Understanding Website Analytics – How Visitors are Counted

Why do Compete, AWStats and Google Analytics all report different web analytics?

Your website analytics package should be able to tell you about your site traffic, how pages are performing, and what type of audience your site attracts. The three major analytics products: AWStats, Google Analytics and Compete are all free ways to look at your traffic.

But why is it that these products (and others like them) all report numbers differently?

Theoretically, they should be identical, but their results are all different because of the way they collect their data. So where do these website analytics packages get their numbers? The difference is between counting and sampling.

Compete: Compete collects its results based on sampling the daily web usage of more than two million Compete members who have downloaded their toolbar or browser plugin. The results, however, are US only. It’s good to keep track of what Compete is saying about your site because ad agencies are likely to use the site as a source for your traffic numbers. If you’re ad-driven, be prepared to explain the difference between Compete’s numbers and your own internal numbers.

Issues: Compete isn’t really a website analytics package, but it does provide us with a “guesstimate” of website statistics for sites we otherwise wouldn’t have access to. It’s certainly not a replacement for our internal website analytics.

AWStats: AWStats is weblog based. It uses log files on the webserver to record every transaction on your website. It was built for network administrators, not web marketers or business owners, so it’s not completely straightforward but can provide very in-depth user data and unlike Google Analytics, tracks spider behavior.

For any users that have file-caching enabled in their browser (not uncommon), a page that has been already served to the user in a previous session won’t be counted in AWStats because they will be viewing a local copy on their machine.

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Google Analytics: Google Analytics is cookie-based and relies on page-tagging by placing JavaScript on every page of your website to let a third-party server know when the page has been rendered by a browser. Unlike AWStats, Google Analytics was built for providing feedback on business performance, so it acts more like a tool for measuring your business, not just your website performance.

Issues: The 5% of users worldwide who have disabled JavaScript in their browsers won’t be counted in Google Analytics. And while Google Analytics is cookie-based, without cookies, it counts visits by IP address. This is where you need to be careful to see when an IP address is set to expire on your site. If, say, it expires after an hour, users will be counted as “new” every hour that they visit.

So which should you use? We’d recommend using both Google Analytics and AWStats internally to compliment each other. Most new website analytics packages are going the page-tagging route of Google Analytics, but AWStats may provide you with more in-depth knowledge of your user base. There will likely be a point where you no longer need AWStats, but it’s good to have both in the meantime.

If we had to choose just one, we’d go with Google Analytics. It has an ever-growing package of features and a Google Analytics Help Forum that is great at answering questions you have. It also plugs into other great Google tools like AdSense and Website Optimizer.

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