So you opened the door to your home on the net and now you want to know who's visiting? You could use a counter, tracker or a log analyzer among other things.
Methods of tracking usage

Counters:
Generally speaking, a counter is a small program that can keep track of hits to a web page. A counter's only purpose in life is to increment its total count every time the page its on is requested or viewed. Since counters are installed on one-per-page basis, most counters will count page hits only. In other words, counters will not count hits to images (how many times a particular image in your site was loaded) and other objects on a page such as sound files, Java applets, etc.

Trackers:
A tracker is usually an extended version of the counter concept. It will not only keep an on going count, but it will record other related information such as date/time, originating IP address, operating system and browser version that caused the hit. Most trackers also have a separate log reports generator, so that you can analyze data recorded by the tracker. Unlike counters, most trackers does not have a counter display; in other words they may not display the actual ongoing count on the web page.

Web server log analyzers:
Unlike counters and trackers, log analyzers depend on web server logs to gather necessary information to generate usage statistics. There's no need to paste any special code on to your pages when using this type of program, because the web server that's serving your pages, images, applets, etc., is automatically recording this information in the background. A log analyzer would simply import this information from web server logs according to a user specified timeframe to generate reports.

Both counters and trackers are usually pasted on to the web page itself and usually visible to the visitor. There are two major counter/tracker types -- stand-alone and hosted.

A "hosted counter" is a counter that's installed on a web server/site other than your own. You can use a hosted counter simply by pasting a set of customized HTML tags obtained from the counter provider.

A "stand-alone counter", on the other hand, is a counter that you have to install on your web server/site. These counters usually require the installation of a counter script -- a program that keep track of hits. Installing a stand-alone counter could be harder, compared to a hosted counter, if you have no prior experience in installing CGI scripts. Since this type of counters are installed on your own server, one of the advantages is that counter performance doesn't depend on the performance of an external server.


Comparisons -- What's best for your needs?
So what type of program most suitable for you? Well, there are many variables in the answer to this question. If you're getting space for your web site for free, your only option maybe to use a hosted counter or tracker service. If you have CGI access, you could install a stand-alone counter. If you have access to the web server logs, then you can use a web server log analyzer. So ask your web space provider what type of options are available to you. They may even have their own way of tracking your web site usage.

As mentioned above, a tracker is supposed to provide more information than a counter. However, note that some counter providers may refer to their product as a "counter" and yet provide the detailed log reports a tracker is assumed to provide. We will use the term "counter provider" to represent both counter-only providers and counter+tracker/tracker-only providers for the reminder of this document.
Hosted counters / trackers
Advantages Advertisement


  • Minimum requirements: Unlike other types of usage tracking tools, you only need a web page on the Internet to use a hosted counter service.
  • Easy to install: Usually a matter of pasting custom HTML tags provided by the counter provider.
  • Instant setup: Since it's easy to setup, you can start tracking your site sooner.
  • Instant updates: Updates made to the program will be available to you, without further modifications in most cases.
  • Zero or less maintenance: The counter provider is responsible for maintaining the primary program and related components.
  • More choices: There are more hosted counter providers than stand-alone counter software providers and/or web server log analyzing software providers. Even your web space provider may offer a counter at least for pages that you're hosting on their server.
  • Able to track page hits only: Almost all counter providers count page hits only, not hits to images and other objects on the page. This could be an advantage over web server log analyzers, since recording hits to objects on the page could not only create large log files but make it harder to analyze "pure hits."
  • Platform independent: Unlike stand-alone counters and log analyzers, most hosted counter services can be used regardless of the type of computer or operating system you're using.


Disadvantages

  • Hosted on an external server: In other words, if the external server goes down, your counter will not function during the outage.
  • Free services may require something in return: It takes resources to maintain a web server. Some free counter providers may require you to display a banner on your site, display banners on your log report and/or provide exposure to their site in order to cover maintenance costs.
  • Commercial counter services maybe too costly for personal use: Since commercial hosted counter services are based on subscriptions (yearly, monthly, etc.), you will have a recurring cost. Also, some commercial services may charge comparatively higher fees, depending on the number of hits your site receive, to cover maintenance costs.
  • Limited usage: Both free and commercial hosted counter service providers have terms and conditions that you must meet. Most may require you to limit the counter to a single page or only a few pages. They may not support sites getting more than a given number of daily hits, or they may charge you extra. Most hosted counter services are not available for sites containing adult material.
  • Able to track page hits only: This could be a disadvantage if you need to track hits to images and other objects on your page.
  • May not work on Intranets and Extranets: Most hosted-counter services were designed for Internet pages, and may not work on your local Intranet or Extranet.
  • Maybe too crowded: Free hosted counter services get more users because of the ease of use and free access. This may translate to overcrowded servers and slower response from the technical support.
  • Time sensitive reports: Most hosted-counter services will purge older logs and reports. You may miss some reports unless you're able to examine reports daily.


Stand-alone counters / trackers
Advantages

  • Installed on the local server: Since stand-alone counters are installed on the same server your pages are hosted, your counter will be available as long as your web server is available.
  • Broader usage: Again since stand-alone counters are installed on your server, you can usually track any page on your web server regardless of its content or the number of hits it's receiving.
  • Able to manipulate: You maybe able to manipulate stand-alone counters to your specific needs since the software reside on your server.
  • Usually faster: Assuming that you have a fast server, using a stand-alone counter could possibly be faster than using a shared hosted-counter.
  • One time fee: Unlike commercial hosted-counter services, using a stand-alone counter doesn't generate recurring fees. Once you buy the software, you can keep using it in most cases.
  • Internets, Intranets and Extranets are supported: Most stand-alone counters can be used on any network environment.
  • Archival of old reports: You'll be able to control when your logs and reports expire with most stand-alone counters.


Disadvantages

  • Require CGI or similar access: You need CGI or similar access to your web server in order to install a stand-alone counter. If you're using free web space, most likely you won't get CGI access, but ask your web space provider to be sure.
  • Harder to install: Unless you're familiar with installing CGI scripts, installing a stand-alone counter could be harder.
  • Maintenance: You're responsible for maintaining counter related programs and data files.
  • Manual updates: If there is an update to the counter software, you'd have to update or reinstall the software.
  • Possibly less options: There are less stand-alone counter software providers than there are hosted counter providers. This may translate to less options.
  • Some are platform dependant: Some stand-alone counters may not work on certain web servers. Others may require specific procedures to be taken to be used on specific servers.


Web server log analyzers
Advantages

  • Intermediate ease of installation: Installing and using a log analyzer is usually easier than setting up a stand-alone counter and harder than using a hosted-counter.
  • Track any and all objects: Web server log analyzer is able to generate reports on any and all objects served by the web server that's in its log file. If you have a need to track objects on your pages, this is an advantage over hosted and stand-alone counters.
  • More details: Since the main job of log analyzers is to analyze information that's already in the web server logs and these software run on local computers in most cases, they usually generate more detailed reports.
  • Unlimited usage: Most log analyzers can be used to track any of your web server logs.
  • More customizable: Reports generated using log analyzers are more customizable than most hosted-counter reports.
  • Transparent usage: Since the web server is responsible for keeping track of hits to pages, there's no need to install custom HTML tags on the specific pages that you want to keep track of. This would make usage tracking completely transparent to the web site visitors.
  • One time cost: Once you pay the one time cost to obtain the software, you will not have recurring subscriptions fees as with commercial hosted counter providers.


Disadvantages

  • Require access to web server logs: You must have access to your web server logs to use a log analyzer. If you're using free web space, you may not have this option, but ask your web space provider to be sure.
  • No counter display: Unlike counters and trackers, web server log analyzers usually do not keep an on going count of hits to pages nor display the count on web pages. If you want to display the hit count to your visitors, you may have to use a counter or a tracker as well.
  • Can be slower: Since log analyzers have to filter through web server logs to generate specific reports, these can be slower than hosted or stand-alone counter reports. However, if you have a fast system, this may not be a concern.
  • Platform dependant: Unlike hosted-counters, log analyzers are platform dependant. Although most analyzers support most web server log formats, very few analyzers are able to run on multiple client computer platforms.
  • Higher up-front cost: Unlike with paid hosted counter services with comparatively lower recurring fees spread over a period of time, you have to pay a higher one time price up-front to obtain most log analyzer software.


External resources -- Shopping for your counter
Always refer to the specific features of a given usage tracking tool to find out exactly what it's capable of, since some of them may offer more features than the "norm" described above. If you choose to go with a tracker, take a look at its log report demonstrations before subscribing. If you go with a web server log analyzer, you may want to download a trial copy first. Also, don't forget to read the fine print -- disclaimer, terms and conditions -- and follow those terms if you decide to use a particular service.
TIP:If you're thinking about usage tracking for the first time, starting with a simple counter or a tracker maybe the way to go. It's better to start with a free counter service, unless you have a good reason not to. Since most paid counter services charge according to the number of hits you receive, you can gather this information using a free counter service before deciding on a commercial service. If you have several pages that you must track, you maybe out of luck with any sort of hosted counter service, at which point using a stand-alone counter or a log analyzer maybe the only options.

Now it's time to get your feet wet. Following links may help you to find a suitable usage tracking program for your site:

  • ODP's list of web counters
  • AMP's list of hit counters and trackers
  • CounterGuide.Com (Formerly Nick's guide to web counters)
  • Digit Mania counter software
  • Yahoo!'s access counters list