Tools For Monitoring Your Web Site's Traffic

When I first got online a little more than a decade ago, it didn't take much time for me to decide that I wanted--no, needed--a web site. And once I had one, meek though it was, I just had to know how many people were visiting my little corner of the web. Curiosity about who's checking out your hard work is only natural, but these days the options for quantifying web site's visitors are much more plentiful and sophisticated.
Published: Mar 18, 2008
Author: Jordan Running

How Traffic Monitors Work

Third-party statistics-collecting services all work in basically the same way: You edit your web site to add a small snippet of code they provide. Then, when someone visits your site, the code causes the visitor's web browser to load a file--usually some JavaScript code--from the traffic-measuring service's web site. When this happens, it allows the third-party server to discover some information about the visitor: what their IP address is (which also provides a general idea of their geographic location), what kind of web browser they use and its capabilities, what site they came from (called the referrer), and so on. This information is put into a database and then aggregated into reports, charts, and maps to give you the who, when, and why of your web site traffic.

It's that last part that's the most relevant to which traffic-monitoring service you choose. While they all collect basically the same information, they present it in different ways that might be more or less useful to you. Fortunately, traffic-monitoring services usually don't interfere with each other, so it's possible to put more than one on your site at the same time and then evaluate how each of them meet your needs before deciding which one--or ones--to keep. All of the services below have free offerings (but some also offer upgraded accounts for the site).

Site Meter

Site MeterSite Meter's interface has few frills, but it does feature good data and useful reports. Its dashboard shows you basic stats about visits and pageviews, and on the left you can drill down to information about your recent visitors and get traffic graphs for the last week, month, or year. You'll see referrals, geographic locations, and entry and exit pages. It'll also show you "visit depth," i.e. how many pages on your site people viewed, as well as operating system, browser, language, and more. In addition to historic data, Site Meter will also show you "Who's On," i.e. visitors who have accessed your site in the last 15 minutes, plus traffic predictions based on your past traffic, which is useful if you're trying to hit a specific goal.

Site Meter is free, but the code snippet you insert in your site requires that a small Site Meter image be displayed on your site, though you can stick it down in a corner few people are likely to see. Site Meter Premium, which starts at $6.95 per month (and goes up for sites with lots of traffic), has an "invisible" option and also adds features like referral and search engine ranking and moving average graphs.

Site Meter has a live demo that I recommend checking out to get a feel for the service.

Google Analytics

Google AnalyticsGoogle Analytics is the fruit of acquisitions Google made in 2005 and 2006, and has the most visually appealing interface of all the free traffic measuring services. It also has some very serious features for those looking to analyze their traffic and maximize pageviews and ad revenue. Its home page, or Dashboard, gives you a concise overview of your site's traffic trends, and can be customized to show only the information you're most interested in.

The rest of the site is neatly organized into four sections: Visitors, Traffic Sources, Content, and Goals. Visitors, of course tells you about the people who visit their sites: Where they come from, what kind of web browser they use, and so on. Traffic Sources tells you what sites are sending visitors to yours, and if they come via search engines, what keywords attracted them. Content shows what pages on your site attract the most visitors, including landing pages and exit pages. It also has a handy Site Overlay view, which shows your site with with boxes next to each link that show what portion of your visitors are clicking on which links. Finally, Goals helps you track visitors achieving "business objectives," e.g. clicking on certain links, downloading software, registering for an account.

As that last sentence suggests, Google Analytics is not exactly built for the casual user, and as a result has a bit of a learning curve. If you just want to see how many people visit your personal web site, it might not be the right service for you. If you want to deeply analyze your traffic and figure out how to get more, more, more, though, Analytics is possibly the best free traffic measurement service available, and unlike Site Meter is "invisible," meaning you don't have to place an image on your site that's visible to visitors.


StatCounterStatCounter occupies a middle ground between Site Meter and Google Analytics. Its interface is simple and similar to Site Meter's, but it offers a bit more depth in some areas, including keyword analysis for search engine traffic, "Visitor Paths" that show a user's path through your site, and "Search Engine Wars" that shows which search engines visitors use to get to your site. One thing StatCounter offers that other services don't is log files in CSV or Excel format that you can download and perform your own analysis on. Like Site Meter, StatCounter offers upgraded services for a fee, which will give you features like daily email reports and custom logo branding. The fee starts at $9.00 per month and goes up for sites with lots of traffic.

StatCounter also has a live demo that you can take for a test drive.


MintMint is not free--it has a one-time price tag of $30 per site--but it has a very attractive interface and a large following. It's a PHP application that you have to install on your web server. One of Mint's biggest pluses is that it's extensible, meaning third-party developers can--and do--create add-on modules, called "Pepper," that add new functionality. But even without any Pepper, Mint has tons of features and if you can squeeze $30 out of your budget it's well worth taking a look at the live demo of Mint.


FeedBurnerRSS feeds--like the kind blogs and podcasts generate--are a niche in traffic monitoring that is often overlooked. FeedBurner attempts to fill that niche. If you sign up for a FeedBurner account it will take over the hosting of your RSS feed and allow you to track how many people are subscribed to your feeds (it supports an unlimited number of feeds) and which items they're most interested in. It also has a number of tools for increasing the usefulness and, indeed, profitability of your feeds. I won't go into all of FeedBurner's features here, but if you're the kind of person who's interested in feed subscribers then you're the kind of person who ought to check out FeedBurner. It works with any blogging service and platform that produces RSS feeds, and offers tighter integration with some.

About Jordan Running

Blogger since 1999, Jordan Running went pro in 2005 and never looked back. Sometimes programmer, occasional photographer, and serial tinkerer, he decided to to switch to Linux in 2001 but just hasn't quite gotten around to it yet.

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