Web log analysis: Myths, Truths and Tips
John Marshall

Since servers started collecting data, web marketers have been right there on their heels. Much like gathering demographic reports from television and print campaigns, marketers wait next to the printer, getting the latest data from their website hot off the press. Standing, looking over the shoulder of the tech guy, web marketers attempt to glean information from a static stream of numbers and charts.

There are many myths about log file analysis. But by tweaking both the software and the mindset of the software's user, getting the most out of log files can become a more efficient, effective process. The following myths and tips highlight the most common misconceptions and offer suggestions on making things work better:

Web log analysis myths and tips:

Myth: It takes a long time to analyze website data. Log files are so large and the software needs to go back and forth to the server to gather all the information it needs.

Tip: The truth is, many web log analysis packages are slowed down by something called Reverse DNS lookups. The Reverse DNS function is what generates the information on visitors' geographic location, e.g. whether a person's coming from a .fr (France), .jp (Japan) or .de (Germany) address. Unfortunately, that geographic information is typically so unreliable that it's not worth having. Switch off the Reverse DNS function in your log analysis software to speed up the process.

Myth: The more reports, the better. Web log analysis software typically offers a slew of reports. Everything from 404 errors to browser type, screen resolution and top-level referrers are available, along with more detailed information like length of time to a particular page, numbers of users who exited from a particular page, and comparisons of campaigns.

Tip: Not every report is of interest in every case. Instead of looking at the mass of reports every time, utilize the filters that are typically built into the software to segregate the data in which you have an interest. By filtering results, web marketers avoid becoming overwhelmed by the data that doesn't matter, and are instead able to focus on the task at hand--understanding how visitors interact with their web site.

Myth: Web log analysis software needs to work with an external database to be effective, and because of the tedious nature of databases, the software shouldn't be installed by anyone without an IT certification.

Tip: External databases seem innocuous, but tend to be overkill for many websites. Additionally, external databases are more complex to implement and maintain, driving up both time and monetary requirements. Unless you're dealing with a hugely complex site, avoid the database-and by virtue, avoid calling in the IT cavalry.

Myth: Web marketers should be highly interested in what visitors are doing in real time. Getting an immediate view of web site activity is beneficial.

Tip: Don't succumb to voyeurism. Real time information is fascinating, but distracting. Web marketers' time will be better spent drawing conclusions at the end of a set period of time, whether that is half a day, a day, a week or a month. Which would give web marketers a better idea of the life of an elephant living in the zoo? Watching the elephant move around for five minutes or reviewing a summary of his actions for the entire day? Look at the data on a regular schedule, but don't get make the mistake of confusing 'interesting' and 'useful'. Beyond it being a waste of time, these gimmicks and gewgaws also consume CPU bandwidth.

As in many other aspects of life, being able to separate the myths from the truths is important to success. By following the tips mentioned above, web marketers will be better able to understand visitor interaction on their website.

Former Netscaper John Marshall is CEO of ClickTracks, developers of innovative web metrics software ClickTracks Analyzer. John can be contacted at jmarshall@clicktracks.com or by visiting www.clicktracks.com. ClickTracks Analyzer recently beat both WebTrends and SiteCatalyst in ClickZ's 2003 Marketing Excellence Awards in the 'Best Web Site Analytics' category.