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Virtual Interview: David Smith

David is the creator of SiteMeter.com where be produces counters and site tracking tools. In this interview he talks about his site, advertising, development and more...

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By: Brad Culbert
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November 14, 2002

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David is the creator of SiteMeter.com where be produces counters and site tracking tools. In this interview he talks about his site, advertising, development and more...Why is it important that we as webmasters analyse our site traffic? For example, What can information such as the browsers our visitors are using tell us?

The first step is just knowing if anyone is looking at the web pages you've published. If no-one is looking at your web site then it is more of a personal journal than a web site. If you want to find advertisers, you'll also need to know how much traffic your site gets. With site tracking, you can also find out where your visitors are coming from, the pages where they are entering your site and the pages they are leaving your site. If you find most people are leaving your site from the same page, you may actually have a problem with that page. They could be getting bored or confused by something on the page.

What made you decide to create the Site Meter service? What were some of your aims back then and are they changing as the service matures?

Initially it involved a lot of my interests. I wanted to do a web site (April of 1998) and I saw a lot of cool things that could be done with visitor tracking. Visitor tracking is a basic service that all web sites need and I figured it would be a valuable spot to be where thousands of webmasters use your services. Also, at that time, banner rates were high and I was expecting to sell a lot of banner ads. What I found in the last two years that I definitely had to have many sources of income to make Site Meter profitable. The banner advertising by itself will barely cover the hosting costs for Site Meter.

With the large number of alternative tracking systems available on the internet, what techniques and features have you used to make Site Meter stand out from the rest? Also, what advice would you give future webmasters who are starting a website in an area where there is already strong competition?

I tried (within reason) to provide features that other sites didn't provide and present the reports and charts in a very approachable way. One seemingly insignificant thing is the consistent use of color for "Visitors" and "Page View". Page views are always purple and visits are green. No one has ever commented on it but I think it probably contributes to making the charts more understandable. Consistency in an interface is an important and challenging area.

What kind of advertising techniques do you find work best with a service such as Site Meter? What do you find doesn't work so well?

Site Meter hasn't done a lot of advertising yet. The best thing that I did initially was to get Site Meter listed in as many 'webmaster' sites as I could find. I would search for keywords that I was interested in (like 'hit counter' or 'web tracker') in all the search engines and I made sure that I visited all the sites that were listed before Site Meter. If those sites were directories or compilations of web master sites, I tried to get Site Meter listed with them.

While there are a number of Site Meter features I really like, the graphs, charts and traffic prediction sections would have to be my favourites. Is there one (or some) particular features you find users like the most about Site Meter?

The "Who's On" report and the "Recent Visitors by Referral" report seem to be some of the popular ones. The Who's On report displays statistics about the visitors who visited in the last 20 minutes and the Recent Visitors by Referral report shows where the visitors came from. I also got a big response when I increased all the recent visitor reports from showing the last 20 visitors to showing the last 100.

I can imagine there is a high demand on technical support for Site Meter. How do you handle this demand while still finding the time to improve/maintain this and other services you are involved with?

Yes, that has been a struggle. I answer all of my mail so I've made a lot of changes to Site Meter to cut down on the amount of support that is needed. One aspect of Site Meter that I didn't anticipate being support intensive was the "Stats-by-Email" feature where Site Meter members can get an email of their statistics every week. Email is a very flakey thing, email addresses change, people forget they signed up for the service and think they are getting spam, auto-replies and emails bounce constantly. Every day I get about 150 to 200 bounces which I was "foolishly" processing by hand for a while. I finally wrote a script to automatically unsubscribe the addresses that bounced. Even that didn't totally solve my problem because sometimes the script will unsubscribe someone who just has an auto-reply setup for their email account.

Apart from technical support, can you give us a quick run down on what else is involved in running a service such as Site Meter?

The day-to-day things involve monitoring the servers to make sure they are running fast, backing up the databases, and looking for new sources of income.

I notice there is a new version of Site Meter being developed. What new features and improvements do you plan this version will bring?

After Site Meter grew beyond a single file server, things got a little trickier to manage. The main thing that the new version of Site Meter will provide for right now is expandability. Even though Site Meter is now using four servers, it wasn't originally designed to be split into four servers.The server that displays the Site Meter reports can now be a different server from the one that services the counters and processes the tracking logs. Some of the 'cooler' new features will involve 'wireless' web pages. I've been creating some status and administration pages for Site Meter in WAP (the wireless version of HTML) over the last couple months. They are mainly to monitor Site Meter by cell phone when I'm away from my computer. I'm going to provide wireless access of site statistics to the Site Meter members. What I haven't figured out yet, is whether (or how much) to charge for it.

Finally, can you give some words of advice to those who are just entering the massive world of web development?

Keep your site focused. Any successful business has a mission that you can refer to as you make decisions. When you are thinking about what to add to your site next, there are a lot of places where you can get distracted into adding things that don't make sense. For instance, at least once a month I'm contacted by someone about adding a shopping area to Site Meter. While there would probably be modest sales in the shopping area, it would cloud and dilute what people think of when they think of Site Meter. It would also take away time I could spend adding features that really do belong in Site Meter.
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