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Referrer Madness

  |  July 10, 2000   |  Comments

Referrer logs can be one of a web marketer's most useful weapons. Mike explains the referrer log itself, highlights its contents, and shares three ways to use the information to further your online marketing. Not every webmaster or Internet service provider (ISP) makes referrer log information automatically available; you have to ask for it specifically. Tell your webmaster or ISP that you want "extended format" logging. And if your request for referrer logs doesn't register, consider changing ISPs.

With a nod to Cliff Allen's July 4 article on referrer logs, I thought it might be useful to look at the referrer log itself, highlight its contents, and then share three ways to use the information to further your online marketing.

Referrer Logs Described

Web servers keep three types of logs. (How they're kept differs from operating system to operating system). They are:

  1. The access log, which tracks visitors (hits, unique sessions, most pages viewed, etc.)

  2. The agent log, which tracks browsers (operating systems, browser versions, etc.)

  3. The referrer log, which tracks, well, tracks (where someone came from, where he or she went on your site, where he or she left, etc.)

Here's an entry from my referrer log (showing that someone came to my Pricing page from an affinity link at Jim Geisman's Software Pricing web site):

http://www.softwarepricing.com/articles.htm -> /Pricing.htm

There are essentially two parts to the log entry.

  1. The URL (the part to the left of ->) tells you what URL the download request came from.

  2. The filename (the part to the right of ->) tells you the name of the files requested from that location.

Since every element of a web page (graphics as well as the html page itself) is a file download, you'll see an entry for each file downloaded for each page: A single page can generate many entries in the referrer log, just as it does in the access log.

This is how the log analysis tools are able to display path analysis information. By tracking this information, the tools can report on (among other things) where someone began looking at your site, how that person traveled through the site, and where that person left your site.

Now let's look at a more complex entry, this one generated from a search engine:

aq&search.x=29&search.y=14 -> /Pricing.htm

This comes from AltaVista. The information to the left of the -> is the full URL the long string of variable information that you see in the location bar whenever you enter a search query at an engine. And the part to the right shows the filename that URL downloaded. From here, I can see that the search was for "software pricing" and "users," and the page requested was Pricing.htm.

Putting Referrer Logs Into the Marketing Arsenal

Now let's look at three things you can do by digging into the logs themselves and utilizing this information.

Recreate a Visitor's Exact Search

If you remove the last part of the AltaVista referrer entry (including the ->), you end up with this:


Now, if you click on this URL or copy and paste it into the location bar of your browser you will exactly recreate the search that brought that visitor to my site. You can see where I ranked on that engine for that keyword or key phrase, who was ahead of me and behind me (I did well for this one), and, often, find interesting sites for affinity and information.

Find New Engines

I'm always surprised to find all the engines that are used to reach my site. The log analysis tools are preconfigured to track the most popular engines. You can configure them to look for other engines as well if you know what engines are out there. (Subscribe to Search Engine Watch to read concise instructions on how to do this.) A quick look through my most recent referrer log shows me these engines that aren't part of the standard tool configurations:

  1. In Find

  2. All the Web

  3. Deepcanyon

  4. Brasil Online

  5. Thebiz

  6. Searchalot

  7. Goo

  8. Go Hip

  9. Pro Fusion

  10. Mamma

Focus Site Presentation

A simple Javascript can be set up so that you can direct people to a specific web page on your site, based on the site from which they linked to you and no matter what page they originally linked to at your site.

For instance, let's say you sell bicycle seats. There are links to your site from all across the web including one from a childrens resource center site and another from a mountain-bike club. As is usually the case on the web, both sites link to your home page, which in these cases may not be the ideal location to bring them. You can deploy a Javascript that collects referrer information when the visitor arrives and then redirects the visitor to a particular page based on that information. (Yes, you have to set the script to recognize individual URLs.)

Now, when visitors come from the children's site, you can automatically direct them to your catalog of children's bike seats and accessories, and visitors from the mountain-bike club can be directed straight to your catalog of mountain-bike seats and accessories. You can also welcome people from a particular site ("Welcome visitors from Acme Mountain Bikes") by creating a specific page for them. But be careful here people get nervous if they think you know too much about them, so you want to let them know how you determined their link point to you.

A Treasure of Information

The information in a referrer log is very valuable, but not every webmaster or ISP makes this information automatically available (especially those that are running UNIX servers). You often have to ask for it specifically my experience is that not every ISP administrator knows much about it so tell him or her that you want "extended format" logging that should be close-enough language for both Wintel and UNIX hosts. (If your request for referrer logs doesn't register with them at all, consider changing ISPs.) Referrer logs can be one of a web marketer's most useful weapons.


Michael Fischler

Michael Fischler is founder and principal consultant of Markitek Consulting, which for nearly a decade has provided consulting services to companies around the world, from startups and small companies to giants like Kodak and Pirelli. Michael's approach to marketing revolves around the integration of the core marketing disciplines: strategic, tactical, operational, and technological. He is a 25-year veteran of marketing and a frequent speaker at business and marketing conferences worldwide.

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