The way we measure “success” on the web is probably one of the least understood practices I can think of. In fact, the more I learn about it, the more I realize just how complicated it is and how little I know. Still, I get a lot of requests from clients asking how many “hits” their site has gotten in the past month, so I thought I would share some of my practical ideas on how we can get better data in the modern era of the web.

There are dozens of fantastic web analytics tools out there, but I will be focusing on Google Analytics in this post. The reason is that it is by far the most used tool I’ve come across in the projects I’ve work on but also because I think it more often used as a glorified hit counter, like the ones we used to see in the good ol’ Netscape days.

Here are three practical ways we can get more insightful, relevant data out of Google Analytics without being a web analytics guru.

Looking beyond “hits”

Let’s say I run a small e-commerce website that sells coffee beans. One day, I fire up Google Analytics and am surprised to see that 10,000 people visited my website today and I’ve never had more than 500 in the past. That’s pretty awesome!

So, I close my laptop, pat myself on the back and call it a day.

I walk into work the next day ready to ship orders for all the new visitors that came to my site, but…no one ordered anything. In fact, sales were the same that day than they were any other day.

Relying on “hits” tells us nothing about the mecca of web analysis: user intention. It’s the same as going to a bar, being checked out by a 10,000 beautiful women but never being asked once for your number. Looks good on paper, but it won’t keep you warm at night.

My suggestion is to start looking at at other numbers besides the total number of visits and make sure they focus user behavior. Try comparing New and Returning visitors, measuring page depth or looking at your bounce rate. My favorite standard behavior measurement is the “Days Since Last Visit” report, which gives you a clean bar chart of the number of visitors who came to your site based on the number of days between visits.

Looking beyond standard reports

If the first thing you see when you log into your Google Analytics account is a few bar graphs, pie charts and maps that Google put there for you, then you need to customize that sucker right away. Those are standard reports that are nothing more than glorified hit counters.

Instead, let’s go to the Dashboards tab, which is the very first option in the left menu. Create a customized dashboard for everyone in your organization who needs one. Make one for the CEO that shows off total visits and sales. Make another one for the CMO that shows referral traffic, paid search results and cart abandonment rates. Go ahead and make another for the CTO that shows what browsers and devices visitors are using. The list goes on.

Once you’ve made your dashboards, share them directly with the individuals using the Share link in the top of the screen. This provides direct access to the most relevant information for each person in the company. No more hits!

Looking beyond the average visitor

We know more about the people who visit our website than ever before. We know who is new and who is returning. We know what devices they are using and what websites sent them to us. We even know where they are visiting from, all the way down to the city.

So why do we treat them the same in our reports?

The most important piece of web analytics advice I can offer is to segment your visitors into groups based on what we know about them.

So what if I got 10,000 visitors yesterday? How many of them were returning visitors? How many of them came directly to my site and how many were referred by another website? How many came because of all the Facebook updates I posted yesterday?

Use the Advanced Segments tool at the top of the screen to filter your visitors into these groups and compare them to the total number of visitors. You’ll start to see a better picture of who is visiting your site and why which is exactly the information we need to make good decisions about our website.

Google has also enabled a feature that provides the age, gender and interests of visitors based on the data they have in their DoubleClick ad network. If you haven’t enabled that already, it’s a simple one-line code change that takes a few seconds. Don’t have access to your site’s code? Bribe someone on the engineering team with a beer.

Moving toward actionable insights

I hope these three suggestions help illustrate that Google Analytics is capable of much more than reporting visits. The reality is that each one of these strategies is worthy of an entire blog post, but it’s a good start to know that they exist.

I’m always happy when clients ask me to help them with their analytics because it shows that they know there is value in knowing about their visitors. However, I’ll be happy when the conversations shift further away from how many visitors we get to which kinds of visitors they are and start making design, development and marketing decisions based on what we learn. All good web analytics lead to actionable insights that help us create better user experiences for our visitors.


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