Why Your Website Statistics Reports Are Wrong, Part 3

Contributing Editor

web site statistics pie chartIn my previous posts, we examined the advantages and drawbacks of client-side and server-side data collation for website statistics. In the final post of this series, we’ll finish by looking at some other statistical anomalies.

Global Statistics

There are several online services which provide general website statistics reports. StatCounter is one of the more well-known: it analyses data from 3 million websites across the world to gather meaningful statistics. The information is useful, but you should be careful when using the data to make business decisions. Just remember:

There is no such thing as a generic website.

All websites experience different usage and demographic figures depending on their content and target audience. We can draw some obvious conclusions:

  • Mozilla.org is likely to have a higher than normal incidence of Firefox users.
  • Apple.com will experience higher Mac and Safari usage than average.
  • Opera.com will probably have more Opera users than most.
  • The Google Chrome Extensions page will be dominated by Google Chrome users.
  • A site written in Chinese will have a larger proportion of users from Asia.

For example, you might spend significant time and effort supporting IE6 because it has a global market share of 14%. However, if you’re running a technology-based website with primarily North American users, IE6 usage is likely to be less than 5%.

Good Statistics

It is possible to generate meaningful statistics from web applications which require user actions (form posts) and record data in a database or files.

For example, sites such as Flickr and YouTube will know how many users have registered and how many photographs/videos those individuals have uploaded. However, the majority of visitors are viewers who may not be making data changes; their statistics will be affected by the same drawbacks discussed for client-side and server-side data collation.

Are Website Statistics Useful?

Website statistics reports have evolved. They were originally used by web developers and administrators to assess server loads and performance bottlenecks. They may now be prettier and more accessible, but that does not mean they are correct. They can certainly be useful for assessing general trends, but all statistics are meaningless unless you understand how the data was collated and the caveats of the analysis methods used.

For example, you may discover your website has a low number of Opera users and decide to abandon testing in that browser. But what if your current site does not support Opera? The low figure might be because those users can’t view your home page.

Website reports may look impressive, but it’s easy to misinterpret the underlying data. I’d recommend obtaining reports from two or more separate sources and be wary about basing your marketing decisions solely on pretty line graphs or bar charts!

Do your clients understand their statistics? Have they ever made dangerous decisions based on the information?

Free book: Jump Start HTML5 Basics

Grab a free copy of one our latest ebooks! Packed with hints and tips on HTML5's most powerful new features.

  • Jobin P

    Google’s statistics would be useful..

  • W3bnewbie

    is there a way to detect what version of a browser your users are using as to optimise site…..

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    @W3bnewbie
    Most statistics systems provide browser usage reports. Server-side log analysers such as AWstats should give the most reliable figures.

    Going off-topic…
    That said, it’s always best to build and test your site in as many browsers as possible rather than concentrating on the browsers which are (currently) the most popular on your site. If it works in IE6+, Firefox, Opera, Safari and Chrome then you’ve covered the vast majority of users. W3C standards and progressive enhancement techniques will help you ensure the site works everywhere.

  • tz

    First, I think your 3 articles could have been consolidated into 1. There was no reason to break them up.
    Second, it would be more helpful to be specific in these articles, rather tha generalizing about statistics. I would suggest writing an article specifically about Google Analytics, since that is by by the most popular tracking method. Show its strengths and its weaknesses and then offer alternatives and their strengths over Google.

  • tim

    Is there a way to tell how many visitors have ad blockers turned on in their browser?

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    @tz
    Part 2 covers Google Analytics-like systems. All client-side collators work in the same way and have problems.

    @tim
    You can get some information about advert blockers, but you’ll probably need to write it yourself, e.g. put a graphic on your site called advert-banner.jpg using an img tag with a random argument (to prevent caching issues), then detect when the page is hit but the graphic isn’t.

  • essexboyracer

    I am glad it went to 3 pages rather than 1 as webstats demand attention, I agree that all too often they are misunderstood and people higher up on the food chain do not understand the technical nuances involved. Perhaps it may have been better to follow up with a discussion on analysing and presenting statistical trends, which is essentially what we are talking about in this article.

  • http://www.satya-weblog.com/ satya prakash

    Which one to believe most? my host cpanel awstat data, google analytics or others.
    awStats showing most visitors :)

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    @satya
    AWstats will capture users without JavaScript and bots (which Analytics can’t). But Analytics prevents many of the caching and proxy issues.

    The fact is: both are wrong!

  • http://www.satya-weblog.com/ satya prakash

    Thanks for info.
    but which is more accurate?

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    It’s absolutely impossible to tell. The most accurate report may be Analytics for some sites but AWstats for others. Even then, the best will change sporadically!

    My advice: don’t compare statistics. Even ones analysing the same data won’t necessarily match.

  • http://www.satya-weblog.com/ satya prakash

    @Craig Buckler
    Don’t u sleep!
    It is 1.27 AM in your timeline.
    many Thanks for reply.

  • http://www.optimalworks.net/ Craig Buckler

    @satya
    I’m totally dedicated.

    (Oh and I’m not in Australia, either. I’m based in the UK. We have proper time over here and it’s a far more respectable 4pm!)

  • http://www.satya-weblog.com/ satya prakash

    ok. It is sitepoint time zone which confused me.

  • http://www.calcResult.co.uk omnicity

    The number one rule to live by (and which was only obliquely mentioned in the article {which would have been much better on a single page}) is that you should never compare stats from one package with those of another package – only ever compare the same report over different time periods.