Knowing your audience is vital for any rhetorical endeavor. Ideally, you should be using a service like Google Analytics to track your users behavior. In addition to knowing things like browser use and resolution, you can also see things like where people are coming into your site and where they’re leaving from, and where your traffic is actually coming from. This helps you find places where your site might not be working as well as it should be.
Sometimes, however, this isn’t really an option. Maybe you’re just getting started with a site, and don’t have any users to analyze (yet). Or maybe you’re designing a template to sell or give away. Then, the user base might vary from installation to installation. One would hope that the people using the template would start using analytic software and tweak the site accordingly. This isn’t something you can count on, however, and in any event, if you’re putting something “out there” for the public to use, it should work right out of the box. In that case, you probably want to use some kind of statistics site.
But which one to believe? There are a number of sites out there, often with varying conclusions. Here are the top ones I’m familiar with, and what I think of them.
The Good: Global Web Stats by W3Counter.com
This site is pretty good. Their stats seem to be, by and large, accurate. They draw their info from over 50,000 websites (who have installed their plugin and have an account with them), so it has a pretty wide source base. They also cover a variety of areas, including browser (the biggie), resolution, and OS (which can impact things like fonts).
My only real gripe with the site is that their data is a bit shallow. They list browser versions for IE, but I didn’t see any for other browsers. It just feels more like a summary than a report, if that makes sense. And, of course, there’s the issue of it competing with the next site on our list.
The Great: Global Stats by StatCounter.com
This site is awesome. It’s got a lot of great info, but the best thing about it is how customizable it is. Want to know worldwide browser stats? That’s the default. What about the browser stats of just the US? Easy enough to filter. It’s good because it let’s you get a feel of where different parts of the world are at. China is still pretty big on IE6 (shudder). And where else are you going to see the dramatic fall of Safari 5 in Antarctica?
All in all, Global Stats provides a nice mix of depth and customizability, along with ease of use. It’s my first stop whenever I need to look at user info.
The Almost as Great: NetMarketShare
This site too is pretty sweet. It’s got a lot of info for your perusal, and gets into the nitty gritty of usage, even giving items with a few hundredths of a percent. If you’re looking for detailed information, it’s pretty much the best place to go. However, there are two issues I have with it, that make it slightly less great that Global Stats, to me at least.
First, there is something of an information overload. If you’re just wanting to get a general overview, all the information they have is a bit much, and if you try filtering what you look at, you can get some odd results. Second, and this is just a personal pet peeve, but I don’t like that they have information behind a subscription paywall, and they don’t tell you that it’s there until you request to see the info. That second part is the real irker. I don’t mind having things behind a paywall, but I’d like to know what I can and can’t see before I try to see it. It just leaves me with a bit of disappointment when I try to view something, and then get told I can’t. And compared with the customization of stat parameters Global Stats allows, it feels a bit of a letdown.
These complaints are pretty minor, however, and it’s still a good site to check out.
The Not-So-Great: Browser Statistics by W3Schools.com
This resource is… ok. In certain circumstances. It has a number of issues (as does W3Schools in general), the most severe of which is selection bias. Simply put, the stats they give are based on traffic to W3Schools.com. In general, you might expect that visitors to a site on web development might skew a bit to the more tech savvy. You might expect more of them to be using up to date browsers instead of older IE versions. You might expect them to be more likely to have bigger screens. And, in general, that’s what you find. When you compare the W3Schools stats with other sites, you find that the W3School user pool is much more tech friendly than the public at large.
And this isn’t just my take on them. If you look near the bottom of their stat page, they have the following disclaimer:
W3Schools is a website for people with an interest for web technologies. These people are more interested in using alternative browsers than the average user. The average user tends to the browser that comes preinstalled with their computer, and do not seek out other browser alternatives.
These facts indicate that the browser figures above are not 100% realistic. Other web sites have statistics showing that Internet Explorer is a more popular browser.
Anyway, our data, collected from W3Schools’ log-files, over many years, clearly shows the long and medium-term trends.
Now, this does not mean that their stats are necessarily wrong, or even useless. If you are designing a site that you expect to have a fairly tech competent user base (like, say, a web design/development blog), then your users will probably be closer to the type that might visit W3Schools, rather than the average user pool. In this case, it might be worth basing your decisions off of this site.