How to Check Website Logs & Why Businesses Need to Do So

In today's fast-paced digital world, website security is not a luxury but a necessity. Every day, countless businesses have to grapple with cyber threats ranging from malware and phishing scams to DDoS attacks.

For businesses, the stakes are high. A security breach can result in compromised sensitive information and customer data, which in turn, can wreak havoc on your hard-earned reputation.

So how do you fortify your website against these potential threats? One effective strategy is regularly checking your website logs. Your site logs are a treasure trove of information if you know where to look.

In this guide, we'll walk you through the process of examining your website logs and show you why it's absolutely essential for your business to do so.

What are website and server logs?

Website logs are records of all events occurring on your website. Every time a user visits your site and interacts with the pages you’ve published, their activities are noted down by your website’s logging system like a meticulous scribe.

These activities could range from downloading a file or printing a page to simply clicking on a link. Web logs are incredibly important in understanding the nature of your site’s traffic, helping you discern user behavior and identify any potential issues early on.

Server logs, on the other hand, are records produced by your server, chronicling information about the system and the network. This includes details about requests processed by the server, system errors, the status of network connections, and security incidents.

Even though both of these log types may seem similar at first glance, website logs and server logs operate on different levels.

While website logs focus on a user’s interaction with your site, web server logs are more concerned with the server's relationship to these interactions. If we place them on a hierarchy, you can think of server logs as being on a lower level than website logs.

Understanding both types of logs can provide a bird’s eye view of your website's health and efficacy, from user engagement to backend operations.

Why are logs important for businesses?

Logs give businesses in-depth information about how users are interacting with their websites, providing direct insights into user behavior, website performance, possible issues, and potential security threats.

Here are just a few additional reasons why businesses need website logs:

  • Tracking website traffic and user behavior: Website logs record every interaction users have on your site. This data gives valuable insights into user behavior, such as pages viewed, time spent on site, and actions taken. A business can then use this information to enhance the user experience and increase conversion rates.

  • Identifying popular content and pages: Logs can reveal popular content and what content or pages are most viewed by users. This information can help organizations discover what resonates with an audience and adjust their content strategy accordingly.

  • Monitoring website performance and uptime: Logs help assess the health of your website. They record server response times, load times, and downtime. Regular log analysis helps monitor website performance and uptime, ultimately ensuring a smooth browsing experience for users.

  • Analyzing referrer data and marketing campaigns: Logs capture details about the source of your traffic – organic search, direct, referral sources, and others. Businesses can analyze logs to understand the effectiveness of their marketing campaigns and invest more efficiently in future promotional strategies.

  • Detecting and troubleshooting errors and issues: Website logs record every action, including errors. These errors, whether they relate to page loading, broken links, or server issues, can be identified and troubleshooted swiftly with regular log analysis. It helps in reducing potential downtime and improving the user experience.

  • Enhancing website security and identifying potential attacks: Security incidents, such as hacking attempts, DDoS attacks, or unauthorized access, can be detected through website logs. By monitoring these logs regularly, businesses can identify potential threats or breaches and take prompt action to maintain site security.

Understanding website logs

Website logs can be thought of as very detailed “diaries,” diligently writing down every event that occurs on your website.

These logs capture data, including each user's IP address, request methods, response codes, URLs accessed, and timestamps. They can also point out any errors that crop up, providing invaluable insights for website owners and administrators.

Different types of website logs

There are three primary kinds of logs: access, error, and event logs.

  • Access logs record all requests processed by the server.

  • Error logs keep track of server errors and are incredibly handy for troubleshooting purposes.

  • Event logs register significant incidents like server restarts and configuration changes.

All of these logs are vital for detecting unauthorized changes or patterns leading to system crashes, API problems, or other issues requiring debug logs.

Importance of logging frameworks and formats

Website logs can be formatted and managed by various logging frameworks such as Apache or Nginx.

These frameworks organize your log data, making it easier to read and analyze. Apache logs, for instance, offer two main formats: 'combined' and 'common.' The combined format includes extra details like the HTTP referrer and user agent.

However, Nginx provides a flexible logging module allowing you to specify custom log formats.

By efficiently decoding the data, these frameworks help identify potential threats or breaches in your system. For instance, a sudden surge in 404 errors could mean a hacker is attempting to find a page they can exploit.

How to check website logs

If your goal is to run a secure and efficient website, you have to regularly check your website logs and ensure website logging is implemented.

This section will give you a quick overview of how you can access, check and verify your site logs.

1. Access server logs

The first step to checking your logs is accessing them. Typically you can do this through the command line or a control panel like cPanel or Plesk, depending on what you’re using on your server.

Control panels offer a convenient graphical interface for managing your account and servers, and you can typically find your website logs in the statistics or monitoring section of the control panel.

2. Use log analysis tools

After you've accessed the logs, you should use log analysis tools to further interpret the data. These tools can greatly simplify identifying patterns or anomalies in the log files.

Popular log analysis software includes Loggly, Logstash, and Splunk. These tools offer a range of features, such as real-time log processing, visualization, and alerts that can inform you of potential issues.

3. Read different log files

Reading log files involves interpreting log entries and understanding different formats.

For instance, an Apache access log entry might look something like this:

“ - - [22/Jul/2023:12:12:16 -0500] "GET /page.html HTTP/1.1" 2005137”

Essentially, this is a record of a single access of a webpage, complete with IP address, timestamp, request method, and HTTP status code. Familiarizing yourself with these common log file formats is critical in interpreting and diagnosing potential issues.

4. Look for issues or patterns

The final step of the log review process involves analyzing key metrics and trends to uncover potential issues or patterns.

This could range from identifying recurring server errors to spotting suspicious IP addresses that are making numerous requests. Certain patterns, like repeated failed login attempts, might indicate attempted unauthorized access.

Keeping an eye on these metrics can help pinpoint security vulnerabilities, website performance issues, or other potential problems that might need addressing.

Best practices for website log analysis

Analyzing your website logs can give you critical insights into user behavior, server performance, and potential security issues.

Listed below are a few best practices to follow when conducting a website log analysis.

Log rotation and retention

Log files can quickly become unwieldy and bloated due to their size. To manage these files, implement a log rotation policy that breaks up logs into manageable chronological files. Log rotation helps maintain the performance of your logging system and prevents it from using excess disk space.

Log rotation isn't usually enough on its own, though. You also need a log retention policy to determine how long you'll keep those rotated log files. This policy depends on your business needs and any regulations you must follow. For instance, if you're subject to PCI DSS, you're required to retain your logs for at least one year.

Filter data accordingly

With all of the data contained in your website logs, it's important to filter and focus on what's most relevant to your needs. Establish a process to filter out extra information and highlight critical data points.

This might include filtering for specific error codes, IP addresses that repeatedly access your site, or traffic spikes that might indicate a DDoS attack.

Track specific activity

Tracking activity on your website is more than just keeping an eye on visitor numbers and bounce rates – it’s also about keeping your website secure, understanding your users, and making sure everything runs smoothly.

Here's a list of specific activities you should consider tracking on your website:

  • Successful and unsuccessful login attempts: Keeping tabs on login attempts lets you spot unusual patterns. Multiple failed attempts could indicate a brute force attack and “successful” logins from unfamiliar locations might signal a breach.

  • Creation, updates, and deletion of blog posts: Tracking blog posts can help to prevent unauthorized and malicious content from appearing on your site. It’s also a useful way to keep track of your content production and publication.

  • Creation, updates, and deletion of users: By monitoring user accounts, you can detect and respond to potential security threats. Unexpected user account activities could indicate that your website security has been compromised.

  • Creation and modification of user roles and permissions: User roles and permissions control access to your site's features and capabilities. Any changes here should be under careful supervision to prevent unauthorized access or misuse of power.

  • Activation, modification, and deactivation of plugins and themes: Plugins and themes are common targets for cyber threats as they can contain vulnerabilities that are exploited. Keeping a close watch on the activities related to plugins and themes can help in the early identification of potential security threats.

  • Changes to core website files: These files, when changed, can drastically affect your website's functionality and appearance. Tracking these changes helps ensure they are intended and authorized. Unauthorized or unexpected changes could indicate a security issue.

  • Changes to core website files: Your core website files are the heart of your site. Any modifications here can dramatically impact how your site functions and looks, which is why you should track these diligently to guard against unauthorized tampering.

Automation can help

With businesses facing increasing cyber threats, the task of manually scanning and analyzing website logs can be both daunting and time-consuming.

That's where automation in cybersecurity comes in. Automated tools can continuously monitor and scan website logs, quickly identifying and alerting businesses to any unusual or suspicious activities that may indicate a potential cyber threat.

Automated log analysis cuts through the noise of trivial data allowing companies to focus on what's most important – neutralizing potential threats before they escalate into major security incidents.

Integrate with business tools

Integrating website log analysis with other helpful business tools can open up a wealth of insights into your business and your customers.

You can pipe in log data directly into analytics tools to see trends visually or analyze errors through SEO-specific logging analysis software that shows you where you might have technical SEO issues.

Supplement website security with website logs

Website logs can give businesses of all shapes and sizes valuable insights into their operations and customers, help provide data to tweak strategies for optimization, and enhance their growth trajectory.

As we increasingly operate in an era where cyber threats are not just rampant but continually evolving, it's more critical than ever for businesses to prioritize log file analysis and other cybersecurity measures.

Take the next step in fortifying your business’s digital presence today by checking out SiteLock’s range of website security plans.

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

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