Thursday, March 22, 2007

Software

What's Best for Web Analytics: Client, Server or Hosted?

If you are looking for a Web analytics application, you'll find more than 100 vendors who are ready to jump in with statistical bells and whistles that measure your site's effectiveness. But before you get too impressed with the capabilities of any particular vendor, it can be particularly helpful to determine which type of analytics solution best suits your business.

For Web analytics, the three underlying differences are commonly referred to as server-side, client-side, and hosted solutions. Each, of course, has its pros and cons. And some enterprises choose to use a combination of these tool types to get the most comprehensive understanding of visitor behavior on their sites.

If it's up to you to choose a Web analytics solution for your business, you'll probably find it helpful to consider your budget and what your hosting company supports, as well as your appetite for statistics. Here are some basic concepts and inside tips from the experts to help you get started.

Surveying Server-Side

Server-side analytics tools are software applications installed on your Web site's server. These are usually pre-installed by your hosting company and accessed through your Web site's control panel. These tools make a record of each time a visitor pings your server and they tabulate data such as when visitors came through your virtual doors, where they came from, and what files they viewed.

Server-side analytics offer benefits such as anywhere access, high reliability and relatively low cost. Although the most basic server-side tools for Web analytics are typically free, enterprise-level analytics of course come with a higher price tag.

Another advantage of Web analytics that are based on the server side is privacy because the data is stored in-house. And, since they record pings, server-side analytics can offer better insights into site failures so you can fix issues like broken links. There are some downsides, though, such as portability. If you change hosting providers, you could lose your historical information unless you have kept a chronicle offline.

The Web analytics industry is moving from visits and pageviews to analytics that reflect more about what people are paying attention to, according to Ed Schipul, CEO of the Houston-based Schipul Web marketing company that created Tendenci -- a hosted application designed for management associations.

Schipul says companies need to record "events" that reflect actions. It may be, for example, that a visitor to your site first clicks to watch a video, then reads more about the product, and then finally makes contact. All of those activities may occur on the same page. Enterprise-grade server-side solutions can offer critical insights.

"The best analytics come from server-side smart systems built into your application itself so you can look at events that you view as desirable [and those] that reflect what the visitor is paying attention to," Schipul says. Enterprises, he adds, must have a server-side solution because the cost of even an expensive statistics package for an enterprise is nothing compared to the value of the business intelligence it gathers.

Calling on Client-Side Tools

The second type of solution for Web analytics is based on the client-side. These are desktop applications that are installed on your computer. With client-side software, you can call up the stored data quickly and even access the stats without an Internet connection. You can also keep your original log files and store them independently, offering you ultimate control of your data.

Unlike hosted solutions that offer monthly rates, client-side tools come at a premium and it's paid up front. Although you can get into a client-side tool for $500, you may pay well more than that for the most robust versions. Still, this can be an attractive option for enterprises because it frees them from any long-term entanglement with a host. Simply stated, your data won't be held hostage on the host's server. Client-side software also lets you manage multiple domains. For all their benefits, though, client-side tools could leave you empty handed if your system crashes and you don't have a back up.

For large organizations that are concerned with integration with existing enterprise applications, the long-term return on investment is often better with client-side Web analytics applications, according to Rod Radojevic, vice president of product management at Varicent Software, which offers Web analytics for sales performance management.

"One of the drivers for client-side Web analytics applications is the ability to leverage best practices in different areas of the organization," Radojevic said. "For example, companies that have mastered Web analytics for product profitability analysis, and other corporate performance management applications, are looking to extend Web analytics into other areas such as sales operations."

How About Hosted Analytics?

The third option is hosted solutions, or on-demand Web analytics solutions. These software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications are installed on your vendor's server. These tools require you to log into to the Web site of your Application Service Provider (ASP) in order to view and analyze your data, but that's about all you have to do. There's no downloading, no installation, no maintenance and no log parsing. That frees you up to spend more time analyzing the data.

Hosted applications come with monthly fees, which can be easier on the corporate budget, and you can access the data from any computer with an Internet connection. With page tagging -- capturing data only for the pages you want to track -- you can limit the amount of unnecessary data to wade though. Of course, that means if you forget to tag a special landing page, then you'll miss vital opportunities to track your promotion, unless you are using server-side analytics as a back up. Much the same, you won't necessarily know about site errors unless error pages and redirect pages have Javascript embedded in the tags.

"Hosted and software-as-a-service applications tend to be siloed and not always easily extendable," Radojevic argued. "On the other hand, hosted and software-as-a-service applications are a great fit for smaller organizations with limited IT resources. These organizations typically prefer fewer options."

Using Multiple Tools

At the end of the day, using multiple tools can be a key strategy for firms that want the best of all worlds. Using server-side tools offers a good baseline from which to draw error messages, spider activity and other metrics that rely specifically on tracking visitor pings to your server. Adding more robust client-side or hosted solutions on top of that can offer different angles on your data.

Schipul said his firm does have a few clients who run both an enterprise server-side application and a client-side application, because they believe the duplication adds value to the analytics equation. "While enterprise-level server-side analytics are more powerful, it definitely does help to have client-side analytics passing the data back to the server in an intelligent way," he explained. "Perhaps a video pings back to the server on completion. This would have to be client-side initiated, hence the need for both client and server side."

Now that you've got a handle on the pros and cons of the tool types, you can decide which vendor or vendors is right for you. Stay tuned to this column for a look at how to choose Web analytics vendors.

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