ClickTracks and HitsLink cull Web site stats without the stress

Midrange offerings provide easy-to-use analysis tools at an affordable price

Web sites are an important conduit between customers, potential clients, and employees, so it’s not surprising that organizations invest heavily in watching how their sites are used. For this job, enterprises often turn to the big guns in Web analytics -- Coremetrics, NetIQ, Omniture, or WebSideStory -- because they present visitor behavior from practically any perspective. But this complexity can mean hours of trying to set up and then harvest useful data from reports. Even more difficult is using reports to spot potential click fraud.

Such frustration opens the door for two capable, easier-to-use, and more economical analysis tools, ClickTracks 6.1 and Net Applications HitsLink.

ClickTracks 6.1, available as in-house software or as a hosted service, has fewer reports than both large-scale rivals and HitsLink, but they all cut right to useful information, such as tables that map search engine keywords to revenue. The data is overlaid on your Web page, so you can easily see how visitors navigate the site.

HitsLink, a hosted service, provides comprehensive reports on site traffic. While statistics appear in traditional tabular or chart format, HitsLink delivers results in real time, even on high-traffic sites.

Most significant, both products have specific features to help you identify possible click fraud. HitsLink’s map view shows essential data, such as clicks by country, making it easier to spot unusual patterns. ClickTracks’ detection employs elaborate statistical analysis and prepares reports that you can submit to your PPC (pay-per-click) provider.

ClickTracks 6.1

ClickTracks offers several options, including the midrange Optimizer for search engine marketing and the Pro version I tested, which adds revenue, conversion, and campaign performance reporting. These are available as a hosted service or as licensed software. For the hosted software, site data is collected using JavaScript tags placed on each Web page; the in-house software analyzes server log files. A third software option, ClickTracks JDC, uses JavaScript data collection. All versions employ a client application for interacting with reports.

ClickTracks is intentionally simple. Beginning with the Start page, you’ll find large icons for selecting reports and tips that explain how to use the app. This visual approach extends to the way many reports are presented, which assists in interpreting results.

As do many high-end products, ClickTracks’ Navigation report displays an exact rendering of your site overlaid with statistics. For instance, this view showed how many visitors from Google clicked a particular link on my home page. In another pane, I saw a path display of how people navigated to other parts of the site.

Time Splits is a really helpful feature for seeing the effect of site changes. Using Site Archiver, which compresses files 10-to-1, I captured a copy of my site at a particular time and then revised the live home-page design. After the change, ClickTracks showed performance statistics of the old and new design side by side. This is a creative approach to comparative testing because it doesn’t require having two production versions of the site.

The new Robot View simulation is perhaps the most understated, yet helpful Version 6.1 addition: It shows how search engines perceive your site and therefore helps you spot problems that would otherwise go undetected. In my tests, I found things such as missing title tags and erroneous meta information. I also liked a companion display that presented keywords per page; after seeing that I had the wrong mix of keywords and correcting the text, my search engine ranking increased. I verified this with a new report that showed the ranking of keywords -- from Google, Yahoo, and MSN -- that drove visitors to my site.

In addition, ClickTracks has pre-configured tabular reports for common statistics, such as average time on site, page views per visitor, and popular pages. The disadvantage to this approach is you can’t change sort order or other report formatting, except for date range.

This illustrates a small compromise you need to accept with this solution. Pre-configured reports are speedy and can also be accessed from a browser. To perform custom analysis, you need to download data to your PC or a local server for preprocessing. Files are significantly compressed -- about 1,000-to-1 -- so transfer time isn’t a real issue. But, on a slower PC, this does introduce an analysis lag each time a report is changed, which can be several minutes based on my testing. Still, this delay is trivial compared with waiting overnight for results -- common with traditional log analyzers.

Importantly, custom analysis provides powerful visitor segmentation. Called Labeling, ClickTracks starts you off with nine pre-built ways to see statistics, such as visitors from the top three search engines and their navigation patterns. And, at the advanced level, you can perform almost endless segmentation.

Another interesting report shows statistically significant variations, including referrers, search keywords, entry pages, and countries.

This type of analysis is core to the click-fraud function. The software looks at all the parts of a particular campaign, such as sessions with revenue, number of IP addresses, sessions with no referrer, and average time on the site. ClickTracks then compares this data across campaigns and flags those that are out of bounds. Finally, you review the figures and determine whether there’s a reasonable explanation for discrepancies. If the only explanation is click fraud, the software creates an Excel spreadsheet with all the evidence so your PPC provider has enough data to make a refund decision.

ClickTracks provides an elusive balance of quick reports for inexperienced users along with analytics that knowledgeable marketers require. Plus, the hosted service and in-house JDC version offer real-time reporting. Very experienced users might be hungry for more reporting options and custom dashboards. Still, considering the design objectives for this product -- getting useful results without fuss -- it’s very satisfying.

Net Applications HitsLink

There’s no software to install with HitsLink. After including a small piece of tracking code on my Web pages, the service immediately started generating statistics. That ease and speed of setup extended through analyzing results, which is done through any browser -- without any plug-ins.

HitsLink’s interface is extremely well organized, with menus logically grouped by topics, such as Traffic and Campaigns. In some ways, there’s nothing remarkable about the reports I found within each area. For example, Navigation Reports show entry and exit pages, along with average time visitors spend on each page. Information is typically available in tables, along with various types of charts.

Noteworthy, however, is how fast HitsLink responded when I changed date ranges, sorted links, and performed a range of other report customization -- usually in less than a second. My experience with other products is that this type of investigation takes upwards of minutes, or longer.

When I compared the quality of HitsLink’s results to log analysis, HitsLink was more accurate. It properly counted cached pages, did not show results from search crawlers, and handled redirects.

Although there’s nothing inherently bad with hundreds of reports, most users need only a subset. I didn’t have trouble eliminating clutter by bookmarking reports of interest that displayed when I logged in to the service. Nor did I have trouble combining several reports into a custom dashboard.

Because most people can’t spend all their time monitoring site performance, HitsLink helps make sure you don’t miss important events. I easily set up alerts when certain traffic levels were hit. Additionally, I scheduled reports for e-mail delivery to various people. (Reports can also be exported in PDF, Excel, Word, and other common formats.)

Marketers should get very good utility from this solution. For example, I used HitsLink’s search engine reports to see referrals by various engines. Additionally, integration with WordTracker -- a database of terms people search for -- showed how often people searched for references on my site. This information helped identify keywords that I hadn’t previously considered that related to my organization. As result, I was able to adjust page content and optimize search engine traffic.

The Enterprise version I tested extends basic search engine optimization into some decent campaign monitoring. As with the basic system setup, there’s nothing complicated about creating campaigns. For example, I merely added a simple query string to a URL that indicated it was reached from a Google Adword. Similarly, you can track e-mail marketing campaigns, Overture keyword campaigns, or custom referral sources.

HitsLink doesn’t have sophisticated ROI or funnel analysis. But the calculations provided are ample for many enterprises involved in online commerce -- and certainly beyond what you’d normally get in a midrange application.

In the area of click fraud, HitsLink provides essential information, but you must manually perform the bulk of analysis to determine if there is real deception involved. That said, I liked the way data was summarized on a color-coded world map. This helped me initially see clicks by country. Afterwards, I effortlessly looked at statistics -- repeat visitors from the same IP address, page depth, time on my site, and clicks at unusual hours.

Although it lacks ClickTracks’ statistical calculations, HitsLink’s click-fraud approach is certainly workable. For instance, I had a Google AdWord campaign for RFID, and I noted a cluster of hits from Detroit. But, by simply rolling over the map, I immediately saw that the searches came from a major automotive parts manufacturing company, which would have a legitimate need to research information on this topic. This gave me enough backup to surmise this was not fraud.

HitsLink gives you extensive traffic reporting, search engine marketing information, conversion tracking, and data to evaluate potential click fraud. Setup couldn’t be any easier, and analysis happens in a flash. Although missing some high-end functions such as graphical funnel analysis, all things considered, HitsLink provides a fine experience and value.

Analytics solutions are as varied as the Web itself. For high-profile e-commerce sites, I’d still lean toward the specialized solutions from Coremetrics or Omniture. And basic corporate properties are well served by the free Google Analytics. In the middle ground -- where you need more sophisticated campaign tracking and visitor segmentation without a lot of cost or effort -- either HitsLink or ClickTracks fits well. ClickTracks has the advantage with click-fraud analysis, both hosted and in-house options, and more thorough campaign analysis.

InfoWorld Scorecard
Performance (20.0%)
Ease of use (10.0%)
Reporting (30.0%)
Value (10.0%)
Administration (20.0%)
Support (10.0%)
Overall Score (100%)
ClickTracks 6.1 8.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 8.0 8.0 8.2
Net Applications HitsLink 8.0 8.0 7.0 9.0 8.0 9.0 7.9