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VisiStat 4

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If you use a Web site to attract customers, sell products or services, or make money from advertising, you need to know as much as possible about how people are using your site so you can fine-tune it to meet their needs. How do users find your site? Which pages are most (and least) popular? What are the times and days when your site gets the most traffic? Web analytics software answers questions like these by tracking numerous pieces of data about your site and then summarizing what you need to know. VisiStat, a service that offers advanced Web analytics without requiring you to install any software, provides detailed insight into your users’ behavior without requiring any significant technical skills.

After signing up for a VisiStat account, you get a short snippet of JavaScript code that you paste into each Web page you want to track. (If your site uses templates, you can paste the code into a header or footer file, thereby adding it to all of your pages at once.) Every time visitors load a page with your code on it, their Web browser sends information to VisiStat’s servers. Although this process generally works seamlessly and invisibly, there are a few small gotchas. First, this sort of tracking won’t work when users have turned off JavaScript in their browser (or when using older browsers without JavaScript support). Second, the code—which the VisiStat site repeatedly warns you not to change in any way—includes uppercase HTML tags, which will prevent sites written in XHTML from validating (conforming to some Web standards). VisiStat says that you can change the case of the tags manually to avoid this problem, and the company is considering switching to lowercase tags in the future. And, if you use iWeb to create your sites, you won’t be able to insert the code unless you open up your pages in a separate text editor—but you may have to do this every time you change a page in iWeb, because iWeb is likely to write over all your manual changes.

Once you’ve inserted the code, VisiStat begins tracking your site immediately. You can log in to view your statistics on VisiStat’s Web site at any time, and you can optionally receive daily traffic summaries by e-mail. As with most analytics programs, VisiStat can show you, for the time period of your choice, things like the most popular pages (ranked by number of page views); referrer information (which site each visitor came from to reach yours); geographical information (in which city each visitor is located); which browsers and operating systems your visitors use; and the terms people typed into search engines to find your site. VisiStat displays the information in an unusually clear way; instead of providing a dense and cluttered tabular view of every little statistic, it shows tidy and highly graphical views that highlight the most useful pieces of data. (Most VisiStat reports can also be saved as Excel spreadsheets.) The Web site is well organized and easy to navigate.

VisiStat has numerous little touches that are impressive for their cleverness, even if some of them have limited practical value. For example, it can show you a real-time list of visitors at your site, including each person’s location and what page they’re looking at right now. You can even display a tiny window, called StatCaster, that gives you a live update of your site’s daily page views and the location of the most recent visitor—and you can keep this window open all the time, even when you’re not logged in to the VisiStat site. For additional monthly fees, VisiStat can monitor your server and send you an e-mail or text message if it stops responding. Other services enable you to track the effectiveness of marketing campaigns, including banner ads, e-mail marketing, and press releases.

Unlike analytics programs that read logs generated directly by your Web server, VisiStat is unable to provide information on the sizes of downloaded files or bandwidth usage; this is also true of the free Google Analytics service, which relies on the same technique. A few features I hoped to see, however, were missing or incomplete. For example, the list of your most popular pages shows their URLs, and though you can give each URL a more-readable name, I would have preferred that VisiStat simply display the pages’

tags. Although it can distinguish page views from unique visitors, VisiStat doesn’t provide a count of visits (that is, sessions in which one visitor views multiple pages); a single person may visit your site more than once in a given time period. Nor does VisiStat calculate the length of each visit or the average number of pages viewed per visitor, two useful statistics reported by most other analytics programs. I would also like to see historical tracking of new versus returning visitors, as well as the average time between visits for a given visitor.

Macworld’s buying advice

What VisiStat does, it does very well—with almost no effort on the user’s part. However, it’s competing against not only Google Analytics but other free or low-cost software you can run on most Web servers, such as Analog and Summary. Considering VisiStat’s price, I expected a somewhat greater range of statistics. Still, if you want absolute simplicity in Web analytics—and can live without the details VisiStat is missing—you’d be hard-pressed to find a more elegant tool.

[ Joe Kissell is the senior editor of TidBITS and has written numerous e-books about Mac OS X. ]

One of VisiStat’s many reports shows you the most popular search terms that have been used to find your site for each major search engine.
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