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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.

Brent on Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Tumblr | Flickr

The 2012 Social Media Landscape

If you’re promoting your business online, you’ve probably at least dipped your toe into the vast, muddy lake of social media. Some of you may have seen success with it, while others got wind of the time and effort required to maintain a social media presence and gingerly stepped away. Since most of you deal primarily with business-to-business relationships, you may not think you’re missing much—social media often seems best suited for consumer-oriented brands, politicians and Hollywood stars.

Those of you in the “this is a bunch of worthless noise” camp might want to reconsider your position for in 2012. Two factors are making social media a critical component of doing business online. First, social media is becoming a popular venue for marketing all kinds of businesses — a place where customers expect to find current information and updates about your business. Remember when you thought you probably didn’t need a website? Well, this is becoming more like that.

Second, the tools to manage and automate social media are now mature and easy to use, so even a busy, harried small business owner can queue up a slew of updates once a month and let them rip. As a bonus, social media activity and updates can improve your search engine ranking over time – if you do it right (more on that later). And finally, of course, don’t forget that more and more of your competitors are joining in every day. That doesn’t mean you have to play catch up with everything they do, but it’s worth understanding the landscape.

What’s Out There

There are four social media platforms that matter for businesses: Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and LinkedIn. (The last one would likely bristle at being called “social media” but we’ll toss it in with the others to keep things simple.) These networks are active, have large subscriber/user bases, and have become the standard venues for promoting businesses to engaged online customers. You should become familiar with all of them, and participate in at least a few. Let’s look at them in order.

Facebook: The largest social network in the world, and a surprisingly popular venue for businesses. I say “surprisingly” because while many of us assumed that Facebook would be popular for consumer brands like soft drinks and TV networks, it’s become a hot venue for businesses of all kinds. The reason is simple: everyone is there. Hundreds of millions of people spend far too many hours of their lives on the site. It’s become, for better or worse, almost like an alternate version of the web, and millions of users see updates from companies and brands they like in their News Feed every day. True, not everyone is going subscribe to updates from business like yours. But some will, and you should be in front of them

Twitter: If Facebook is like an alternate version of the web, Twitter is an abbreviated, real-time distillation of what’s happening online. Like Facebook, Twitter has expanded from purely personal use to consumer brands and far beyond. While both Facebook and Twitter offer advertising programs, the key with both services is simply participating as a business: hanging up your sign and telling people what’s going on on a regalar basis. Not sure what to tell them? We’ll talk about that in a sec.

Google Plus: I’ve discussed this new social network recently, noting that it’s essentially a clone of Facebook. Since then, Google has added even more Facebook-like features including games and pages for businesses. It’s still unclear whether Google Plus has the momentum to unseat Facebook as the king of social networking (I’m guessing it won’t) but with over 40 million registered users, it’s worth the small amount of effort required to build and maintain a page for your business on this network. [Note: Given recent changes to Google+ noted here, it’s rapidly becoming mandatory for serious online marketers to maintain a presence on the social network. See this post for more info.]

LinkedIn: Not truly a social network like the others, LinkedIn has nevertheless added social sharing and posting features and remains a great place to stay in touch with other professionals. It’s also done an exceptional job of organizing and classsifying businesses and professionals, so listing your business on LinkedIn is a no-cost way to get your name in one of the biggest real business directories on the planet. Don’t expect a mad rush of new clients from LinkedIn, but you should be there when folks are looking.

What to Say

What should a business owner post on social networks? Simple stuff, really: Specials, announcements, promotions, information, events, tips and anything else you think might be useful to your customers. Is summer fast approaching? Post some ideas for new and innovative summer products. Give them tips on ordering in time for big events. Let them know when your next open house is.

The very same things you promote in emails, phone calls and  regular business conversations can be promoted via social media updates. In fact, the more you consider social media to be a conversation between you and your customers (and prospects), the better you’ll understand what it’s all about. True, that conversation will often be one-sided, but you want to facilitate a dialog. Your customers may not reply directly; instead, many engage passively, scanning for the things that interest them. But like any other form of advertising or marketing, having your name in front of them as much as possible is the key to getting their attention when it matters. Given that every one of these networks costs nary a dime to participate in at the basic level, why would you not want to hang your shingle out there?

How to Say It

Of course, you don’t want to spend your entire day posting to social networks, and very few of you are prepared to hire a full-time social media manager. That’s where the tools come in. A couple of years ago, some very smart people realized that keeping many different social networks updated was a tremendous hassle for normal people. These smart people built software and websites to automate the posting of updates across all your social media profiles, and you can thank them for your future sanity.

Social media toolkits typically do two very important things: First, they manage all your profiles at once, eliminating the need to visit each site. Your updates go out to all sites at once, and all your customers’ and associates’ updates are consolidated into a single window. Second, these tools allow you to schedule updates to go out automatically, on a schedule you create.

If you can sit down for an hour or two every month and build a couple of marketing emails or flyers, it shouldn’t be too much trouble to add social media updates to your marketing schedule. Just create your updates, give them a date and time, and let them roll. There are quite a few of these packages out there, but my pick is Hootsuite, which not only handles all your scheduled updates, but can even post automated updates whenever you create content on your blog. It’s free for the basic version, five bucks a month for the advanced version, and quite a bargain either way.

– Brent Buford

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

Brent on Twitter | Facebook | Google+ | Tumblr | Flickr

Your World, My World: Google’s New “Search plus Your World”


personal search results from Google's "Search plus Your World"

Google now offers results sourced through personal connections

Danny Sullivan has a great piece over on Search Engine Land explaining his sense of disappointment in Google’s new “Search plus Your World” feature. I think Google’s move is unpleasant but not a surprise. It’s unsettling to those of us who’ve watched Google’s rise from the very beginning and saw the company as a precisely-engineered “fairness engine” – we’ve watched and listened to the public persona of that fairness, Matt Cutts, discuss exactly what measures Google was taking to ensure that the results given by Google search were objectively the most relevant and useful.

Google has always sold us ads alongside the results, but that’s always been a simple, tit-for-tat type of transaction—we give you the best-engineered search results in the world, you agree to some clearly-delineated advertisements in the margins of those results. We got it. Google started blurring that line not too long ago, with such features as pushing their flight search results ahead of other organic results for travel sites.

Still, the travel info doesn’t push you toward a particular vendor and, as Sullivan points out, up until this point, Google has been pretty happy to send you off to wherever you’d like to go, even if you’re not getting the end result, product or service from them.

Search plus Your World (a terrible name, really) changes all that by pushing Google’s own social network, Google+, and its results at you. Google is apparently showing more info from its own network in the results because the other two monster social platforms, Facebook and Twitter, don’t provide deep enough hooks to allow Google to index them the same way.

That’s true, but it’s almost beside the point: Search plus your World is a ham-handed effort to push more users and page views into Google +. Google has never been shy about encouraging the use of complementary products and cross-selling services, but I think the uproar about this particular feature is due to its incorporation directly into the search results. That box in the middle of the page with the organic results has always been considered by most to be inviolate, a safe zone enforced by objective technologies and people dedicated to making sure that the results are driven by quality and nothing else.

By rolling in Google+ results (and omitting Facebook and Twitter, both of which, admittedly, Google has legitimate reason to omit), these results no longer possess that oracular objectivity. Google’s previous social experiments with search were more or less open to all. This change appears to push Google’s social network to the detriment of others, and that’s what the ruckus is all about. Google knows that the future of search is going to include social components—that’s why they launched Google+ to begin with—but they appear to be getting there in fits and starts.

As always, caveats apply—the feature is optional, and it isn’t purely restricted to Google+; there are other results out there (Matt Cutts has a good defense of the variety of results here). And like everything Google releases, this will likely change or could even go away. But it can’t help but feel a bit like a naked grab for more Google + usage, and while there is absolutely nothing commercially wrong with promoting another Google product, it makes those previously hallowed organic results seem just a little less sacred than they used to be.

– Brent Buford

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