Measure Map, Google Analytics, and Site Meter — A simple comparison

I’ve been doing a comparison of a couple of different web site analytics packages over the last few weeks. Originally, it was just Site Meter vs. Google Analytics, but last week I finally got my invitation to the Measure Map beta. As of right now, FatMixx is configured for all three services, and I’ve been poking around at the numbers and comparing the tools. While FatMixx is not exactly a major blog or website by any means, we have enough traffic to compare the services and see how they do.

I started comparing these tools to see what else was out there aside from Site Meter. I’ve been using Site Meter on FatMixx for over a year now and like what it offers. Exposure to an enterprise level service like HitBox at work got me thinking about whether there was anything better out there. After a bit of searching around, I settled on testing two other services. I’m using Site Meter as my baseline so I’ve included a writeup for them below. Let’s take a high level look at the three services.

How these services work

If you already know how these services work, feel free to skip to the next section.

The services all work in similar ways. To get your site configured for tracking, the web site author must add a little bit of JavaScript to your web pages. On most blogging packages this means modifying some central templates. Measure Map and Site Meter include instructions for many popular blogging packages, for example.

The reason that the JavaScript method is popular among these services is because it allows them to solve two problems. First, it gets the user’s browser to make a hit back to web servers that the service controls so they can set tracking cookies. Second, JavaScript lets them aggregate more information about the browser than they might otherwise be able to get. For example, some services have reports that tell you what percentage of your users have Java installed, or what their screen resolution is, or what version of Flash they have.

This bits of JavaScript have several disadvantages, though most people won’t find them problematic. The biggest disadvantage is that a slow or down server on the analytics side could slow down your page or even keep it from completely loading. This is rare, and you can count on the established services being nearly perfect on this score. Another problem is that these services can break XHTML compliance in pages. The JavaScript also adds a slight processing burden on your users’ browsers. It’s generally negligible, but a buggy release could, for example, cause problems.

I mentioned a tracking cookie a couple of paragraphs ago. The tracking cookie is what it sounds like. It’s used to identify individual visitors. For the services reviewed here, the identification is reasonably anonymous as far as I know. Users surfing to your site are giving a unique number that might capture some computer information like IP address and the like. This method is inherently browser specific. So, if you have users that visit your site using different computers or even different browsers on the same computer to visit your site, they’ll count as different visitors. If you want more detail, read my earlier post breaking down the visits/visitor/browser issue.

The Services

Enough about the mechanics of these services and onto the services. As I mentioned above, I evaluated these three services:

  • Site Meter — Site Meter is popular among many bloggers and is now the defacto traffic measurement service. Basic service is free with several tiers of enhanced services. The free tier offers a compelling set of reports. The subscription tiers offer more reports geared toward commercial sites for a nominal fee.
  • Google Analytics — Google Analytics is the Urchin analytics service rebranded and made free. Urchin used to be a commercial servicve similar to HitBox (WebSideStory) or SiteCensus (Nielsen). I was looking into Urchin just a week or so before Google decided to offer it for free. The cost then was way too high for a personal blog like FatMixx. Because of this heritage, Google Analytics has the feel of a commercial product with tools and reports aimed at typical commerce sites.
  • Measure Map — Measure Map is a new service launched by the folks over at Adaptive Path. The service focuses on bloggers and what bloggers want to know: who’s been to my blog, how many comments have been left, and what posts are the most popular. The reports are clear, simple, and easy to understand and navigate. Not unexpected, I guess, when the service is built by user experience consultants.

As I dive into more specifics about each service, I’m going to make a distinction between reports and tools offered by the services. Reports are simply the service offering a view into the data. For example, one service may offer a referrer report that shows what links, if any, the user clicked to get your site. Another service may take that same data and offer a search engine report identifying what search terms and engines people use to get to your site.

Tools include things like funnel tracking or ad campaign tracking. Tools generally allow a site owner to track additional types of things beyond basic page/visit information. For example, if you’ve got a site where you’re selling something, Analytics offers tools to help you track where people jump ship from your order process and tools to see which of your ad campaigns are working best.

Cost

The services reviewed all made the list because they all offer at least a tier of service that’s free. In fact, both Google Analytics and Measure Map are completely free (as of today). Site Meter offers additional reports suited for commercial sites for additional fees.

In all three cases, creating an account is free. Analytics offers a nice feature where you can track multiple, independent sites from the same Google Analytics account. You can also enable multiple users to access the account and tracking data. For a blogger, this isn’t a big deal, but if you’re running a business or a group blog, this can be a big bonus. Unfortunately, Analytics has had problems scaling once it became free (more on that in a minute). Signups and adding new sites to your existing accounts, therefore, is disabled for now.

Measure Map is in invite-only beta right now, so you may have to wait in order to get your account invitation as they build out their service. You can sign up for an invitation on their site.

Site Meter allows website owners to allow the public to see the reports, or allows the publisher to make the reports private. There are different reasons to have public stats, especially if you’re a new blog trying to get advertisers or sign up for an ad network. It allows independent verification of your traffic stats.

Reports Offered

Rather than list out all the reports each service offers, here’s a table of the types of data they collect.

  Site Meter Google Analytics Measure Map
Page Views X X X
Visits X X  
Unique Visitors   X X
Referrer Reports X X X
Search Reports X X  
Browser Reports X X X
Country Reports X X X
Blog Specific Reports     X

Hover over the report names for an explanation of what each report type means.

Site Meter doesn’t offer their search reports at the basic tier, but I gave them an X anyway because you can get some simple search engine reports through the referral reports they include.

The last report type, “Blog Specific Reports,” is really a category that’s there because of Measure Map, not because it’s a standard feature. Measure Map is able to do this by having a slightly more intrusive installation process that has to be tailored to each blog engine. For WordPress, for example, I had to include three different JavaScript blocks vs. the typical single script block.

One other note, Google Analytics offers an export feature which lets you get reports out as XML, CSV, or Tab-Separated Text. Useful if you have your own DB or programs you want to run on the data.

Tools

Only Google Analytics offers detailed tracking tools like Goal Tracking and Conversion analysis. It really is quite comparable to the commercial services we use at work in this regard, offering nearly as broad a set of tools for commercial sites. Because I’m mostly looking at this as a tool to measure blog traffic, I’m not so interested in this. If you’re also selling T-shirts on your blog, however, you can set up goals to see how your T-shirt ordering process is working.

Performance

I’ve had nearly zero problems with the javascript causing the page rendering to hang or break. Site Meter, which I’ve used the longest, has had a few very short outages but nothing remarkable.

I have had a few problems with the Google Analytics web site with their recent scaling issues, but because it’s Google, I’m assuming these will get sorted out soon enough and full functionality will be enabled.

User Interface

People often say that having more options makes a service more complicated. With analytics services, this is more true than you’d think. Measure Map and Site Meter both take simple approaches to their reports and the simplicity makes the reports easy to understand and navigate. It’s very easy to find the reports you want. With Google Analytics, on the other hand, the extra functionality makes the reports especially difficult to navigate. I had a lot of trouble with the UI to choose date ranges in the Analytics site, and also found that their site doesn’t work in the latest Safari (2.0.2, 416.12). Boo.

Measure Map takes simplification to another level by tailoring their analytics service to blogs. So rather than worry about adding funnels and conversion tracking or worrying about detailed search engine reports, they focus on the basics using the vocabulary of bloggers. It’s a very clean and clear interface and very much about getting the information you want and getting on with your blogging.

Favorite Features

In the end, I’ve found that I’m leaning toward using each of the services because of one great feature each has. All of the services are similar enough that with a bit of adjustment, you can get the same data from each service. Here are my favorite features for each service.

Site MeterWho’s On? is my favorite feature. This feature lists the last 30 minutes of visits up to 100. I check it once or twice a day to keep tabs on my blog and to get random factoids. I’ve found some curious search terms and interesting insights about my blog that would get lost in the aggregated reports.

Google Analytics — Bounce Reports are my favorite feature on Google Analytics. The report highlights the number of visitors who arrive at your site from an external link and then fail to click another page on your site. It’s a simple report and highlights those who might not be finding what they expect on the site. Blogs are an interesting for this report because people generally check several times just to read if they’re not participating in the comments section. I’m curious what the bounce report might look like for, say, Atrios or Instapundit.

Measure Map — The Dashboard is my favorite feature of Measure Map. Of all of the summary pages, I find that this is the best one for me. I don’t need to click around when I’m just checking on basic activity. Again, the service is tailored to blogs and it shows.

Final Thoughts

All three of these services are pretty good and offer different benefits. At the end of the day, I’m pretty sure I can get everything I want with Measure Map and Google Analytics for free. I’m going to keep all three enabled for a while longer and I’ll follow up on this post in a few months.

I’ve focused on where these services are today, but Measure Map looks like it might be a compelling service for bloggers. The features are good as they stand today, but this note on the site makes me excited:

We’ve got a few great features coming soon, including stats for your RSS feed, tracking interesting events in your stats, and deeper tools for understanding search engine traffic. We’ll also be opening up a public API and releasing some open source tools soon!

The public API will be a nice feature, as it will allow people to build Konfabulator and Dashboard widgets, custom reporting applications, and a whole host of little tools for the service. Also, the upcoming tools for search engine traffic will bring it on par with the Site Meter offerings. We’ll see how they do as far as stability and accuracy is concerned. The service is still in alpha, so downtime is allowable and expected.

I hope this was useful to someone out there. :)

  • http://blog-buzz.blogspot.com Johan

    There is one thing I don’t understand from the comparison table; the column ‘Visits’ does not have a check for Measuremap?
    Does this mean that Measuremap is not measuring the actual number of visitors that visit your blog? I think this is quite an essential item.

  • http://www.sujal.net sujal

    As far as I can tell, they don’t measure visits but only measure unique visitors.

    In other words, if you came to my web site from your work computer three times over a day, that would be three visits but only one unique visitor.

    I suspect they capture this data, but no report makes it available at this time. I can see pros and cons to reporting both numbers, but if you’re truly just trying to answer “How many people visited my blog today,” unique visitors is what you’re looking for, not visits.

    I could be wrong, and if anyone from Measure Map is reading, I hope they can clarify it.

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  • http://www.mikeindustries.com/blog/ Mike D.

    What, no Mint??? Mint trumps all three of these stats packages, in my opinion.

  • http://www.sujal.net sujal

    Yeah, I didn’t add Mint because I didn’t know about it before I started writing this, which is embarrasing, I guess. After I knew about it (after I started writing this), I saw that it required software installation on the server, which isn’t an option for many folks.

    Oh, and it cost $30. :)

    I can give it a runthrough at some point, though. It does look pretty cool from the movie and screenshots.

  • http://www.chadalderson.com Chad

    Great write-up! I’m looking forward to the follow-up in a couple of months. I’m leaning toward Google Analytics myself. Free is hard to beat, and I know they will get the scaling stuff solved sooner rather than later. Also, I’m a AdSense user – I’m sure they will (at some point) do some type of interesting integration here too…

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  • http://www.websitetrafficandconversion.com WebtrafficJunkie

    This is great information. I have seen a lot of articles on Google analytic, but I haven’t seen one until now that compares it to other sites. This has been extremely helpful!! Thanks!!

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  • jishman

    How do you get an invite to Google Analytics? Is it like GMail where you need someone to invite you?

  • http://www.sujal.net sujal

    you just need to go to http://www.google.com/analytics/ and sign up when they finally reopen signups. they were ill-prepared for the demand when they made the service free and have shut down new registrations until they finally scale up.

  • jishman

    yeah, did that. oh well. Guess I’ll either have to wait for that and American Idol and see which happens first. ;)

  • http://www.elifoner.com Eli

    What about Mint?

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  • http://swash.blogspot.com Sumit

    I have been using http://www.statcounter.com for quite some time, and i think it gives pretty much everything here….allowing multiple website tracking from the same account….and its FREE as in free beer. I am not sure if i am missing something.
    good review tho’. Thx.

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