Urchin logoI often receive questions about Urchin – what it is (typically: Is it the commercial version of GA?) how it compares with Google Analytics, and how to choose between the two. This post, an abstract from the latest version of the book, explains what Urchin is, its relationship to Google Analytics and why, if at all, you need to consider it.

Urchin Software Inc. is the company and technology that Google acquired in April 2005 and went on to become Google Analytics—a free web analytics service that uses the resources at Google (I explain more about its history in Google Analytics – Fours Years on). Urchin software is a downloadable web analytics program that runs on a local server (Unix or Windows).

Typically, this is the same machine as your web server. The Urchin Software creates reports by processing your web server logfiles (including hybrid logfiles) and is commonly referred to as server-side web analytics. Example screenshots of Urchin Software (version 6) are shown in Figures 1 and 2.

Urchin 6 admin interface

Figure 1: Urchin 6 initial configuration screen

Urchin 6 report

Figure 2: Urchin 6 visitor report showing A) individual (anonymous) visitor information, B) visits by date, and C) path and resultant transaction information for a particular visit .

Urchin is essentially the same technology as Google Analytics—the difference when using Urchin is that your organization needs to provide the resources for log storage and data processing. Urchin can provide complementary reports that Google Analytics currently does not (or cannot because of its methodology). Let’s look at some examples:

  • Visitor history report
    Tracking individual visitors enables you to view the path a visitor takes through your website as well as their referral information. For privacy reasons Google has deliberately taken the decision not to track individuals with Google Analytics. However, with the data collection and processing under your control, you have the freedom to do this with Urchin. Each visitor is tracked anonymously.
  • Error page and status code reports
    More than just reporting completed page views (as is the case for Google Analytics), Urchin can report partial downloads and any error code. It is possible to configure your website to report error pages within Google Analytics. However, Urchin software reports on errors out of the box because your web server tracks these by default.
  • Bandwidth reports
    Reporting on bandwidth allows you to view how “heavy” your pages are and how this impacts the visitor’s experience.
  • Login reports
    If your website has a login area, you can report on this access by username. This supports standard Apache (.htaccess) or any authentication that logs usernames in the logfile.

Differences between Google Analytics and Urchin

With two analytics products from Google to choose from, how do you determine which one of these is right for your organization? As you may have guessed, Google Analytics is perfect for most organizations, for two very simple reasons:

  • Google Analytics is a free service
    This is generally considered a major benefit for small and medium-size organizations where budgets for analysis are tight. Urchin software is a licensed product and therefore must be purchased (currently $2,995 per installation).
  • Google Analytics handles a large part of the IT overhead
    That is, Google conducts the data collection, storage, program maintenance, and upgrades for you. This is generally considered a major benefit for large organizations where web analytics is a priority for the Marketing department and less so for the IT department. If your organization is using Urchin software, it is responsible for the IT overhead. Hence, good interdepartmental communication (IT and Marketing) is required.

The second point is not trivial. In fact, in my experience, the IT overhead of implementing tools was the main reason why web analytics remained a niche industry for such a large part of its existence. Maintaining your own logfiles has an overhead, mainly because web server logfiles get very large, very quickly. As a guide, every 1,000 visits produce approximately 4 MB of log info. Therefore, 10,000 visits per month are approximately 500 MB per year. If you have 100,000 visits per month, that’s 5 GB per year, and so on. Those are just estimates—for your own site, these could easily double. At the end of the day, managing large logfiles isn’t something your IT department gets excited about.

Urchin also requires disk space for its processed data (stored in a proprietary database). Though this will always be a smaller size than the raw collected numbers, storing and archiving all this information is an important task because if you run out of disk space, you risk file or database corruption from disk-write errors. This kind of file corruption is almost impossible to recover from.

As an aside, if you maintain your own visitor data logfiles, the security and privacy of collected information (your visitors) also become your responsibility.

Why, then, might you consider Urchin software at all?

Urchin software does have some real advantages over Google Analytics. For example, data is recorded and stored by your web server, rather than streamed to Google, which means the following:

  • Data processing and reprocessing
    Urchin can process data as and when you wish, for example, on the hour, every hour. You can also reprocess data—to apply a filter retroactively or to correct a filter error. Google Analytics reports are three to four hours in arrears and cannot reprocess data retroactively (in my opinion, the benefit of reprocessing data is the strongest advantage of Urchin).
  • Unlimited data storage
    Urchin can keep and view data for as long as you wish. Google Analytics currently commits to keeping data for a maximum of 25 months, though to date, Google has made no attempt to remove data older than this—see Figure 3.1.
  • Third-party auditing
    Urchin allows your data to be audited by an independent third party. This is usually important for publishers who sell advertising space on their site, where auditing is required to verify visitor numbers and provide credibility for advertisers (trust in their rate card). Google Analytics does not pass data to third parties.
  • Intranets and firewalls
    Urchin works behind the firewall; that is, it’s suitable for intranets. Google Analytics page tags cannot run behind a closed firewall.
  • Database access
    Urchin stores data locally in a proprietary database and includes tools that can be used to access the raw data outside a web browser, allowing you to run ad hoc queries. Google Analytics stores data in remote locations within Google datacenters around the world in proprietary databases and does not provide direct access to the raw data for ad hoc queries. That said, the Google Analytics API does allow you to query your processed data.

Note: Urchin is sold and supported exclusively through a network of Urchin Software Authorized Consultants. For a full list of USACs, see www.google.com/urchin/usac.html.

When it comes to adoption numbers, Urchin is certainly the smaller sibling compared to GA. However, when appropriate I recommend using both side by side.

Many people first come into contact with Urchin from their ISP/hosting account. Are you an Urchin user? Are you on version 5 (2004) or version 6 (2008)? I would love to hear your feedback. I am planning the next post on Urchin to discuss the criteria for selecting GA v Urchin. If that interests you, let me know – it motivates me to write it…!