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A Brief History of Web Analytics

written by: Kristina Dems•edited by: Rebecca Scudder•updated: 7/1/2010

The history of web analytics spans the last 15 years. It seems like a very short time but since the mid 1990's, web analytics has evolved from simple image hit counters to sophisticated technologies that are relied upon by a huge industry.

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    Web Analytics

    Web analytics as we know it now requires somehow technical know-how in the fields of server logs, search engine algorithms and several types of scripting languages. It's amazing that all of this started with simple hit counters in the mid 1990's. The following is a short history of web analytics. We are going to see its evolution from simple image counters embedded on web pages to sophisticated algorithms that draw big business.

    HIt counters and web server logs are two methods of web analytics. Let's start by discussing the its history and development.

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    Hit Counters

    The history of web analytics began with simple hit counters that became a fad in the mid 1990's. Odometer-style hit counters change their count every time a web page visitor refreshes a page. It's a very primitive way of tracking visitor activity on one's website, but for a time, it was the authority in providing webmasters an idea of how many visitors are visiting their webs ites.

    It started out as simple Perl or C scripts embedded within web pages. It quickly garnered attention and popularity, inspiring the rise of hosted hit counters. In 1996, the first widely used hosted hit counter service was born. It was called Web-Counter and it can be found at counter.digits.com. It was the dawn of the odometer-style hit counters.

    Eventually, the information gathered through hit counters were gathered and displayed in a dedicated page that showed hit and visit statistics for a website in a given range of time. Hit and visit counts eventually became just part of the overall statistics being gathered through embedded javascript web counters. A more sophisticated set of data became available to users via web server logs.

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    Web Server Logs

    Before the 90's ended, earth engines started to play a critical role in web analytics. Human and bot visitors became harder and harder to differentiate from each other. This is where web server logs became extremely useful. Companies like WebTrends and WebSideStory utilized web server logs, able to recognize bots from human visitors, becoming a reliable source for website metrics, to offer more information about user behavior like sessions and page views. Whatever metrics web server logs missed, embedded scripts on web pages took the slack.

    The two methods of web analytics became heavily debated with no clear winner for years. Web analytics companies took advantage of different methods of tracking, giving birth to a boom in the web analytics market. Suddenly, more and more web analytics services popped up and it has become a legitimate money-making business.

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    Consolidation

    As the modern web took shape in the early part of the 2000's, different companies offering different features and methods in web analytics started to suffer from a broken market. The major web analytics companies began to standardize features to give clients a wide selection of web analytics services that offer standardized features. This move kept the web analytics market healthy and the two major methods, hit count tracking and web server logs analysis, striving. Some web analytics systems like Urchin, now known as Google Analytics, started to consolidate hit counts tracking and web server logs into one web analytics suite.

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    Current State of Web Analytics

    With all the major features of both methods almost perfected or benchmarked, the focus of the web analytics industry right now is shifting to compatibility. With entertainment entities, news outfits and businesses turning to the web to tap a new audience, giving birth to a multitude of online applications and services everywhere, web analytics companies are now shuffling to cater to these applications. The debate between the two prominent web analytics technologies has now been replaced with discussions on how everything can be seamlessly integrated with everything else.