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Client-Side vs. Server Side Statistics

Tracking Web Statistics: Client-side vs. Server-side

In the world of Web analytics, there are two main ways to collect data about your traffic: client-side and server-side. In a nutshell, client-side analytics systems use a tracking device that is loaded along with the webpage. Most client-side web traffic analytics applications are powered by JavaScript. Server-side analytics, on the other hand, gleans its data through analysis of server logs and does not rely on code embedded in a webpage. Server-side visitor tracking applications are typically based on PHP (Linux), ASP.NET (Windows) or as stand-alone software, such as Urchin. Though the most widely used statistics applications today utilize client-side tracking mechanisms, both client-side and server-side analytics systems have their pros and cons.

Installation

JavaScript and other client-side analytics systems are by far the simplest to set up and implement. In most cases, installation requires nothing more than pasting a simple code snippet into the webpage.

Server-side analytics requires its own database and software installation. Whereas it isn’t necessary to paste code snippets on each and every webpage, server-side analytics do require some installation and configuration on the backend. Aside from being more technically intensive, some web hosts limit user access to server-side databases and software.

Advantage: Client-side analytics—especially for sites on virtual dedicated servers, shared hosting plans, blogs and other systems where users have limited access to databases and other facets essential to server-side analytics.

Performance

Hosted client-side analytics systems process all of data crunching and analysis off-site, which helps reduce strain on the server hosting the actual website. Visitor information is typically handled by a dedicated cluster built specifically for processing analytics data and requires no additional processing power from the server that hosts the actual content.

Websites with server-side analytics software end up doing double duty in terms of serving up content and analyzing traffic data, which may slow performance across the entire server. Depending on how a system is set up, each visitor accessing a website with server-side analytics could increase server load and storage requirements exponentially.

Advantage: Client-side analytics—especially with a hosted analytics service, such as expo-MAX Real Analytics.

Accuracy

Client-side analytics systems typically retrieve information reported from the browser. This gives highly accurate information, particularly in regard to referrers, browser properties and the visitor’s machine. In the past, security and compatibility issues with browsers may have limited the accuracy of client-side analytics, but virtually all current browsers support JavaScript, which is able to report traffic data without posing security issues.

The accuracy and comprehensiveness of a traffic report from server-side analytics relies wholly on the software’s ability to filter out the salient data from the raw server logs. Numerous filters are required in order to separate out useable data, such as visits, referrers, system properties, etc. — and each filter may require additional software licenses, processing power and technical know-how. In addition to this, since users on shared hosting servers have limited access to raw server logs, some information may not be reportable. Separately, and more critically, many browsers will not report HTTP_REFERER properties to the server, which means that server-side analytics often report inflated Direct Traffic numbers. The main Advantage of server-side analytics software is its proficiency in tracking non-human visitors, such as search engine spiders (bots).

Advantage: For most cases, client-side analytics. However, with a powerful dedicated server with full access to server logs and a strong technical support team, server-side may offer some advantages.

Usability

Client-side analytics systems are driven by web-based software, which means that users can access reports and tweak settings from an easy-to-use dashboard from their own web browser. Web-based dashboards also obviate the need for administrator access to a server in order to view analytical data. Since visitor data is selectively harvested, information such as bounce rate, page load activity, referrers and exit pages can be accessed in a very user-friendly manner.

Generating reports from a server-side analytics system is typically much more complicated. While the information available via the raw server logs affords ample opportunities for those who are well-versed in the technical side of web analytics, as an entry and intermediate level user, the technical demands may be prohibitively high.

Advantage: Client-side analytics for beginner to intermediate users; server-side analytics for expert technicians.

Conclusion

Given the above advantages and disadvantages of client-side and server-side traffic analytics solutions, it’s easy to see why client-side tracking systems are the most widely used. Google Analytics, expo-MAX Real Analytics, StatCounter and most other leading free traffic statistics analysis services use client-side systems because of their ease of use, simple installation, accuracy and user-friendly web interfaces. There are some benefits to using server-side analytics programs, but tapping these advantages requires advanced technical expertise and administrator access to server software and configurations. Because of this, client-side systems are generally recommended for most websites looking for their first analytics solution. Later, a server-side tracking system can be integrated to supplement the existing client-side system, if needed.
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