Mon, 18 October 2010

“Would you like us to collect some statistics of your website traffic?” said Google Analytics.
“Sure,” I answered. “What kind of data can you give me?”
“We can generate tons of data. Would you like to see charts or do you prefer tables?”
“Can I have both?”
“Of course, no problem. We’ll throw so much data your way, you won’t know what to do with it.”
“Wow, great. I’d like that.”

Ever since I’ve started Blue Crowbar in 2007, I’ve used Google Analytics to get an idea of how many times my website is visited, where visitors come from, what keywords they used to find me in their favorite search engine, etc. And until recently, I was very happy with what I had. I mean, I like statistics, and Google is offering me tons of it. And it’s free. What’s not to like?

A few days ago, I came across Mint, a self-hosted web site analytics tool with a clear focus on simplicity. I bought a license (it’s only $30) and installed it on my server to see what it could do for me. After just a few hours of collecting data, I realized that it was exactly what I needed. Even with the default installation (it has plugins too; more about that later), I started learning new things about my site. Among others, it answered my two main questions:

Are people who find my site on Google finding the information that they’re looking for?

I started thinking about this when, about three months ago now, I took two of my existing products, iPhoto2Twitter and Aperture2Twitter, and merged them into one product with a new name: TwitExport. On August 31, Twitter pulled the plug on basic authentication, so my old products stopped working and I started seeing an increased number of searches for the old product names. What Google Analytics didn’t show me is whether these people ended up on the new product page or on the new FAQ page if they were trying to find out why the old products stopped working. With a few clicks, you can drill down in GA’s data and figure out the landing page for certain keywords and you can add the resulting table to your “dashboard”, but that will show you one table per keyword, which is way too much information again, and can it will of course only show you the search terms that you’ve selected, which means that you’ll only learn about the things you already know.

Search

With Mint, it’s much simpler. You get a list of terms that people have searched for and underneath each term you can see what page was found. That’s all information I need in one simple table.

What are the exact addresses that my site is being linked from? (and what’s being said about my products there?)

With GA, you get a list of sites that link to your site or blog, but you only get the domain name, not the full URL. This is something that I’ve never been able to figure out. Either the information isn’t there or I’ve never been able to find it. If Macworld is linking to your site, it will probably be from the main page, which is easy to find. But if the click comes from a forum, it can be very difficult to find out exactly where it’s coming from. Mint shows me the complete URL and I can click them to see where my products are being mentioned.

Referrers

Mint also has a very useful plugin system. A plugin is called a “pepper” in Mint-terminology and is easy to install. Here are a few that I’ve installed:

iPhone pepper – I can now view my statistics on my iPhone and iPad. Google Analytics uses Flash for its charts, so I can’t see them on iOS. I know there are a few apps that you can use for GA on your iPhone, like Ego, but I like being able to just browse to my own Mint page in Safari. The iPhone pepper doesn’t collect any extra data, it simply creates a mobile view for the data that you already have.

Outbound pepper – If you have links to external websites on your site, you might be interested in knowing how often your visitors click those links. With GA, if you want this information, you need to add an extra bit of JavaScript code to each of those outbound links. With Mint, you don’t need to add anything to your web pages. All you need to do is add the Outbound pepper to your Mint directory and external clicks are automatically tracked.

Outbound

Downloads pepper – Same story for tracking downloads. Add the Downloads pepper. Done.

Downloads

Create-your-own-pepper – Since Mint is installed on your own server, if you have some knowledge of PHP, it’s not too difficult to create your own pepper to track any data that you have access to.

Custom

I took an existing pepper as my starting point and converted it to track my product sales. I want to add some more detailed information to it (e.g. make it show the sales per product instead of only the total number), but for now it’s a nice thing to have.

On its website, Mint promises “A Fresh Look at your Site” and that’s not a false promise. It shows me everything I expect from a website analysis tool on one well-designed page. It’s a pleasure to use and, in the couple of days that I’ve used it now, it has already taught me a few things that I didn’t know about how people find (or don’t find) information on my site. Go check it out.

Blue Crowbar — Apps for iOS and OS X