StatCounter – great free web tracker (and why that’s important)

As Stephen pointed out, a little while ago this blog began launching annoying pop-up windows on visitors’ browsers. Unbeknowst to me, the free stats program that I had used had a little clause in its user agreement that stated at any time it could choose to use the tracking image and code embedded in your page to launch advertising. Whoa. Not nice. As soon as I realized what was going on, I ditched the tracking code and I believe the problem resolved.

So the downside of that (on top of tarnishing my reputation with annoying pop-up ads) is loosing a few years of stats, but the upside was finding a better solution. I like the web-based model, a simple program that I can check once in a while online and not have to worry about web log analysis. So off I went in search.

I knew a lot of people I read used Sitemeter so I quickly installed it. It worked fine, but the major drawback for me was that the free version did not aggregate the referrer stats, which is for me a primary reason for looking at these numbers in the first place.

I had been running Google Analytics for some time too in the background, mostly to get a feel for how it worked and if it was useful on other sites I deal with, so it didn’t require me to do anything other than see if the reports it produced were to my liking. I can see how Google Analytics could be really useful if you are using Adwords and are trying to analyze and improve how you drive traffic to your site, but I found the reports overkill for what I was wanting. So off to other options.

Which led me finally to StatCounter which is what I’ve settled on. Why? Well, the tracking code is invisible. It does a good job of giving me one click access to aggregated referrer data and gives the option of showing these by URL or Title. And it gives you some “Path” data. Nice. But the icing on the cake was its Recent Visitor map. Sure, this looks at first like the kind of thing you get with GVisit, but click on any of the map pointers and you realize that it is actually mashing up the IP geolocation data with the referrer info, session length and search term data. Sweet!

So lots of the function of these free web trackers can be relegated to a service like Technorati, and I know that is how some bloggers get some of this data. What’s interesting to me, though, is how little I’ve seen written on the use of web stats to build your social network. I see lots of people introducing blogging to newbies, but I also see lots of puzzlement on those newcomers faces about why blogging is essentially a social process, and how they can become embedded in existing networks. To me, web trackers (and services like Technorati) represent one side of the equation – how to find out who is reading you and how people are finding you. The other side seems obvious, and yet many fail to grasp – point to others, as they are looking at their referrer logs too! While some might look on this as evidence of the essential vanity of bloggers, I’d argue that it is instead a critical aspect to becoming a good (read “connected” or “social”) blogger and an emerging online ‘social’ skill.

So please, someone, tell me if I ever start popping up annoying ads on your browser again. I promise, this is something I would never do intentionally! Ick! Luckily, it seems like it’s as anathema to StatCounter’s creator as it is to me. – SWL