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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Yesterday, My Website Had Visitors From -3 New Countries!

Yes, you read that right. The "-" in front of the 3 is not a mistake. My flagcounter widget now has 3 less flags than what I reported the last time. And it is as if I had visitors from -3 new countries.

The basic problem is that there has been a debate for some time on the flagcounter forums about what to do with visitors whose countries could not be determined. Flagcounter puts such visitors into 4 broad categories. They are classified as "Unknown - European Union", "Unknown - Asia/Pacific Region", "Unknown - Satellite Provider", and "Unknown - Anonymous Proxy". Visits from the first of these unknown domains get an EU flag, but the others do not have any actual flags associated with them. There are just grey and white checkered rectangles to represent the flags for these types of visitors.

The last time the question was raised in the flagcounter forums, most people actually felt that the flags should stay in the image. But many also suggested that real flags should be made up for the 3 categories for which flags currently do not exist. Some kind of generic pictures to represent flags for these domains just like the EU flag being used to represent the visitors from the first "unknown" domain. But the administrator of flagcounter, in his introductory post on the thread asking for user opinions, felt that they should be removed from the flagcounter image and country counts.

Then, suddenly, yesterday evening, the administrator of flagcounter got his way by virtue of being the administrator of flagcounter. He just put up a post saying that the three categories with no flags would be removed from all flagcounters, and then made the coding changes necessary to get rid of them. The justification was that these categories of visitors were not really from 3 real countries, and therefore the country count should not reflect the inclusion of these categories. Of course, the "Unknown - European Union" does not represent any distinct country either, so logically it should be gone too. But perhaps because it had an actual flag associated with it, it was not removed, and still counts as a separate country.

On my flagcounter, I had had visits from all 4 of these unknown categories in my total count of 133 countries. With the implementation of the changes yesterday, I just lost 3 of my "countries", and I am down to 130 flags in my flagcounter widget. So, in a sense, I had visitors from -3 new countries yesterday!

Of course, there would be much less reason to put this post up if the change had gone off smoothly and I had been left with a good image sporting 130 flag images. But for some reason, the image is not actually correct. Usually, flagcounter balances the flags in each column of the display so that the last column is the only one missing some flags. And the number of flags missing in the last column is always less than the number of columns in the display. So, when I had 133 flags, I had 3 columns with 34 flags and one column with 31 flags. When it was 132 flags, I had all 4 columns perfectly balanced at 33 flags each.

With the loss of the 3 flags from my counter though, my image was reduced to 130 flags. It should have been 3 columns of 33 flags and one column of 31 flags. But for some reason, it showed up as 3 columns of 34 flags and one column of 28 flags. I pointed this out to the flagcounter administrator in a new post on the forum. For a short while, the problem was acknowledged and corrected, but the correction was implemented in such a way, apparently, that the computational load on the servers was too much. So, the correction to balance out the flags in the counter is not implemented anymore, making the my flagcounter look pretty awkward and weird.

Now, I was not one of the supporters of the move to remove these unknown categories from flagcounter. I thought they should stay and said so in the forum discussion (as did a number of others). But, many of us, including me, were over-ridden and three of the four unknown categories were removed (with the justification making no sense as far as why the fourth category was not removed). Because of that, I lost 3 of my hard-earned flags from my widget. And then, on top of all this, the removal is done in such a shoddy manner that the resulting image is not even balanced out like before.

A long time back, I requested that flagcounter provide an option such that I could sport the widget on my website without having to reveal my visitor statistics to the public. I suggested that the numbers next to each flag be the percentage of visits from that country rather than an actual number of visits. I was told that that was never going to happen, though I have no idea why. I then came up with my own workaround to make the visitor counts invisible by using the existing options that flagcounter provided. But the solution was not perfect because the flag images were quite small and people could not go to some website and see the details of the countries I had visitors from unless I revealed my visitor counts to them. And now, the latest irritant is that I have lost 3 of my flags and my flagcounter widget looks as if someone took a big ugly bite out of the last column of flags!

Flagcounter has also had reliability problems with their servers going down frequently. The server my counter is hosted on has been reasonably stable and I have not been hit by these outages until now, but it remains a distinct possibility. The coding of the counter itself has also had its share of problems resulting in weird issues such as the number of visitors for a day being negative and so on.

As you can tell, I am not very pleased right now. I am seriously considering whether the widget adds as much value to my blog as I thought it did when I originally put it there, given that it does not look all that good anymore. Obviously, I realize that I shouldn't be complaining too much about something I did not pay any money for, but nothing is free in this world. Flagcounter subsists on advertising sold to visitors from sites like mine that have the widget embedded in them. And they have a right to get those visitors from me only if they provide a service I am satisfied with. I am going to be watching the situation closely going forward, and if my dissatisfaction with flagcounter grows, I might have to give them the boot off my blog. Time to do research on alternatives so that I can be prepared for any eventuality . . .

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