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Web Analytics: Web Logs vs. JavaScript

With so many analytic tools out in the marketplace, some free, some low cost, and other expensive, organizations are left to ask which tools are right for the organization.  If your IT department makes that choice and is the sole voice in that choice, you as marketers are already at a disadvantage.

When selecting a analytics package or platform, one needs to ask many questions and one of the most important questions is do you want to track users, and page views, with web server log files, or JavaScript tags?

If you are not hosting your analytics package, the choice has been made for you and you can continue on, but if you are like many looking for a in house analytics package, the choice should be yours, and not your IT departments. The main battle is between a base install of the analytics package that reads the server log files vs. a javascript tagging method which requires discipline from a group out side of IT to properly tag the web site. Your IT department also, only cares about information from the server log files, so we as marketers need to demand our IT departments to allow us to track web visits in a manner that supports our needs.

Web serving vs. Data Capture
Web logs report by recording what the servers have sent out to the site visitors based on server requests. As the web pages go out, the server logs information about that request in web log files. Your analytics platform then reads and composed the log files into useful information stored in its database. Your data is tied to what can be pulled from these log files and if you need more information placed into the log files, you may need to rely on your IT dept to make changes. Normally, this is not a quick process in large organizations.

With JavaScript tags data capture is separate from data serving. Your data can come from anywhere, from your web servers to locally stored web pages on the customer’s computer. As long as there is a web connection a data call to the JavaScript will record the page view or track user information. 
The beauty of this is that the company IT department and website developers can do what they are supposed to do, serve pages. Your analytics team can now make changes and optimizations to the pages without the need for IT, and your departments can work faster and focus on the jobs at hand to create and track campaigns.


Data size limitations

Web server logs were built to collect server activity and not business data. The larger analytics platforms have built some solutions to address the problem of limited data in server logs, but it is limited.  If your web site is on a large server farm, the analytics package will spend time in the middle of the night, stitching the log files together to get the complete view of the days activities.

JavaScript tags were developed to collect click stream data thus only collect the data they need to based on actions. They collect a smaller amount of data as well, as they are not reporting on server loads, delivery time, and the other server logistics reported on by log files. (If this server information is important, set up a separate profile for log files so the IT department can check on the servers). The smaller files result in faster processing by the analytics engine.


The future is bright

Many of the analytics vendors are not developing further for log file reporting or at least are not developing new tracking for log files. As we get more into a age of tracking flash, video, podcast, downloads, purchase funnels, and abandonment rates, the log files can not tell us this information as we are only looking as server deliverables. As new web offerings are delivered the JavaScript tags, and calls to them, will provide better analytics and grow with the developments on the web.


Over all, choosing web log reports over JavaScript reports comes down to what information is most important to you. We take the stance that as long as you have some analytics running and you are actively watching that analytics program, you can derive valuable data. If your organization wishes to make better decisions based on user activities, use JavaScript tagging for your analytics. But here is the most important rule, never compare the data between webs logs and JavaScript tagging; the numbers will never match up. With that recommendation, also, only run one analytics package at a time, so you will not get double counts as you are making requests to multiple analytic platforms.


For more information between log files and JavaScript read this Wikipedia entry:

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