JISC Project Blog Metrics – Making Use of WordPress Stats. Plus, An Aside…

Brian has a post out on Beyond Blogging as an Open Practice, What About Associated Open Usage Data?, and proposes that “when adopting open practices, one should be willing to provide open accesses to usage data associated with the practices” (his emphasis).

What usage stats are relevant though? If you’re on a hosted WordPress blog, it’s easy enough to pull out in a machine readable way the stats that WordPress collects about your blog and makes available to you (albeit at the cost of revealing a blog specific API key in the URL. Which means that if this key provides access to anything other than stats, particularly if it provides write access to any part of your blog, it’s probably not something you’d really want to share in public… [Getting your WordPress.com Stats API Key])

That said, you can still hand craft your own calls to the WordPress stats API, and extract your own usage data as data, using the WordPress Stats API.

So for example, a URL of the form:
will pull in a summary of November’s views data; or:
will pull in a list of referrers.

For what it’s worth, I’ve started cobbling together a spreadsheet that can pull in live data, or custom ranged reports, from WordPress: WordPress Stats into Google Spreadsheets (make your own personal copy of the spreadsheet if you want to give it a try). This may or may not become a work in progress… at the moment, it doesn’t even support the full range of URL parameters/report configurations (for the time being at least, that is leaf “as an exercise for the reader”;-)

The approach I took is very simplistic, simply based around crafting URLs that grab specified sets of CSV formatted data, and pop them into a spreadsheet using the =importData() formula (I’m sure Martin could come up with something far more elegant;-); that said, it does provide an example of how to get started with a bit of programmatic URL hacking… and if you want to get started with handcrafting your own URLs, it provides a few examples there too….:-)

The pattern I used was to define a parameter spreadsheet, and then CONCATENATE parameter values to create the URLs; for example:

=importdata(CONCATENATE("http://stats.wordpress.com/csv.php?", "api_key=", Config!B2, "&blog_uri=", Config!B3, "&end=", TEXT(Config!B6,"YYYY-MM-DD"), "&table=referrers_grouped"))

One trick to note is that I defined the end parameter setting in the configuration sheet as a date type, displayed in a particular format. When we grab this data value out of the configuration sheet we’re actually grabbing a date typed record, so we need to use the TEXT() formula to put it into the format that the WordPress API requires (arguments of the form 2011-11-30).

If you want to use the spreadsheet to publish your own data, I guess one way would would be to keep the privacy settings private, but publish the sheets you are happy for people to see. Just make sure you don’t reveal your API key;-) [If you know of a good link/resource describing best practice around publishing public sheets from spreadsheets that also contain, and drawn on, private data, such as API keys, please post a link in the comments below;-)]

[A note on the stats: the WordPress stats made available via the API seem to relate to page views/visits to the website. Looking at my own stats, views from RSS feeds seem to be reported separately, and (I think) this data is not available via the WordPress stats API? If, as I do, you run your blog RSS feed through a service like Feedburner, to get a fuller picture of how widely the content on a blog is consumed, you’d need to report both the WordPress stats and the Feedburner stats, for example. Which leads the the next question, I guess: how can we (indeed, can we at all?) pull feed stats out of Feedburner?]

At this point, I need to come back to the question related above: what usage stats are relevant, particularly in the case of a JISC project blog? To my mind, a JISC project blog can support a variety of functions:

– it serves as a diary for the project team allowing them to record micro-milestones and solutions to problems; if developers are allowed to post to the blog, this might include posts at the level of granularity of a Stack Overflow Q and A, compared to the 500 word end-of-project post that tries to summarise how a complete system works;
– it can provide a feed that others can subscribe to to keep up to date with the project without having to hassle the project team for updates;
– it can provide context for the work by linking out to related resources, an approach that also might alert other projects who watch for trackbacks and pingbacks to the the project;
– it provides an opportunity to go fishing in a couple of ways: firstly, by acting as a resource others can link to (with the triple payoff that it contextualises the project further, it may suggest related work the project team are unaware by means of trackbacks/pingbacks into the project blog, and it may turn up useful commentary around the project); secondly, by providing a place where other interested parties might engage in discussion commentary or feedback around elements of the project, via blog comments.

Even if a blog only ever gets three views per post, they may be really valuable views. For me what’s important is how the blog can be used to document interesting things that might have been turned up in the course of doing the project that wouldn’t ordinarily get documented. Problems, gotchas, clever solutions, the sudden discovery or really useful related resources. The blog also provides an ongoing link-basis for the project, something that can bring it to life in a networked context (a context that may have a far longer life, and scope, than just the life or scope of the actual project).

For many projects that don’t go past a pilot, it may well be that the real value of the project is the blogged documentation of things turned up during the process, rather than any of the formal outputs… Maybe..?!;-)

PS in passing, Google Webmaster tools now lets you track search stats around articles Google associates you with as an author: Clicks and impressions for authors. It’s been some time since I looked at Google Webmaster tools, but as Ouseful.info is registered there, I thought I’d check my broken links…and realised just how many pages get logged by Google as containing broken links when a single post erroneously contains a relative link… (i.e. when the <a href=’ doesn’t start with http://)

PPS Related to the above is a nice example of why I think being able to read and write URL is an important skill, something Jon Udell also picks up on in Forgotten knowledge. In the above case, I needed to unpick the WordPress Stats APi documentation a little to work out how to put the URLs together (something that a knowledge of how to read and write URL helped me with). In Jon Udell’s case was an example of how a conference organiser was able to send a customised URL to the conference hotel that embedded the relevant booking dates.

But I wonder, in an age where folk use Google+search term (e.g. typing Facebook into Google) rather than URLs (eg typing facebook.com into a browser location bar), a behaviour that can surely only be compounded by the fusion of location and search bars in browsers such as Google Chrome, is “URL literacy” becoming even more of a niche skill, rather than becoming more widespread? Is there some corollary here to the world of phones and addressbooks? I don’t need to remember phone numbers any more (I don’t even necessarily recognise them) because my contacts lists masks the number with the name of the person it corresponds to. How many kids are going to lose out on a basic education in map reading because there’s no longer a need to learn route planning or map-based navigation – GPS, SatNav and online journey planners now do that for us… And does this distancing from base skills and low level technologies extend further? Into the kitchen, maybe? Who needs ingredients when you have ready meals (and yes, frozen croissants and gourmet meals from the farm shop do count as ready meals;-), for example? Who needs to actually use a cookery book (or really engage with a lecture) when you can watch a TV chef, (or TED Talks)..?

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

4 thoughts on “JISC Project Blog Metrics – Making Use of WordPress Stats. Plus, An Aside…”

  1. I actually think more and more people are going back to basics. Look at how many people now are growing their own veg, camping holidays, farming and with economic difficulties many can’t afford to have everything done for them. So we may see a ‘return’ to basic skills. I like your blog btw.

  2. I wouldn’t change a thing. Yes you could start adding Apps Script to the backend, but it’ll just add layers of complication. Its easy to forget how powerful the built in spreadsheet functions can be.

    Regarding selective publication of spreadsheet data Google currently have 2 options, publish all sheets or just one sheet. So what you could do it use formula to extract data from the individual sheets onto a summary sheet.

    A good formula to do this is a combination of EXPAND and ARRAYFORUMULA eg =EXPAND(ARRAYFORMULA(Views!A2:B)) – entering this cell once will populate it with the values from the selected range on the Views sheet.

    It’s worth noting that I’m not including the header row in this example because if you do when you ‘Publish to the web’ Google tries to be too clever and footnotes the source url. This is probably best seen in this example where for demonstration purposes I’ve publish all the sheets to the web and you can see the right way to create a summary page and the wrong way.

    Here’s a link to the modified source spreadsheet if your readers want to look at the formula

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