Know your audience

by Joe Gillespie — Dec 1, 2003

When you want to know what browsers people are using these days, there are several sites that offer monthly statistics for surfing trends. One of the best known is TheCounter.com. The stats they give are based upon their own server logs and those of their customers so don't take them as being anything other than that.

Browser News hedges the bets by giving stats from four different sources – and they differ quite considerably. They also go to great lengths to point out that no single source of statistics can be considered meaningful and warn 'use statistics with extreme caution', which is very sound advice.

Google provides a browser stats graph based upon people who used their search engine over the previous few years, which must cover just about everybody, but they are careful not to be too specific and the graph only provides a rough overall picture. Interesting though!

The only stats that really matter are those from your own site visitors. At the lower end of the market, ISPs don't provide any logs, which means you have to use page counters. Some page counters can be set to be invisible on the page and only show in the source code.

A step up from that, the ISP gives you access to the raw log data and it's up to you to make sense of it – which isn't easy. Raw server logs generally record every 'hit' which means that if you have a page with six rollover GIF buttons, an external style sheet and JavaScript file, that will give you one hit for the page request, six for the rollover 'off' buttons, six for the rollover 'over' buttons, one for the style sheet and one for the JavaScript file making fifteen hits total.

Ideally, your server logs should be 'parsed' by some log analysis software such as Analog or Webalizer. These break down the raw data into more human readable forms.

I use Webalizer, which is installed on the server. When I log into it from my browser, it gives a summary graph showing the number of unique visitors – which is the most meaningful figure, the total number of pages visited and that less-than-useful, hit count of each and every object requested. There is also a count of the kilobytes of data served up which is useful if you have bandwidth limits.

Out of interest, WPDFD had its most successful month ever in October with 134682 unique visitors reading 345534 pages. The Webalizer report shows me that the editorial page had the highest percentage of visitors (which prompted this month's 'inside-out' format). It also shows where the hits come from, both the part of the World and the sites that referred them.

Unfortunately, browser stats are not very reliable at the best of times because some browsers are deliberately supplying 'wrong user agent information. For instance, my bank only allows me to log-in if I'm using IE or Netscape 4.x. If I use Safari, the bank's website puts up an alert message saying 'unsupported browser!' and blocks further access. If I go into the normally hidden 'Debug' menu, I can set Safari to pretend to be Explorer and send an IE 5.2 user agent. Then the bank's site lets me in. Opera also allows the user agent to be changed in its preferences. Of course, this means that Safari and Opera get a raw deal when it comes to browser stats. They just don't get noticed.

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