Blog: September 2012

The Bare-Bones Basics of Web Statistics

Analytics screen

Google Analytics provides a wealth of information about visitors on your site

Here in Austin, I teach classes at a local non-profit organization that helps people start their own businesses. I’ve been teaching folks about building basic web sites, search engine optimization, and web marketing for about five years. Once – and only once, mind you – I taught a class on web analytics.

Web analytics are the statistics that a website generates about users, where they come from, what they do, when they leave, and so on. It’s incredibly valuable information for anyone who operates a web site – in fact, some kind of analytics understanding is mandatory for anyone who wants to understand their website performance.

It’s also very boring. In fact, the class I taught on analytics put everyone to sleep so quickly that I decided never to teach it again. Somewhere, there are statistics professors who can make this stuff interesting. I couldn’t, so I gave up.

But every web site owner should know at least a few things about what’s going on with their site –especially if you have an e-commerce site. And, honestly, if you can pay attention to a few key factors in your web statistics, you’ll have the information you need to make constructive adjustments.

So, grab a double espresso and get ready for the hits – and only the hits – of web analytics. If you can grasp a few simple concepts and remember a couple of key metrics, you’ll know enough to be dangerous in no time.

Start Measuring

First, you’ll need an analytics package. The most common one is Google Analytics; it’s free and most web site building packages support it right out of the box. Signing up for Google Analytics requires a Google account and enough access to your website to insert the tracking code. If putting tracking code into your website sounds like open-heart surgery to you, then call your web developer or web host and they’ll walk you through it or take care of it for you. It only takes a few minutes.

Give Analytics a few days to start collecting data, and at least a month before you really start trying to get anything meaningful out of it. The more statistics you have the better, but if your needs are urgent — let’s say users are abandoning your site in record numbers – a month of data will at least give you enough information to understand why.

The primary metric (metric is a fancy word for measurement) that most site owners look at first is the number of page views on their site. A page view is generated when someone pulls up a page on your web site and looks at it. As a crude number, page views are helpful in determining overall traffic to your site. But alone, page views aren’t a very meaningful statistic.

More meaningful measurements of site traffic actually come from the various visit/visitor numbers. A Visit is just that: a visit to your web site, whether to one page or many. It’s a single user’s experience at your site, from the time they arrive to the time they leave. This number will often be somewhere in the vicinity of your Visitor numbers, which is the actual number of visitors that came to your site during that period.

Visitors are so important that Google now calls out this number on the very first page of Analytics: “3,000 people visited this site.” Look more closely and you’ll notice a qualification in visitor numbers: the term “unique”. Unique visitor metrics are important because they throw out all the repeat visits and give you a picture of how many truly unique visitors came to your site during a given period.

What are they doing?

Once you understand how many people are coming to your site, you need to get at least a basic idea of what they’re doing when they get there. Ideally, you want people to stay on your site long enough to browse, read or buy something. This is where “time on site” or duration comes in. Obviously, if users spend only a few seconds on your site, that means they’re arriving and very quickly leaving. This is not uncommon – many people quickly leave (or “bounce” out of) websites very quickly because it’s not what they were looking for.

However, a continuous pattern of very short visits (a very low overall visit duration) probably means that there’s something wrong with the content on your site, or that many people are finding it for the wrong reasons. If your average visit duration is very low – say, 30 seconds or less – you’ll need to take a hard look at the content you’re presenting.

Visit duration dovetails nicely with “Bounce Rate”, which is a measure of how many visits result in a single page viewed followed by an immediate exit. A bounce is likely (though not always) a visitor who didn’t find what they wanted – they came to a page on your site and left. However, with more and more sites presenting a lot of vital information on a single page these days, high bounce rates are not uncommon. One way to reduce high bounce rates is to build landing pages for your products and services that encourage users to explore further with a prominent call-to-action – e.g. a “Click for more info!” or an invitation to a special offer or discount.

The last vital statistic for visitors is the percentage of new vs. returning visitors. If your goal is to bring in new customers via your website, you want a healthy number of new visits every month – that is, users that have not visited your site in the past. If you have a site where existing users must come back all the time to get new information (say, order status information) then it’s not unusual to have a high percentage of return visitors. In that case, your returning visitors might make up as much as half of your total visitors.

Now you’ve got a picture of what visitors are doing when they come to your site: How many of them came, how many of those were new, how long they stayed, and how many of them came in and left immediately. The final set of metrics you need to understand are what, exactly, your visitors are looking at when they come to your site.

Content is King

Under the “Content” menu in Google Analytics is your other vital set of statistics: information on the pages that users view. This one is pretty straightforward, but you’ll want to check it out frequently. It’s a simple list of the top pages viewed on your site, along with a percentage of total views for each page. If a page has “5.5%” next to it, that means all its views constituted 5.5 percent of the total page views during that period.

For most sites, the homepage (usually “home” or “index”) will have the vast majority of page views, unless your site is structured in such a way that a particular product or service of yours is vastly more popular than everything else on your site. The key here lies in what’s directly below that home page statistic: What are the other pages on your site that are most popular? You may find, for instance, that a product or service of yours is much more popular online than it is in other areas of your marketing presence.

What do you do with all this information? Visitor numbers should give you an idea of how your site is performing (and growing) overall, and whether or not the content on your site is appealing to visitors. Content metrics provide insight into which areas of your site are most popular. That might lead you to push a product or service harder, or it might indicate that something you feel should be popular on your site needs more prominent placement. With just a few simple numbers, you can analyze and make changes to your site to squeeze the best possible performance out of it.

– Brent Buford

A version of this article also appeared in Identity Marketing magazine.

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