Mint versus Google Analytics

NOTE: This article covers the OLD version of Google Analytics at the time of this writing. The current version of Analytics, launched in 2007, is much different.

At the end of October, I moved to a new server and decided to stop using the web traffic logging provided by Mint. There were three reasons behind this decision:

  1. I was spending way too much time checking my stats.

  2. Someone mentioned to me that the size of my WordPress database was surprisingly large. Let me guess…you’re running stats? went the comment.

  3. I was reading in the old host’s acceptable use policy for databases that stat logging was specifically disallowed. Ooops.

So I dropped Mint and tried surviving on Google Analytics and the free version of Statcounter. That experiment has ended today, and I’ve decided to reinstall Mint.

Why I Track Stats

Since the vast majority of blog visitors do not leave comments, watching web statistics is one of the primary feedback mechanisms that help me assess what’s going on with my writing. The raw numbers of interest to a blogger are page views and unique visitors; it’s very satisfying to see the numbers slowly rise over time. When there’s a big spike in traffic, that often means that there is something interesting going on elsewhere on the Internet with my name attached to it somehow, and that’s good to know. Also of interest are search terms used to find the site, popular content, and who has linked to me. To a lesser extent, I’m also interested in what outbound links people are clicking on. This gives me a view of how people are using the site, what’s popular, what’s not, and what’s surprising. I once saw a whole bunch of hits from a webmail system from a university, and I later learned that The Printable CEO™ stuff had been making the rounds there. Fascinating! All three stat trackers I’ve mentioned rely on Javascript to tickle a webservice on a server to log a visit. The advantage of these services over regular web server log analyzers (Analog, Webalyzer, HTTPAnalyze) is realtime statistics; I can see what’s going on at any time of the day to watch trends unfold. With a server log package, the stats are usually available at the end of the day, when it’s too late to do anything about a rise in traffic. Anyway, the javascript-based stat trackers require that there’s a webservice for the database to communicate with. For Google Analytics and Statcounter, the servers are under their control. With Mint, you use your website as the server (requirements: a PHP-enabled web server and a MySQL database). Here’s how they compare:

Comparing Cost

  • Mint costs $30/site, and logs everything to your own MySQL database.

  • Google Analytics is free and doesn’t have any limits I know of. UPDATE: It might actually not store data past a month, not sure.

  • Statcounter is free for up to 100 logged visits at a time. For site that gets more than 50-100 hits a day, you’ll need to pay a monthly fee (minimum: $9 for 1000 hits logged, $29 gets you 25K).

I keep the free version of StatCounter enabled because I’ve always used it, so I can see the the history of web traffic from the day I started blogging.

Comparing Realtime Utility

  • Mint reports activity to the minute, and is extendable through plugins (called “Peppers”) that add additional tracking capabilities. You can get a list of Mint plugins to see what extensions have already been authored.

  • Statcounter is also up-to-date on a minute-by-minute basis. However, the aforementioned log limit for the free version makes trendwatching over several days difficult without paying at least $29/month. Since Mint itself costs $30 for one-time use, it’s a better deal.

  • Google Analytics is not up-to-the-minute. It seems to take between 4 hours-24 hours to update with the latest data. This is far better than the week it took when the service was hammered by new registrants, but still Mint and Statcounter handily trounce it. Google Analytics is getting faster, but the delay is such that I don’t feel it’s particularly real-time.

Comparing Quality of Experience

  • Mint’s front end is attractive, robust, and highly useful. The base installation is good for tracking data over a period of time, searches, and referrers. With extensions, you can track downloads, outclicks, and trends, all within the same slickly-designed GUI. Thumbs up! Very Web 2.0! The one thing that is missing is visitor tracking; I know there is a SessionTracker plugin, but it’s not as useful as Statcounter’s implementation.

  • Statcounter looks more like an old-school web app, but it provides lots of useful ways of digging through the actual behaviors of your site visitors. In this regard I like it better than Mint, particularly for its visitor tracking capabilities. You can start with a hit from a search result, and then track the trail of page visits to see how people are exploring your site. The SessionTracker pepper for Mint does allow you to see visitor paths, but it doesn’t let you track from the very first hit. It is essentially a stand-alone plugin co-existing in the same UI shell, so it can’t integrate the data from other parts of Mint (i.e. the keyword search data is is not cross-referenced into the session trail). Statcounter also seems to do a better job of reverse DNS lookup to convert numeric IP numbers to their domain names without making you wait; they probably cache the DNS information. While Mint CAN do the reverse lookup with the XXX Strong Mint plugin, it takes a lot of time and you will have to wait many seconds for each lookup to complete, not to mention that this may bog down your server if you have a large log; this is not the sort of thing you would want to do on a shared server.

  • Google Analytics feels to me like a hybrid Web 2.0 application, and at first glance provides TONS of useful information and pretty graphs. It has a neat graphical overlay of popular clicks and their position on the page, neat mapping capabilities, flexible date range-based statistical sorting, and a full complement of export capabilities. It also integrates with your AdWords campaigns and gives you all the information you need to track the performance of your content. However, for my needs I don’t find it particularly fun to use because the information I need is buried under layers of menus. I can’t track session trails through the site in the way I’d like to. It takes several clicks through several menus to get the referrer, keyword search, and popularity results, and I can never remember which is which. Factor in its lag time in updating, and the experience is less than satisfying. With Mint, I can get the big picture of what’s going on with my web traffic all on one page. With Google Analytics, I’ve got to dig through a lot of reports. Plus, Mint just looks better.

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p>In short, Mint does a great job of giving me the information I need to see trends. Statcounter does a better job of showing how people (anonymously, I should mention) are spending their time exploring the site over a period of time. Google Analytics does a lot of that too, but requires too much clicking and page refreshing to build the same picture, with less detail than either Statcounter or Mint. Perhaps all this clicking and raw data is the nature of “web analytics”, and I just don’t get it.

So Mint is Back Online. Long live Mint!

Shaun Inman at SXSW 06 I’m sure there are tons of other tracking services that I could look into, but these are the three I have the most experience with. For inexpensive, realtime tracking of web traffic, I’ve found that I needed Mint back. While I had it uninstalled, I found myself going back to Statcounter every 30 minutes to get that “big picture”, because Google Analytics just wasn’t updating fast enough AND it’s cumbersome to get at the stats that I care most about:

  • Current traffic levels by the hour and day
  • What’s popular
  • Where links are coming from
  • What’s being downloaded
  • What outgoing links are being clicked

With Google Analytics, getting that information (if it’s even available) takes 8-10 clicks in nested menus. With Mint, it’s just a matter of visiting the page and looking at it. If I was running actual web marketing campaigns on my site, I’m sure Google Analytics would be far more useful, but as that’s not the case it’s not for me. If I had the money I would use Statcounter because I like its drill-down features.

Screenshots: Mint

Mint PreferencesHere’s what the Preferences screen looks like. It’s all yummy DHTML / AJAX / Web 2.0. Very pretty and functional (in FireFox, anyway).


Mint Main ScreenAnd here’s my main Mint screen. Additional peppers installed (aka plugins): Outclicks, DLoads, Trends, Notification (this sends me an email if some interesting event occurs, like more pageloads in an hour than is normal), SessionTracker, and Sparks.

I should note that I have been tracking data for less than a day, so there aren’t a whole lot of stats to look at. But you get the idea.

Another note: I recently dropped DLoads because this was apparently the cause of the massive server spikes that got me kicked off my old server…I think DLoad’s method of reading files into PHP to buffer files caused much memory overusage. I switched to Steve Smith’s Download Counter as an alternative.

Dave’s Assessment: This is a good middle ground between the nutty data overload that is Google Analytics, and the more intimate tracking provided by StatCounter.

» Link to Mint home page. And a bonus link to digital renaissance man Shaun Inman, the creator of Mint.


Screenshots: Google Analytics

Google Analytics is capable of displaying a lot of interesting data and reporting, but it’s just overkill for me. There is so much reporting that I’ve just hilighted a few of the features here:

Google Analytics MainHere’s the main “executive summary” screen for Google Analytics, when you first log-in. Note that there isn’t any data for today yet in the system (it’s already 830AM here).


Google Analytics Top ContentThe top content on my site, apparently. I had to hunt-and-click through the menus on the left to get here.


Google Analytics Referring SourcesThe always-interesting “So how did people get to my site?” referring sources page.


Google Analytics All NavigationI’ve never seen this page before, but it looks interesting.


Dave’s assessment: Should I ever run a web marketing campaign and needed to learn how to use all this data, I would look at this again.

» Link to the Google Analytics home page.


Screenshots: StatCounter

StatCounter MainThe very Web 1.0 main page of StatCounter. Very straightforward. Since I’ve been using StatCounter from the time I started blogging, I can see the traffic plotted all the way back by adjusting the date range. It’s a pain in the ass to do that in Google Analytics (and it doesn’t seem to save data for more than a few months anyway).


StatCounter Content DrilldownI drilled down into the hits for the root page of “davidseah.com”. Since I only have 100 hits logged, and am getting about 200-300 hits per hour, I don’t see much detailed information. Here you can see, though, that there’s one user who has returned 33 times. And he/she uses a Mac! :-)


StatCounter Visitor DetailThis is a different user than the one above, but you can get an idea of what StatCounter allows you to do by drilling further down into the stats. You can actually see what a specific user is doing, and where they’re coming from.


You may not know their name, but StatCounter is able to trace the browsing habits of a specific user over time, IF you have enough historical data stored in the databases. That comes back down to how many log entries you’re paying for. If I 25,000 log entries ($29/month), I’d be able to see quite a bit more history and build a better picture of what people are really doing.

BTW, the blurred-out data in the screenshots is just the IP address and reverse-lookup. It’s some cable modem network in the Netherlands. StatCounter doesn’t give you the magical ability to look up personal names.

Dave’s assessment: StatCounter allows you to track the browsing patterns of individual users easily, which is something that Mint and Google Analytics can’t touch. If I was trying to understand the psychology of my visitors to build some kind of mental image of my core audience, I might use something like this. If this kind of tracking bothers you, you might consider blocking cookies from these sites.

» Link to the StatCounter home page.


3 WEEKS LATER…

It’s January 4th, and today I was LifeHackered, which took down my site. The helpful folks at my hosting company (FutureQuest) narrowed down the issue to Mint, which was causing server load spikes in excess of 100+. After they disabled it, loads dropped down back to normal.

I thought about this for a bit, and thought that since Mint peppers don’t share data, they might be invoking a LOT of extra database and CPU activity for every page load. And they might be doing it inefficiently. I uploaded another instance of Mint (the old one was locked out) and used that to change the configuration to unload everything except the default pepper. Then I asked FutureQuest to re-enable it, which they did cautiously. Since then the load apparently has been OK (Mint hasn’t been taken offline again)…2693 page loads in the last hour, and the load has averaged between 1.5 and 3.5. Not great, but not terrible.

Still, this brings up some high traffic considerations when using Mint on a shared server:

  • Beware of Peppers. They may cause excess CPU utilization, and get you kicked off your shared server when you experience even moderately-high traffic. And yes, I am already cacheing. I see that there’s a benchmark flag built into Mint since 1.24, which might be helpful in tracking down which Peppers are the culprit. However, I’m not sure if it benchmarks the actual ping on each pageload. The default installation by itself seems to work fine.

  • The Fresh Look is Fleeting. Mint is designed to give you an at-a-glance sense of what’s going on with your website. When you get a lot of traffic, that freshness is harder to catch. I spend a lot of time looking at unique referrers, and when they’re ALL unique and happening several times a minute, you quickly lose ’em. This is probably when using a regular log analysis tool would make more sense, especially if it can tell you WHEN certain pages became popular.