browser stats / why we love the numbers

The beginning of a new month. The (modest) pile of cash on the bank is a little more substantial and the fresh slate idea softly settles down inside our minds. As web developers, this is also the time for browser stats updates. The importance of browser stats have been under heavy attack, but for those who know how to interpret them (and those who just love numbers), they remain are a valuable tool. This article will take a closer look at what they don't, but more importantly, do represent.

checking the numbers

why they matter

Of course browser stats are pretty important to browser vendors and fanatics alike. Webkit fans like to see how much the engine's market penetration has risen, FireFox people are curious about the adoption rate of the newest FireFox version and the people of Microsoft are probably scratching their heads when they see how well ie6 is keeping its ground.

For web developers, it's important to see what browsers (and versions) we need to support. When a browser drops below a certain percentage we can choose to stop supporting the browser, saving us some testing time. Rest assured that all css people are checking browser stats to see a sudden 20% drop in ie6 stats, sadly this is only wishful thinking.

Bottom line, browser stats tell us something about our job which can be useful when developing websites. So why the negative attitude?

pitfalls

The problem with browser stats is that they are not very reliable. There are various factors that influence the stats to render them quite useless. A quick rundown of the three most influential issues.

  • First problem is that most stats are based on visitor statistics on a very limited range of sites. This range of sites is not determined to get solid statistics, but is usually determined by site ownership of the stats owner. Simply put, you might get very different results from a party that only measures European sites in comparison to American sites.
  • Another problem was introduced by several browsers themselves. Browser stats are based on the user agent string, which can be altered by users themselves (a fix that dates from times where some sites would block certain browsers). So you could very well be visiting a site using an Opera browser, but you'd still end up in the stats as ie6 user.
  • Finally, not all visitors are human visitors. There are many spiders and other automated web visitors crawling around the web and most of them identify themselves as ie user agents. Sadly, they are of very little importance to the stats.

As you can see, all these factors influence the stats and distort the actual percentages.

conclusion

Even though the percentages given on browser stat sites are not very definite or trustworthy, they are still interesting when compared to stats from earlier months. The actual percentages might not be too definite, but the trends can definitely be of interest to us. Besides that, as you lay stats from different sources next to each other interesting parallels will pop up. For example, it might be hard to pinpoint the exact percentage of ie6 and ie7 usage. On the other hand, since a short while all browser stat sources indicate that ie7 uses is larger than ie6 usage, which might accounts for something.

So don't just throw away browser stats, but look at trends and compare other sources the find some decent information about global browser usage. It might help you when defining the scope of your work.

sources

For those interested in online sources for browser stats, these are the sites I'm using myself.