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Thursday, June 24, 2010

Getting to know you, getting to know all about you

Hardly anybody who runs a website doesn't have some way of seeing how many people are coming to visit their site, when, and roughly from where. And if a visitor comes to the site from a search engine, it's nice to know what they were searching for that led them there.

When I started this blog, going on eight years ago, there were only a couple of options to get that kind of information, and I chose a free service called SiteMeter, which was the coin of the realm at the time. It tracks a lot of what's going on on your site for you, and even gives you a little icon thingie you can post on your page that shows how many "unique" visitors you've had since you started counting:

Since those early days, the number of outfits providing free and pay "analytics" for websites has multiplied quite a bit. About two years ago, I stumbled upon a new service called Clicky, which is based here in Portland. Clicky keeps track of visitors in a more detailed way than most of its competitors, and it gets the data to its clients immediately -- as in, within a second or two of each "hit" to the site. It's also got a positively addictive feature called "Spy," which lets the web site operator (that's me) watch the comings and goings to and from his or her site, from around the globe, in real time.

If you're a new blogger with just one site and not that much traffic, you can get a free Clicky account that will more than get you started. But if you've got multiple sites or if, like this blog, you get more than 3,000 page views a day, you've got to pay for your Clicky.

O.k., boo, I know. But one really attractive aspect of my signup with these guys was that they were willing to dicker! I made my case for a discount, and they gave it to me. And as I recently headed into my third year with them, we made an even sweeter deal from my standpoint: I'd write them up on the blog -- say whatever I wanted, no guarantees -- in exchange for a year of free "Pro" service. That level gets me all the bells and whistles, including "Spy."

I drove down to Clicky headquarters in deep southeast and had a sit-down with the Clicky staff. Turns out it's two nice guys with a great idea, tech savvy, and apparently, a good head for business:

Sean and Noah.

Their first venture was a site called NowTowns, centered around goings-on in Corvallis, Albany, and Eugene. It hasn't been a huge hit, for various reasons, but one good byproduct was the programming they had created to keep track of who was coming to the site, how long they were staying, what they were looking at, and so forth. It dawned on the two of them that they could sell the same service to clients, and give the other players in the field a run for their money. Today they say they've got more than 225,000 websites under constant watch, and a healthy number of those are paying customers. They're not getting rich off Clicky (yet, anyway), but they seem to be making a decent go of it.

Clicky's got a whole bunch of heavy-duty servers in a secure data center in Corvallis. It's fairly easy to run them by remote control on a laptop, but if something goes on the blink hardware-wise -- I've never experienced it, but it does happen -- they've got to call down there to an ally, or get on I-5 themselves and go fix it. They take matters seriously, and boast that customer service is their calling card.

It's a heck of a lot friendlier than dealing with Google, that's for sure. And if you're worried about some cut-throat weasels selling your information or using it for other nefarious purposes, it's hard to see a mean corporate streak in either of the two Clicky guys.

I asked them, So how does the thing work? They patiently explained to my ignorant ears that Clicky clients (like me) put some code on their web pages that tells every visitor's browser to send a signal out to the Clicky server. The Clicky server takes that signal, analyzes it, and makes the data about it available to the website operator (like me) to see.

One of the things Clicky does that's helpful is translate visitor's IP addresses into host names. This makes it easy for the website operator to see whose internet service was being used by the visitor, which often says a lot about who the visitor might be. Here's where our readers were coming from late yesterday afternoon:

Oh yeah -- I see you! I remember when Mayor Creepy was in Belgium, and he showed up on Clicky almost immediately upon his arrival. Then for a while we were getting hits from Morocco:

In any event, if you're shopping for a web traffic tracking service, you might want to give the guys at Clicky a look. Especially if you're a Portlander who's into the whole "buy local" thing, here's your chance.

You can tell them Bojack sent you. They could probably figure that out on their own if they tried, but they don't pry.

Comments (9)

Excellent information. I may have to look these two guys up. Thanks Jack.

A good piece Jack. A lot of people have no idea how a web site works and how much data a website operator can glean. Our local paper is staffed by a bunch of noobies. Under their typical camouflage of arrogance they did some In depth stories on an outside web server. And left the hit counter on the page, without the need for a pass word. It was a hoot to use it to find out when, who and how often they checked on the site. by the IP address and things such as monitor size, Operating system and such, you could figure out if it was a reporter, editor or the big boss in Seattle that was reading the very nasty comments we were leaving for them.

Oh the tales I could tell you...

Indeed, these two crafty young men may be altar boys. I imagine the likes of Bill Gates and Al Gore were at one time as well.

Presumably "Clicky" data has commercial value for a website vis-a-vis advertising rates. Readership (viewership) data has always been relevant to the publishing, media, advertising and marketing industries. It determines content and benchmarks what the masses wish to look at. But I suspect it's basically about pricing the advertising market.

More concretely, I think what you are saying is that when I look at an item at bojack.org, a little piece of SPYWARE you put into the item is sending a message about me & the page I'm looking at to a data bank somewhere. Such data mining is ingenious and analogous to putting a little eavesdropping "bug" in my head ... a rudimentary version of thought-tapping (as in phone-tapping).

If every web site I visit has similar SPYWARE that collates & correlates data on me, I presume at some time in the future it could all be amalgamated & integrated. I, we all all, would then be classified into groups according to our proclivities, tastes, tendencies, preferences, biases and attitudes. What a commercial gold mine that would be.

I occasionally sweep my computer of SPYWARE -- mostly just to get the speed back up. It is astonishing the amount of this stuff that accumulates.

For site owners, I suppose there is a sort of ethical quandary regarding disclosure. Ought one put a notice on each page: "This site automatically sends information about each page you view to a centralized data analysis center. At present, it is owned by a small private vendor we tend to trust. In the future, the data may be a financial asset, and could be purchased by other entities and may or may not be used for undisclosed purposes of an unknown nature."

Even the longest journey begins with one step.

Peucellier, that was a fascinating spew from under your tinfoil hat. Do a bit more research before you play the spyware angle.
look into why tech savvy people use the add ons available in FireFox. When your browser "telephones" a website, it has to tell it where to send (return address) what YOU are asking for and how YOU want it packaged. And if YOU allow "cookies" of information place on your hard drive, YOU are inviting them to do whatever data mining they choose.

If every web site I visit has similar SPYWARE

I don't know if I'd call it spyware. My web page instructs your browser to send a message to Clicky. It doesn't install anything on your computer. And I'm sure there must be a way for you to configure your browser to block these instructions from being carried out. If you're that worried about it, that would be something you'd want to learn how to do.

Jack, I know you want be technical but leave that for people who don't have JD's. ;-)(It would be like me trying to talk about tax code, I can talk about it just a bit but I'd look stupid doing it in public places where lawyer and accountants hang out.) No current generally available browsers have the capabilities you describe. That would various kinds of add-on security software or firewalls or....

Interesting perspective, Jack. I'll look at it but am not sure that I see any great benefit to deployment. I get similar material already, telling me where a visitor came from, whether they simply hit the site and left, or stayed and read content. I was bothered a couple of times by a recurrent troll, but it was easy enough to track him back to his Midwest college dorm and send a personal greeting.

But as I trust your judgement for the most part (that whole John Edwards thing is something I consider a fluke), I'll look at them. Thanks for the heads-up.

No current generally available browsers have the capabilities you describe.

Thanks for your pompous blast, but Clicky gets the information from the user's computer, not from my server. There are a few lines of Javascript code (and an image code) on my pages that the viewer's browser reads, which causes the viewer's browser to interact with the Clicky server. That's where Clicky gets the data from.

With out belaboring to much, simply right click on this web page and left click on "view page source."
Notice all the "HTTP://" links. That is YOUR computer asking for information. Scroll down to the bottom and see all the HTTP// links to other sites.

Some web pages are an almost total "on the fly" content and YOUR computer is sending all kinds of information out to get your messaging, streaming audio and video and all the social networking add ons.
YOUR computer has to send out all kinds of information so the web servers know what YOU want and how to send it.

Basically they ALL keep a log of that information for various reasons.

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