Getting the most out of your server logs will take more than a college intern! You’re going to need some tools. Be forewarned: There are many of them and they’re not all readily comparable. Is a log-analysis-only tool enough for your needs? The following are a few things to consider.
Who Is the Software for?
Some tools are designed to help the Webmaster keep track of the raw numbers. These are good if you are worried about the strain placed on your server—sort of like worrying about the torque on your transmission linkage and the amount of horsepower your car produces. But a marketing manager is more interested in the miles per gallon and is looking for assurances that the car is not overheating and is headed in the right direction.
As you climb up the scale of cost for these packages, you’ll find that the free ones will do some of the grunt work like the basic elimination of extraneous data, but the more expensive ones are more focused on delivering useful, business-oriented information. Decide what you want to know before digging into the specifications lists for these products or you’ll be perpetually confused.
The more powerful the tool, the more you’ll be able to create reports that are tailored to your needs. Generic reports are good as far as they go, and the more types of reports you can get, the more you’ll find specific ones that are the most useful. But the real power of a superior piece of software shows up in your ability to create reports that specifically address your industry’s needs, your Web site’s peculiarities, and your promotional campaign nuances.
One of the major drawbacks with log files is that they become more useful over time. The longer you keep them, the more you can refer back to historical data to get a bigger picture of traffic trends on your site. The downside is that log files are large and storing them is not a simple matter.
The better analysis tools also offer compression and archiving to shrink the size of the files and classify them for future use.
A report is a report is a report. Right? Not so. Some tools kick out reports that are merely rows of numbers. Most will draw charts and graphs. The better ones will do both, so that you can put the resulting data into other data visualization tools for even more informative manipulation. The upper-end tools let you compare month over month and integrate back-end data into your reports for a view of your ebusiness. Top-of-the-line tools give you reports that include non-Web data for a view of your business.
Just how big is your site anyway? Just how much data are you recording in your logs? How many days are you going to add to your data before crunching some numbers? When you add it all up, we’re talking about a lot of information, and that means software that’s up to the task. The major players in the Web analytics marketplace can almost certainly handle your needs (almost certainly), but when you’re looking at some of the free stuff that’s out there, ask the scalability question before getting in too deep.
You’re familiar with the idea of having your ad serving process and procedures audited, but don’t forget that they can only do the job if they get the right data. Some auditing services need to see specific file types with specific data sets to render their unbiased certification. If you’re going to sell ad space on your site, be sure the output from your metrics tools is compatible with your auditor’s input requirements.
The biggest difference between getting your log analysis reports right away and getting them next week will be the power of the computer you use. But the log analysis tool vendors know faster reporting is a competitive edge. The better tools use special indexing techniques to perform their functions faster.
When it’s time to compare the speed of different tools under consideration, be sure to try them out with your data, on your machine, in your office. This combination of factors has a large impact on how well each software package will operate, and you owe it to yourself to test them all on an even playing field.
Now let’s run through the range of analysis tools to give you a feel for the landscape. We’ll start with the basics after a few words of warning.