Long term metrics, and other goodies

Our newest update is all about the long term, and it's one of the best things we've ever done. I'd recommend grabbing a fresh pair of pants before reading on because you're going to need them before you're done reading this.

It all started out innocently enough: A fairly simple update to goals that before I knew it had morphed into something else entirely. 80% of the stuff in this update was never planned, all of these ideas just starting coming to me as I kept working on it. "Hmmm this would be sweet, oh this too, oh and this..." Within days my bullet point todo list for this update was ridiculously long and ended up taking almost 3 weeks to complete. But that's the way it usually goes when I feel I'm on to something good.

New goal report

The main goal report still looks the same - until you click on a goal, that is. This new "single goal" report is awesome. Here's an example of one goal we track for new users registering with Clicky:

Talking points:
  • You can now graph all goal metrics (conversions, conversion rate, revenue [not shown], visits to goal, and time to goal), simply by clicking on any of those large-sized metrics at the top of the report. Previously you could only graph conversions. We've had a million requests to graph this other data - now you finally can. We considered graphing all of them at once but they all have vastly different scales and it simply did not work well.

  • "This visit" and "first visit" - Like most non-enterprise level services, Clicky used to only give you "this visit" data, e.g. data from the current session where the visitor converted. While interesting, most visitors do not convert on their first visit to your web site, so this data doesn't show the long term effects of your marketing efforts - example, which campaign they originally came in from when they bought something two weeks later, or what site they originally were referred by, if any.

    And that's exactly what "first visit" is all about. When a visitor converts, we now look up both their current session and their very first session on your site (that we know about it) immediately and summarize it in a table that lets us generate this report really fast, even over large date ranges. I can pull up this new report for a 30 day date range for any of the goals we track in less than 1 second. Not bad!

    Going down these two new columns are five categories (only two are shown here to keep the size reasonable). These categories are campaigns, referring domains, searches, split tests, and goals, which we feel are the most relevant metrics to track in relation to tracking conversions. Previously you could see this data if you filtered your visitors by a goal then chose the appropriate segment, but we wanted to bring these important metrics front and center and make it load super fast.

    Trends are also shown for all data types in this/first visit columns, and you can of course click the red/green percentage next to any of them to graph historical data just like you can with any other report. Of note however is that we've only been tracking this data for 3 days, so there isn't much history yet.

New visitor details page

The old visitor details page did the job, but I used to refer to it as "Old Betty" if that tells you anything about my feelings towards it. I wanted to make it look nice, and add way more details to it. So... I did!

  • Jam packed with details - Click here to see what this report used to look like, for the same visitor. There used to be a lot of wasted white space, with things like one line for browser, one for OS, and one for screen resolution. These are all related, so why not group together? Same with hostname/org, IP + ARIN/RIPE lookups, etc.

  • All time goals - Everytime a unique visitor completes a goal for the very first time, we've logged it to a table for over a year now I think. This was originally so we could calculate the "time to goal" and "visits to goal" metrics, making sure we were only counting each person once per goal. While making this new update, I realized how interesting this data could be. I can't believe we've had it for as long as we have and never shown it to you like this. So, that's what this is. Every unique goal that this unique and beautiful snowflake has ever completed is shown here, in chronological order, with the date shown next to each one. Clicking on that date will take you to the session where they completed this goal!

  • This visit / first visit - Just like the new goal report, we also show this kind of information in the visitor details pain now. So now whenever you're viewing the details for any of your visitors, you can immediately see interesting details from their first visit as well - including how long ago it was (in this example, 288 days and 15 hours ago). Want to see that first visit? Click on the date. Bam.

Oh, you thought we were done?

New visitors report

  • Reorganization - If you use goals or campaigns, icons for those were shown near the left for visitors who had either one attached to them. The problem with this is that most visitors don't have goals or campaigns attached, so this added a lot of empty white space in the middle of the report which always bothered me. So, we moved these icons to the very right hand side of the report. (This example is a bit cluttered because I filtered by visitors who had completed any goal, just to make sure there was lots of things to see).

  • Direct Spy access - In the screenshot above, you'll see a third icon as well next to some visitors. What is this? Oh, it's only the best thing ever! If you're old school, you'll recognize this used to be the icon we had for the Spy report, before we removed the icons because we ran out of space. If you see this eye, that means that the visitor is online now, and you can click the icon to go straight to Spy with this visitor already pre-filtered! (If you don't have a premium account, you don't have Spy, so instead we just show a green dot icon indicating their online status).

    (My only problem here is that the eye icon is available as a choice to you when setting up goals and campaigns. So you might want to change that if you're using it for anything, to prevent confusion. But there is no better icon to represent what this new function does, so I had to use it. Had to.)

  • Quick access to visitor details - So those visitor details I was just telling you about before? Well, there's no need to actually go to the visitor details page anymore, because they're now available directly on the main visitors report. Next to the "actions" link (e.g. "3 actions"), is a grey arrow pointing top right. Click this icon and you'll immediately see the full visitor/session details page in a lightbox without having to go to a new page.


The code that generates graphs when you click on a trend (those red/green percentages) was a mess and had been rewritten multiple times in several places for specific functionality. This is called horrible design. I took the time to rewrite it from scratch and it's way smarter and centralized in one place now, as it should be. Previously this code was unable to graph anything that had a parent/child relationship - for example, the this/first visit columns in the new goal report, that data is stored as "children" of the "parent" goal. I wouldn't have been able to let you graph this without rewriting this awful code. I really had no choice here.

So what's the bonus? Well, if you use our Twitter keyword monitoring, of course we keep history for all of that data - but we never showed you the trend percentage because we didn't want you to try to click it and have nothing happen (this data is stored with same parent/child relationship in the database). But since that mess is fixed, I have enabled the trends on the Twitter report, including the ability to graph any of them by clicking it. I use our Twitter monitoring a bit obsessively so, considering we released this feature almost 3 years ago, it's about damn time is all I have to say.

One more thing

From a UX perspective, the fact that we graph both hourly and daily data using the same colors is confusing, because we only log some data as hourly, and we show hourly by default if we have it. The only solution I can think of is to have the two types be different colors, but I can't find anything that works with our overall color scheme. We have a heavy emphasis on blue and orange. So I tried changing one of them to orange, and it looked horrible (screenshot). I'm just wondering if anyone has any ideas in this department, because I'm at a loss.

Ok, one more

In development for 2 months now is our path analysis feature. We're still working out the wiggles but expect it to be out within a few weeks and it will make an excellent partner to goals (although of course you will be able to use it without goals).

20 comments |   Feb 01 2012 9:46pm

Count your chickens while they're still hatching

About 3 months ago, Google announced that all users logged in to their Google account, their search terms would be hidden from the referrer string when they clicked through. Net result is no trackers can see these search terms (surprisingly, this includes Google Analytics). Google says this is for privacy reasons. That's great, but I've said a thousand times, search analytics is one of the best reasons to run analytics in the first place so it sucks for site owners.

Anyways, the way our code processed blank search terms, they would show up like this:

This has led to a lot of confusion and many people thinking Clicky is broken, because they weren't aware of this change on Google's end (understandable).

Google updated their Analytics product to show the search as "(Not provided)" if it was blank. We've decided to do the same thing, although we are labeling it as "[unknown]" instead:

(Update: Per request, we changed this to [secure search] instead)

The main difference though is that this will now show up in your main searches report too. Previously blank searches just weren't logged in there. Now you will see an item for "[unknown]", and unfortunately it's probably pretty high on the list. For our own stats on getclicky.com, it's the #3 "search term", representing about 1 out of every 6 searches.

I wouldn't be surprised if Google made this the default for all searches on Google sites within the next year or two. Hence I say to you, count your chickens etc, because that will be a horrible day for site owners the world round.

At the very least however, I am happy to know that Google is not providing a back door to their own analytics product that allows them to log the searches but not anyone else. That would just be evil, not to mention anti-competitive.
22 comments |   Jan 04 2012 10:40pm

Load balancing the load balancers

Load balancing your load balancers sounds a bit ridiculous but yes, that's what we have to do to scale.

For about three and a half years, we've had a single pair of load balancers. One active, one in "hot standby" mode to take over if the active one goes offline. It's worked really well, but they were reaching capacity. I've pulled all sorts of tricks out of my hat to reduce excess load, but the time finally arrived where new hardware was the only option left.

So, we just added two more load balancers to the equation. But these new ones are twice as powerful as the old ones, and instead of active/passive pairing, they're both active. This means we have a total of three active load balancers, and these are load balanced with DNS round robin, with DNS monitoring/failover on top of that to quickly and automatically remove one from the pool in case it has a problem. The old ones act as a front for our entire service with a bunch of virtual services running on them, and hence remain paired (keeping them in sync would otherwise be a nightmare). The new ones are just for additional tracking capacity and nothing else though, so this setup is great for us.

Speaking of tracking capacity, this just quintupled it to ~25,000 pageviews/second. Just in time too, because last year, online activity on "Black Friday" and (cringe) "Cyber Monday" sent a ton of extra traffic our way and knocked us offline for a bit. This year, we're ready, so bring it!

Something else we just changed today is that the static resources for our web site are no longer hosted on "static.getclicky.com". A problem common with many trackers is that their domains are on blacklists of ad-blockers and other privacy software. These days, almost weekly we get an email from someone saying our site looks funny. This is because their browser, or their OS, or their ISP, or who knows, is blocking static.getclicky.com from loading anything, so the stylesheet doesn't get loaded (nor any of the images, javascript, etc).

But we've had a secondary domain, "staticstuff.net", that we've used as a generic CDN domain for our white label service for a while now. I had to change a few things around and get SSL running on it, but now that that's done, all assets for our web site (except the tracking code itself) will load from this domain instead. It points to the same servers, but it should bypass 99% of these blacklists because they are almost always based on domain name.
7 comments |   Nov 15 2011 1:28am

Google search rankings :D

Considering how much Google has been playing the privacy card recently, I'm surprised they do this, but it turns out the referrer string for Google searches typically includes a variable in the URL, "cd", which signifies the approximate ranking of the link someone clicked on to get to your site for a search term. e.g. "1" would mean your page was the top result.

We've had requests to parse this data. As of about 20 minutes ago, we are now doing just that! (Pro+ account required).

Note that this is passive, in other words, we only have the data that Google gives us as people click through on search results. We're not scraping SERPs, and we only have this data from Google because they're the only ones who do this. (If any other major engines do it too, let us know and we'll try to add it). If you want scraped results, you should use our SheerSEO integration.

The screenshots below show how we report this data (5 different places - Spy is my favorite). Keep in mind the data shown in these screens is from our own stats and it's only been live for a short time so there's only a few results logged so far. But I took a peak at some super high traffic sites to see what the reports looked like there, and it's awesome.

Also, the ranking numbers you see for any given search are the average of all searches for that term. Not all visitors see the exact same search results! So if you had two people with a search and one saw it at position 4 and the other at position 5, the number reported would be 4.5.

First, rankings integrated right into the main search report:

But of course there's also a report dedicated to just rankings, and in this case, they are sorted from best to worst rank (menu included in the screen so you can see where to go to get this):

We integrated it into the "keywords" report too, so you can see your average ranking for any given single word. Note that the ranking numbers in this shot aren't accurate, since we're dividing the sum of all rankings for any word by the total number of searches for that word on that day, and since we only have ranking data for 20 minutes so far today, the divisor is out of proportion. Come tomorrow, it will be correct.

We also added it to the dashboard search module:

And last but certainly not least, we put it in Spy, which is my absolute favorite. As live searches from Google stream in, we'll show you the ranking right there (if it's included in the referrer string). You might also notice we're now showing the search in the same way we used to with the old version of spy, where it's a separate string instead of just the full referrer string which is harder to read searches from:

I freaking love this and hope you do too!!
30 comments |   Nov 10 2011 10:22pm

Here's what's been happening

It's been a rough week. I wanted to explain what has been happening recently with our CDN, and talk about all of the problems we've had with CDNs in general. If you can stomach a novel, you'll discover the good news that it's been resolved to the point where we don't foresee any further issues.

The quest

In June, we decided to move away from our home brew CDN and get a real one, because we were outgrowing it and it was becoming a real pain to manage amongst other things.

The main requirement was that we needed support for HTTPS with our own domain name (static.getclicky.com). There are surprisingly few CDN's out there that offer this service without selling your soul and first born child. Most CDN's only let you use a generic sub-domain of their CDN's domain to get HTTPS, such as omg-secure.somecdn.net. This is fine the assets on the CDN are only for your web site, but that obviously is not the case with us.

Literally the only two we could find that offered this feature at a reasonable price were CloudFlare and MaxCDN, so we decided to test these out. We also wanted to try one of the enterprise level ones, just to see the difference in performance. For this we chose the 800lb gorilla that is Akamai.

MaxCDN offers HTTPS for $99 setup + $99/month, on top of the normal bandwidth costs. Very reasonable. The service was perfectly fine, but they only have locations in the US and Europe. This is definitely a majority of our market but we wanted Asia too. Well, they do offer Asia, but you have to upgrade to their enterprise service, NetDNA, for considerably more money. It was still less than what we were paying for our home brew CDN though, so I decided to try it.

This was one of the worst days I've ever had. I didn't know when the transition was occurring, because I had to submit a ticket for it and then just wait. When they finished it, they let me know, but they messed up the configuration so the HTTPS didn't work. (They forgot the chain file. If you know how certificates work, that's kind of important). It was several hours before I realized this however, because DNS hadn't propagated yet - I was still hitting their old servers for a while, which were still working fine. Once I realized there was a problem, the damage had already been done to anyone who was tracking a secure site. Not to mention it completely broke our web site for our Pro+ members, since they get HTTPS interface by default and none of the assets were loading for them. I immediately emailed them to get it fixed, meanwhile I pointed the domain back to our old CDN so HTTPS would work in the meantime. But they never actually got it fixed. I don't know what the problem was, we had a lot of back and forth, but it was clear this was not going to work.

Next was Cloudflare. I'd met the founders at TechCrunch Disrupt the previous September, they're great. Thing is, they're not technically a pure CDN. You point your DNS to them, and then all of your site's traffic passes through their network. They automatically cache all of your static resources on their servers, and then "accelerate" your HTML / dynamic content. Accelerating means requests to your server pass through their network directly to speed them up, but they don't cache the actual HTML - it just gets to you faster because the route is optimized.

All in all it's a fantastic service, and I'd be all for it, but they didn't (and still don't) support wildcard DNS - which is another do-or-die feature for us because of our white label analytics service. But their rock star support guy, John, told me they could setup a special integration with us where we could just point a sub-domain to them to act as a traditional CDN. Well, it was worth trying because there weren't any other options at this price level, especially since HTTPS only costs $1/month on top of their normal pricing, and they have servers in Asia too. It seemed too good to be true really. How could they be doing this for such a great price and have such good support? I'm pretty sure John doesn't sleep, no matter what time I email him I have a reply in minutes it seems.

Anyways, the service worked great. We had it live for a week or two. At some point there was a problem that caused us to move back to our home brew CDN, although I don't recall what it was exactly. But overall I was happy and planned to test it again in the future, but I still had Akamai to test.

Akamai is what the big boys use. Facebook, etc. I knew it was good, but also expensive. However, I figured it was worth it if the service was as good as I expected it to be. They literally have thousands of data centers, including South America and Africa which very very few CDN's have, and my speed tests on their edge servers were off the charts. Using just-ping.com, which tests response time from over 50 locations worldwide, I could barely find a single location that had higher than 10ms response time. Ridiculous to say the least.

They gave us a 90 day no commitment trial to test their service, which was appreciated. Their sales and engineer team were great. Very professional, timely, and helpful. But man did I hate their control panel. It was nothing short of the most confusing interface I have ever laid eyes on. I had no idea how to do anything, and I'm usually the guy who figures that kind of thing out.

They walked me through a basic setup, but then the next thing I didn't like was discovered - any changes you want to make take 4 hours to deploy. What if you screw something up? That's gonna be a nail biting 4 hour ball of stress waiting for it to get fixed.

I never actually got to really test their service because I was just too scared of screwing it up. A few weeks had passed and I had forgotten how to configure anything. My patience was wearing thin, as our custom CDN continued to deteriorate and I was dealing with other junk too. There's always a thousand things going on around here.

John from Cloudflare continued to email me to ask how our testing was going with these other services. He was confident Cloudflare would meet our needs. I was pretty sure too, just hadn't made up my mind yet. But I decided to go back to them because I didn't have much other choice.

That was early August and, well, we've been with them ever since. No problems at all. Great service. Overall I have nothing but good things to say.

But then...

Well, it turns out there was a problem. A few weeks ago, our "pull" server (that they pull static files from) crashed, and at the same time our tracking code stopped being served. It was fixed quickly but... How could this be? They should be caching everything from this server, right?

I emailed them about it and they weren't sure how the server crashing would affect cached files being served. But unless the cache expired at the exact same time as the crash, something was definitely up.

I did some digging and finally ended up "watch"ing the ifconfig output on the pull server, which shows bandwidth usage amongst other things. We were pushing almost 3MB per second of data out of that thing. Hmm, that doesn't seem right.

I renamed the tracking code file as a quick test, and sure enough, suddenly Cloudflare wouldn't serve it. Put it back, bam, it worked.

Clearly this file was not being cached. But why? Well, it wasn't their fault. The problem was the rather strange URL for our tracking code. Instead of e.g. static.getclicky.com/track.js, the URL is just static.getclicky.com/js. This is one of those "Why the hell did I ever do that" type things, but is too late to change now with almost 400,000 sites already pointing to it.

I emailed them about this and only then discovered that they cache based on file extension, not mime type or cache headers, which we of course properly serve. I wish I knew this beforehand, but wish in one hand shit in the other, see which one fills up first.

At this point I knew I needed to do something, since this single file was not being cached properly, it relied 100% on the single pull server being online at all times. I should have made it my #1 priority but with only a single 5 minute outage in 2 months, I somehow convinced myself I could think about it for a while. This was a big mistake on my part and I apologize profusely for it - it won't happen again. I could have spent a few grand with Dyn to get failover immediately to give us a safeguard until I found the right (affordable) solution, but I didn't (more on this in a second). I'm really sorry and I won't compromise our reliability like that again. Clearly it was not worth it.

So anyways, the same day I discover this caching issue, the server crashed... again. I got it fixed quickly, and as a quick precaution I setup another server and setup round robin DNS to serve both IPs so in case one crashed, there'd be backup. However there was not monitoring/failover on this config, but if DNS serves multiple IPs for a domain, theoretically the requester is supposed to fall back on the second one if the first one fails. I had never actually tested this scenario, but it was just an intermittent fingers-crossed fix until I got a real solution in place.

And then the server crashed again... and I discovered this did not work as I hoped (surprise).

Ok, so we need failover on this, like yesterday. This is now my #1 priority. Our DNS provider, Dyn, offers this feature, but what I hate about their implementation is the restrictions they place on the TTL (time to live), which is how long DNS will cache a query for. Obviously the TTL should be fairly short for maximum uptime, but the max they allow you to set with failover is 7.5 minutes. And with our level of traffic, this increases our bill several thousand dollars a month which is a bit steep for my liking. Not to mention the expensive monthly base fee just to have this feature enabled in the first place.

The plan

I finally came up with a plan though. I found another DNS provider, DNSMadeEasy.com, that offers monitoring/failover for very reasonable pricing and no restrictions on TTL. I specifically emailed them about this like 4 times to confirm it would work exactly as I expected. However I can't just transfer getclicky.com to be hosted there, because we're in a contract with Dyn (sigh). So I was going to setup a different domain on their servers, and then using CNAME's, point Cloudflare to pull files from that domain, instead of the sub-domain we were using for getclicky.com.

That was yesterday. "Great!", I said to myself. "I'll set it up first thing tomorrow because it's almost midnight!"

And then this morning.......... that's right, the freaking server crashed again. My phone was on silent by accident and I slept in, so for almost 2 hours our tracking code was only being served for about 75% of requests (because DNS IP fallback does work some of the time, it seems). Hence, more problems this morning.

ARGH. I screamed at my computer and just about burned down my house I was so mad. I had come up with a plan that I knew would work and was going to implement it first thing the next day, but the server crashes in the meantime and here I am in bed, blissfully dreaming of puppies and unicorns, unaware of any problems because my STUPID PHONE IS ON SILENT. WHY. ME.

The fix

But the good news is, today, I got this all setup. Monitoring/failover is now live on our pull servers, and they are checked every 2 minutes - so if there is a problem with any of them, DNS will stop serving that IP to Cloudflare within 2 minutes at the most, and I verified it works properly by intentionally killing a server. And the TTL is only 5 minutes, so the absolute maximum amount of time there could potentially be a problem for any individual person is 7 minutes. And we added a third pull server, so at the most this would only affect 1/3 of anyone, and even then, for a maximum of 7 minutes.

(Note: Above I was complaining about Dyn's 7.5 minute max TTL, and here I am with a 5 minute one. Well, this one's a bit different because only Cloudflare's servers talk to it, so the total queries generated are quite small. The real issue is we're also going to be doing this same thing in order to "load balance the load balancers" (really?), because we're adding two more of them this week. Using failover on this is what would be really expensive, so we're avoiding that by using another DNS provider for it, and we figure we might as well do all of that monitoring and failover in one place. Load balancers are stable and reliable, so the TTL will be a bit higher - and even if not, their pricing is considerably cheaper than Dyn's, so it's all good).

On top of all that, Cloudflare desperately wants to "fix" this caching "problem" on their end too. (I say "problem" in quotes because their service is working exactly as they designed it to work, I just didn't know ahead of time that caching was based on file extension only). They are working on a solution that will allow us to rewrite URLs on their end so that their servers will see the tracking code file as something that ends with a .js file extension and hence cache it properly, without us having to make any changes on our end. Once that's live, even if all 3 of our pull servers were offline (knock on wood), it should have zero impact because that stupid legacy URL file will be actually be cached!

In conclusion

So that, my friends, is as short a summary as I can write about everything we've been through with CDNs.

And on top of all this, we also made an update to the tracking code on Nov 1 that caused issues for some of you. This update has been reverted but that was the last thing we needed with the CDN also causing issues at the same time. [Update: And there was a small network hiccup at our data center on Nov 9 that caused a short outage. Worst week ever.]

So I don't really feel like we have earned your money this month (and to think, it's only the 8th...) If anyone wants a refund, send us an email we'll happily refund you a full month of service.

No matter what, know that I value the quality of our service above anything else and will always do everything in my power to make sure it works flawlessly. This has been a horrible week, but as of now the CDN should not impact anyone.

Thanks for reading and (hopefully) understanding.
30 comments |   Nov 09 2011 1:48am

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