Reading Your Log Files

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If you have your own Web hosting solution, you have access to your log files. A log file is simply a recording of every hit registered by the Web server. They are the raw, unfiltered base that most site traffic tools use to serve up traffic reports.

I'll be honest here: Few bloggers look through their raw log files. However, knowing what information they contain is helpful, so you know what you can get out of your traffic tools.

The following is a sample of Apache Combined Log Format (httpd.apache. org/docs/logs.html#combined). Not every log file is structured exactly as this one is, but it can give you a good idea of a typical file. - - [28/Nov/2004:17:39:42 -0500] "GET /whatwedo.html HTTP/1.1" 200 2487 "" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows 98)" - - [28/Nov/2004:17:58:23 -0500] "GET

/nep/column/surfersISOthis.html HTTP/1.1" 200 83088

"" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1)" - - [28/Nov/2004:18:02:42 -0500] "GET

/gallery/22.html HTTP/1.0" 304 - "-" "Mozilla/5.0 (compatible; Yahoo! Slurp)" - - [28/Nov/2004:18:32:01 -0500] "GET

/brokenlink HTTP/1.1" 404 1641 "-" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.0)" - - [28/Nov/2004:18:04:53 -0500] "GET /nep/five/index.rdf HTTP/1.1" 304 - "-" "Mozilla/4.0 (compatible; MSIE 6.0; Windows NT 5.1; SV1

In the following list, I break down the elements of a file:

1 IP address: The beginning set of four numbers separated by periods is the visitor's IP address — the unique number associated with the computer connecting to the Internet. Traffic tools can look up that number to find out if computer using it is based in .com, .edu, or an internationally based network.

1 Date: Inside the [] brackets is the date. You can see what day of the week, or what hour of the day, your traffic spikes happen. You can use this information to make strategic decisions about posting entries when your blog is busiest — and running site modifications when things are slowest.

1 Page URL: Between the first set of quotation marks you find the URL of the page being requested contained between the terms GET and HTTP. The traffic tool determines if the request is for a page or just a hit and what content to serve back.

1 Server response code: Next comes a number indicating the computer's response to the request. A 200 means, "I gave back the data properly." A 404 means, "I couldn't find the data to give back," which is a serious error. Any 404 responses mean someone tried to follow a link or request a page that wasn't there. Getting rid of all 404s is impossible, but you can minimize them by fixing broken links and getting other sites to update or fix incorrect links to you, and if you see a page that's frequently requested but doesn't exist — consider making one there!

1 File size: The next number is the size of the file that was returned. Smaller files download more quickly.

1 Referrer URL: In the second set of quotation marks you find what is, frankly, the most interesting bit of data in your log files: The page from which the request originated, is called the referrer.

The referrer might be another page on your site, another site that linked to you, or a search engine that returned your page in its results. By analyzing what Web heads call your refers, you can tell who is sending you traffic and what search terms are resulting in the most clicks to your site. You can't tell, though, what sites have links to you or what search terms make your site appear — you only find that out when someone clicks a link.

1 User Agent: After the refer comes the User Agent, which is the name of the program requesting the page. This information is handy because it tells you which browsers people are using to view your blog. You can focus your testing and features to these browsers. But watch that this statistic doesn't become a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you don't see many Mac users with Safari on your blog, it could be that it doesn't work for them — and if you fix your site, you might see an increase in use.

Spend too much time looking at your log files and you'll go blind, but checking in every so often may be an eye-opener. There may be some surprises: uncommon browsers used by more people than you expected, page requests for old content, high traffic numbers from a country where your products aren't sold. It is a wide and diverse Internet out there, and you should design and write your blog accordingly.

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