Not only can Web site server logs gauge traffic flow from users, they can also show in real time the user's operating system, browser type, average download time and referring link, such as a search engine or another site.
While server logs can't identify users by name or e-mail address, unless that information has been offered voluntarily, they can provide information that will drive changes in site content, marketing strategies and inventory.
3Com Corp. uses the traffic information captured on its logs for sales lead generation. First, 3Com marketers placed a banner ad to generate traffic to their site, where they offered a free compact disc or other giveaway in return for information about the user.
Through the promotion, 3Com and its marketing firm, Greco Ethridge Group, Boston, learned that an inordinate number of consultants were signing up for the offer, a group previously thought to be insignificant. Now, consultants play a larger role in 3Com equipment recommendations, and more marketing campaigns are aimed at the group.
Intelli.com, a Web developer and marketing firm based in Chicago, uses its server logs for a different lead-generation tactic: It looks at visitors' originating domain names, such as acme.com, tracks the user with cookies throughout the site and, despite having no names on the server logs, calls Acme's marketing department chief to see if he or she has any questions about the information the manager was accessing on the site.
Intelli.com's assumption about the site visitor is usually right, said Scott Madlener, president of Intelli.com.
"I know what clients are checking me out," Mr. Madlener said. "I can look at traffic patterns and get on the phone" and answer their questions.
Disk.com, a CD and floppy disk duplicator for b-to-b customers, launched a Web site developed by Intelli.com more than two years ago, selling products only locally.
Disk.com's initial goal was to land one or two sales to pay for the site's development. Early on, the server logs showed a lot of early morning traffic, as well as traffic from Japan.
At first, Mr. Madlener and Disk.com's owner considered expanding Disk.com's marketing to Japan, but after more investigation, they realized it was the competition checking out the company.
Though Disk.com didn't expand globally, the online orders have been so strong that three people on staff do nothing but fill Web site orders, Mr. Madlener said.
In 3Com's case, after analyzing its logs, the company realized that 40% of the visitors were from overseas. Until then, 3Com had done no international marketing.
"So what we did was we dug a little deeper, and wanted to figure out where they were coming from," said Paul Marobella, chief relationship officer at Greco Ethridge in Boston.
In response, 3Com bought international advertising space based on the visitors' areas of interest, launched direct mail programs and created Web sites in native languages.
Miller Genuine Draft, an Intelli.com client, launched its site with marketing information and accompanying content. The server logs have told MGD and Intelli.com which articles were popular and which were not.
"We used that information to increase content on certain subjects," Mr. Madlener said.
B-to-b companies have embraced the concept of analyzing and strategizing based on server logs, especially computer hardware and software companies such as Dell and Cisco. "They want to do 50% of their business on the Web by the year 2000, and they really have to understand what's going on on their Web site to make it happen," Mr. Marobella said.
"Now people are making business decisions based on their intelligence information of what their Web sites capture," Mr. Marobella said. "People are shaping marketing campaigns based on that information, especially in the business-to-business world."
Good tracking software will tell which products are selling well. While the top 25% of products, in terms of sales, may not need merchandising adjustment on the site, tough business decisions may need to be made on the rest of the items, Mr. Madlener said.
The bottom 25% may do better being sold elsewhere, such as at stores or through a print catalog, while the middle 50% may need a boost in marketing focus, such as more prominent merchandising or upselling.
Brand names for tracking software include NetTracker, WebTrends, NetGenesis and Mr. Madlener's own IntelliTrack.
In the future, more customized content targeted at Web site users will become commonplace. If a server can recognize the customer by region or by cookie, more personalized pages can be dynamically generated to meet the customer's needs.
For instance, if a user in New York visits the Orkin pest control site, he could get information concerning the pests that live in that particular climate, Mr. Madlener said.
He also sees b-to-b companies using e-mail reminders and suggestive selling techniques based on information culled from their server logs and registration processes.
Once customers are identified through registration, cross databasing or previous orders, marketers can remind them of a sale on the products they usually buy, or use the Amazon.com-like technique of suggesting the sale of related products based on other customers with a similar profile.
"Amazon uses their book database to cross-promote music and movies," Mr. Madlener said. "There's no reason why you can't do that on a b-to-b application."
Server logs have won praise from industry analysts.
Server logs "generate great data," said Evan Neufeld, senior analyst for advertising at Jupiter Communications, New York. "It's all about making the generic data actionable. That's where the value comes in."
Robbin Zeff, author of Advertising on the Internet, said: "In 1997, we built [Internet] infrastructure. In 1998, we figured out how to fit commerce into the equation. In 1999, we will figure out how to sell. How to do it is the crux of the matter. We are seeing how [server log information] is turning into an ROI advantage."