it all quite bewildering. I always thought that developers would love to sink their teeth into some serious number crunching and data analysis, but apparently this is not always the case.

And despite my becoming ever more familiar with this reality, I’m constantly amazed by how many companies don’t even know the absolute basics: how many visitors they get on a typical day, which pages are popular, who sends them the most traffic and so on.

How do you run your business without keeping track of all this?

If you’re not on top of your website metrics, then you really need to read this article. If you’re already as familiar with your web logs as your own nose, then perhaps this article isn’t for you. But read on anyway.

Top Ten Lists seem to be the current vogue, so let’s start by looking at my top eight reasons for getting to grips with metrics.

(1) Improve the functionality of your website.

If you don’t know what your visitors are doing, which pages they go to, which links they click on and which pages they run away from, how on earth can you hope to have any impact on their behaviour?

(2) Sell more software.

Think of a supermarket. Do you think that the order of the products is random? That the layout of the store is completely haphazard? Or have you perhaps realized that large and successful stores carefully study how people behave and buy?

(3) Waste less.

There’s no such thing as a recycled site visitor. Once they leave they’re usually gone for good. If you work hard (or pay serious money) to bring fresh traffic to your website, it’s important to make sure that you retain as many of those visitors as possible.

(4) Achieve targets.

I’m hoping that every single person reading this article already has a business plan, and that it contains a little more detail than “to sell a lot more”. A business plan without goals isn’t worth the paper it is or isn’t written on. And unless you’re measuring traffic and conversions, you can’t possibly know whether or not those goals are being achieved.

(5) Work to a plan.

Here’s an amazing fact. Just like the supermarket, you actually have a fair amount of control over your website visitors. You get to decide what they see, what they click and where they go. Aside from occasional lunatic who’ll be randomly running up and down aisles with his eyes shut, most visitors can be streamlined and sent more or less exactly where you want. But if you don’t know what they’re already doing, this simply isn’t an option.

(6) Improve the customer experience.

It’s a little old fashioned, I know, but it’s generally a good idea to make sure that your website visitors walk away happy, satiated and with the solution that they were looking for. Short of forcing an exit poll on them when they leave (good luck with that) there is no way to achieve this without web log analysis.

(7) Feel the pulse.

I’m guessing that most people reading this article already have reasonably large websites. Unless you have one of those looooooong irritating single-page “websites” with yellow highlights, large fonts and boxed testimonials, in which case I’m not talking to you anyway. Ever.

Assuming that you have a large website, you probably have some pages that are more important than most, right? The main product pages, the really effective sales pitch and so on.

How do you know that people are seeing those pages? And how do you know that they’re spending more than five seconds before leaving?

(8) Identify trends and opportunities.

Your sales conform to trends. I guarantee it. Your website traffic will follow a seven-day cycle, and depending on what you’re selling, certain events will have a massive impact on your sales. National holidays, religious events, vacation dates, tax returns, the new school year, corporate tax deadlines and many more. All of them will to some extent affect your website traffic and sales.

If you don’t know about them they’ll pass by unnoticed. If you are aware of them and plan ahead, you’re ready to jump on a wave of opportunity.

If you’re still not convinced that you should be watching your web site stats like a hawk, then I give up. Stop reading, and take the day off. However, If you’ve decided that this time you really are going to get serious about your web logs, let’s consider three prerequisites, and one advisory note.

(i) Web logs.

In order to properly analyse your web logs, you need access to your raw server log files. Most decent web hosts will already provide this as standard, but some require that you activate this option from within the control panel.

Ideally, they should be separated into daily files and compressed. But the important thing is that you can access them, that they contain referral information, and that they exist.

If your web host doesn’t provide access to your server logs, then move hosts. I’m serious. I know how much of a nuisance this can be, but you have no choice. No logs means no data which means no hope.

(ii) Software.

Unless you’ve already explored the market, you may be amazed by how many different log analysis applications there are out there. What’s even more amazing is that if you run the same set of data through them all, none of them will agree with each other. And the differences between some of the reported “facts” can be staggering.

I myself have worked with more log analysis applications that I can begin to remember. I’d hazard a guess that my current desktop (which is less than a year old) has probably seen about six or seven different applications. So I’m in a good position to make recommendations.

My two favourites are Web Log Storming – http://www.datalandsoftware.com – and ClickTracks – http://www.clicktracks.com. These are two very different applications with very different prices, but both are excellent options to consider.

Web Log Storming is a reasonably fast log analysis tool. At first glance it looks like another variation of the standard idea, but it has one unique feature that blows away all the competition. It allows you to drill down in your data in real time. In other words, you can look at your referrals, drill down to see more on your Google traffic, and then drill down further to show the trends of Google traffic over time, which pages Google visitors are visiting and so on. Very nice.

If you don’t want to spend too much money, then this is a great means of delving into your logs without getting your hands too dirty. At $129 I rate this as an absolute bargain.

If you’re prepared to spend more money, then you might want to take a look at ClickTracks. The standard version of the software starts at $295, and the focus is on visitor behaviour. I have never come across an application that will help you understand what your visitors are doing so quickly. If you want to know the critical facts in the shortest amount of time, then ClickTracks is for you.

(iii) Time.

Every time I speak about log analysis, people come and tell me that they’ve been inspired enough to do something about it, and will be purchasing the software as soon as they get back. I know we’ve sent a fair number of people to both ClickTracks and Web Log Storming.

But all too often I see the same people twelve months later only to find out that even though they purchased the software, they just can’t find the time to use it!

To me this is as absurd as going on holiday, staying in a beautiful hotel, but not having time to leave the room and sample the restaurant, pool or beach.

You have to make the time. You can’t afford not to.

One final note. Most websites come with some sort of built-in free web logs. People sometimes ask me whether these are good enough. The nutshell answer is no, they’re not.

Most are far too basic, horribly inaccurate, and offer little more than a very hazy and blurred glimpse of the important information. Don’t waste your time with them. But do check that the stats aren’t open to the whole world just by entering yourdomain.com/stats in a browser. You won’t believe how many hosts include this as default. What a gift. Maybe they should just install spyware to share your email with the rest of the world, too?

Be seen, be sold.

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Dave Collins is the CEO of SharewarePromotions http://www.sharewarepromotions.com, a well established UK-based software marketing company. Dave specialises in Google AdWords, Log Analysis, Online Marketing and Delegation.

[Editor Note: Dave Collins, noted UK micro-ISV marketing expert, is sharing his considerable expertise on marketing, SEO, Google AdWords and more on Fridays at MyMicroISV. Thanks Dave!]

[tags] Dave Collins, micro-ISVs, server logs, log analysis, marketing[/tags]

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