May 29, 2007

Open Web Analytics for WordPress

Author: Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier

WordPress is a full-featured "personal publishing" platform, but it offers little in the way of traffic analysis. If you'd like to dig into your traffic patterns and have a better idea who's visiting your site and what they're coming to see, take a look at the Open Web Analytics (OWA) plugin for WordPress. It's easy to use, and provides a wealth of information about your site traffic.

The OWA plugin is available as a tarball from the OWA Web site. Just grab it and uncompress it in the wordpress directory under wp-content/plugins. Then go to the WordPress administration dashboard, visit the plugins page, and enable the plugin.

Once the plugin is installed it integrates seamlessly into the WordPress dashboard. When you click on the Dashboard tab, you'll see Analytics in the menu. Click on that and you'll see five navigation tabs -- Dashboard, Traffic Sources, Visitors, Content, and Feeds. We'll cover each tab in turn, starting with the OWA dashboard.

The OWA dashboard

The analytics dashboard provides an overview of all of the information provided by OWA: traffic and unique visitors, the most popular pages, top referring pages, information about recent visitors, and where visitors are coming from.

At the top of the page, you'll see report filters. If you're tracking more than one site with OWA, you'll be able to choose a specific site here. You can also narrow the reporting period to anywhere from the last 30 minutes to the last year of stats.

Traffic sources

The traffic sources tab has several pages. The main page displays the total visits, and a general overview of where the visits came from -- search engines, feeds, referring Web sites, or by users going directly to the site.

By default, the page shows today's traffic, but, as in the main dashboard, you can display a wide range of time periods.

The referring Web sites page displays a list of sites and pages that have referred visitors to your site. On my site, for example, I can see that some of my visitors came straight from articles on NewsForge, and others were sent to my site from Google searches.

The search engines page shows how many visitors came from various search engines, and which search engines they used to get to the site. I didn't find it surprising that Google was the most common search engine used by visitors to my site, but I was surprised by the fact that many of the visitors were using regional Google pages -- like Google.gr and Google.dk -- instead of Google.com. AOL and Yahoo search were not well represented, and MSN didn't even make the list.

Content

One of the most common questions site owners have is "what's driving visitors to my site?" Under the Content tab, you'll find entry and exit page information that will help you see what pages, and what type of pages, are visited most often.

For instance, my stats are broken down into monthly pages, the home page, posts, search results, and unknown. If a visitor goes to the site and uses WordPress search to find something, that will be displayed as search results. If someone goes straight to the home page, that's tallied as (you guessed it) the home page. And, of course, you'll see which specific posts are most popular on your site. This can be useful in determining what stories or posts users find most interesting. I wish I'd had the information from this plugin months or years ago!

One thing I'm not crazy about: OWA also displays "unknown" pages -- which I guess are hits on the site that don't return a post or the home page. They're probably 404s caused by bad links or robots, but it's unclear -- and OWA doesn't provide further information about the "unknown" pages for you to actually figure out what URLs it's referring to. (No pun intended.)

Feeds

Ever wonder how many folks are reading your site via feeds rather than visiting the site directly? OWA will tell you how many users are fetching the site feed and how many unique readers you have. However, this page doesn't display any information about how many feed readers click through to your site. The information is displayed on the traffic sources page, but not under feeds.

Visitor information and geo-location

The visitors tab has three subpages: one that displays "visitor loyalty," another showing what domains and networks visitors came from, and the last displaying the geographic location (geo-location) of visitors. This page also shows the browser types used to hit your pages. Unfortunately, OWA doesn't track (or display, anyway) operating system or display resolution, which is something I've gotten used to seeing from Google Analytics.

On the visitor loyalty page, you'll see how many visits you've had, the average number of pages per visit, and the number of unique and repeat visitors. Again, you can drill down by date to see anything from the last 30 minutes to the last year.

On the geo-location page the OWA plugin also shows, within reason, the location of visitors to your blog. It can't give you a street address, but you can narrow it down to a city. You'll need to have a Google Maps API key to enable this feature, but it's painless to sign up to get one. Once you've enabled the key, OWA will generate a map of the world with a "pin" showing where each visitor to your site is from. Click on a pin, and it will expand to show additional visitor information -- the network the visitor is from, what page they viewed last, their location, the date and time of the visit, and (if appropriate) the referring page that they were at before visiting your site. The geo-location page also has a sidebar with visitor information, and you can click on links there to get additional information as well.

Customizing OWA

For the most part, OWA works right out of the box without any tweaking. However, the plugin does have a few settings you can modify if you like under the Admin Settings link.

Here you can set the Google Maps API key, error and event logging, whether or not OWA tries to resolve hostnames, and whether OWA should log requests from feed readers or known robots.

The only thing really missing from OWA that I'd like to see is a way to generate reports or export data. The OWA interface is great, but if you want to show data to someone else -- your boss, or potential advertisers -- OWA doesn't provide a good set of tools for that.

OWA's documentation is also a bit sparse, and doesn't really provide a lot of context for the way information is displayed in the dashboard. It's mostly self-explanatory, but some things -- such as the number displayed next to each visitor -- aren't obvious, and I haven't been able to find any documentation that actually explains what information is displayed.

You can find more powerful analytics packages for Web sites, but OWA is one of the best free software analytics packages I've seen for WordPress. It integrates well, and provides quite a bit of information in an easy-to-read fashion.

If you're running a WordPress blog, the OWA plugin is a must-have if you care how much traffic your site receives and where it comes from. I use it in combination with Google Analytics, and really like having both tools to see as much as possible about my site visitors.

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