Think back to the web’s early days, and you'll probably remember how websites would display the number of visits with counters. It was simple, but not very useful.
On the backend, though, servers were writing every visit and file request to a log file. Server scripts like AWStats and Urchin took this data and turned it into what we now call visitor statistics. Google eventually bought Urchin and turned it into Google Analytics, the de facto tool web owners use today. Why is it so popular?
People love free
Yes, Google Analytics is technically free. But for any mortal who’s needed to actually make sense of all the data it provides, Google Analytics quickly becomes a time suck, leaving you with, at best, a migraine onset and, at worst, felonious thoughts. View job boards and you’ll even find open positions for Google Analytics specialists—that's how much people don't want to wade into the data themselves.
Free cuts both ways
If we place Google Analytics tracking code on a website, we’re giving Google information about visitors to our site—for free. Google is able to see how people move across the web, what they look at, what they’re interested in, and even where they are, at least to the specificity of an IP address. This all-encompassing tracking is the reason that ads for the wart remover you were researching yesterday now chase you across the web on site after site.
Thankfully, there are numerous alternatives that make viewing visitor statistics easy while also respecting the privacy of your visitors. Unfortunately, most of them are geared toward websites that receive hundreds of thousands of visitors per month, week or even day. In other words, not the kind of clients we serve. Convincing our clients to pay hundreds of dollars per month for these services is difficult, especially when Google Analytics is available for “free.”
Our go-to alternative has long been Mint, by Shaun Inman. The one-screen interface is concise, sharp, customizable, and just what our clients need. If you’re a current Copy & Design client, you may even be still using Mint. Unfortunately, Mint is no longer for sale, no longer supported, and doesn’t work with the latest versions of server software that are needed to build modern sites. Thankfully, we've come across an alternative that delivers much of what there was to like about Mint: an easy-to-use interface, clean design, and just the statistics that are important to the majority of our clients.
This service, Gauges, is only $6/month for up to 100,000 page views a month, a steal for never having to stare at Google Analytics again. It’s become our go-to visitor statistics solution. That said, if you’re doing heavy advertising with Google or need to track campaigns and other online efforts, then Google Analytics may prove more useful. But most of our clients don’t fall into that category. What they want to know is: Did my blog post get seen? Did my Facebook ad campaign bring an increase in traffic to my target page?
Below are just a few of the views Gauges provides. We’ll start with the Overview which displays how many people have visited your site over time. All of these stats are available to Google Analytics users as well, but not in such an easy-to-use format.
Now it’s time to whittle down those visitor numbers to what is actually relevant to you and your site. For that, we pull up geolocation information. As you can see below, we now have the ability to see which countries visitors are coming from, as well as have an opportunity to drill down to the state or region-level. This is especially invaluable for businesses that only serve a regional market.
Another valuable view is to look at referring sites. Here we can see how people are reaching you through links and social media services.
Whether you use Google Analytics, Gauges, or any other analytics application, check in periodically to see how well your site is performing. Good questions to ask yourself are:
- Are the most important pages on my site getting visits?
- Am I seeing visits from an unexpected service or site that I might want to cultivate a better relationship with?
- Is my current website pulling in the kind of visits my business needs?
Visitor statistics, coupled with questions like these, can help you make rational decisions about how to invest in improving your website, your content, your advertising efforts, and your social media presence. Which stats service you use is up to you. Pick one that makes it easy to get the information you need, quickly. For us, that service is now Gauges.