Helping e-retailers get to know you

If you routinely trash your Web server log data, you could be unwittingly trashing money too, according to one analyst.

That’s because Web server information is one of the few sources of insight for e-commerce-based stores. Using this data can help them learn about customers and their shopping habits, said Erich Schmitt, analyst with Forrester Research.

“As incomplete as it may be, you have to hang on to that data,” Schmitt said. “I mean, come on, hard drives are incredibly cheap now.”

Besides the rise of inexpensive storage, a whole crop of software vendors have arisen whose speciality is helping on-line companies track who visits their sites, and what drew them there in the first place.

The vendors, which include companies such as WebTrends, Sane Solutions LLC and WebManage Technologies, say they can provide their customers with specific domain names, pages viewed, the names of the companies visitors work for, the time they spent in each area and what search engine they connected through.

The goal, vendors say, is twofold: to let on-line firms conduct personalized marketing and to help them better target their advertising dollars.

Web site traffic analysis is as old as the Web itself, dating back to the days when unknowing advertisers were told of the number of “hits” a site generated. However, it didn’t take long for them to catch on that hits can be generated in any number of ways, besides visits, Schmitt said.

That led to a more detailed approach to traffic analysis, such as the tracking of “page views” and unique visitors – factors that are still important, but which are now starting to make way for what Jim Rose, chief executive officer of Sane Solutions LLC, a Web traffic analysis vendor and maker of the NetTracker line of software based in North Kensington, R.I., calls the “third generation” of products.

“That’s where you really pull together disparate data sources,” Rose said. No longer content to look at just Web server logs, today’s sophisticated e-commerce sites, coping with multiple servers and domains, want to tie together data from legacy databases and ERP applications as well.

The problem is, analysts and vendors agree that this is easier said than done. “[Sane Solutions] has overcome this by working with a middleware company that sells tools that can combine data from different data sources and generate reports from this combined data,” Rose said, although he declined to name the partner, deferring it for a later announcement.

NetTracker 4.0, eBusiness Edition, lets users process large log files via an Oracle8 database engine, comes with standard reporting tools, and allows NetTracker data to be combined with other customer databases.

Like most tools in its class, it can also track multiple Web servers, proxy servers, firewalls and FTP server log files, Rose added.

Other traffic analysis vendors are going the integration route as well, including WebManage Technologies, whose Enterprise Reporting 5.0 tool – previously known as NetIntellect – lets enterprise users import and export data from OBDC data sources, such as those from Crystal Reports. Though WebManage has not announced an official partnership as of yet, they intend to do so, noted Steve Lewis, product manager with the Chumsford, Mass.-based vendor.

Besides reporting, Lewis also points to the ever-increasing demand on the back office as another challenge for e-retailers and vendors alike, although he too urges companies to invest in memory.

“[Enterprise Reporter] is limited only by hardware. Obviously when you’re looking at massive amounts of log information…that sometimes swell over 1GB, that takes up a lot of disk space,” Lewis said.

But the vendors are also pushing the scalability of their products. Al Hukle, senior manager of electronic marketing with Rockwell Electronic Commerce Corp., a supplier of call centre infrastructure and related products, recalled how using an earlier version of Enterprise Reporter, NetIntellect 3.0, he had to process log information on his Pentium machine on Fridays, as the task took most of the day to complete.

However, using version 3.0, he can get what he needs in as little 35 seconds.

But the bottom line for large, on-line enterprises is that no one tool will solve all needs, Forrester’s Schmitt said. He predicts that traffic analysis is fertile ground for application service providers, some of whom are already offering broad but inexpensive tools for users. For now, he recommends careful planning.

“What companies want to do is ask, ‘Who are my customers, who’s coming to the site, and what are their objectives’…and then related to that, ask ‘What do I need to measure?'”