What Are Web Analytics?

Charlie R. Claywell
Search engine search term charts
Search Engine Search Term Charts

Web analytics are tools that offer a way to track the traffic coming into and out of your website, as well as gather a variety of other crucial data. In the beginning when web analytics were first implemented, everything came down to one stat -- hits. The theory was fairly simple; if a user landed on your page, he or she must have been interested in the content. A lot has changed since then, and now analytics cover a myriad of areas. Understanding all that information can get a little complicated, but if you can master just a handful of metrics, it will have a significant impact on your site's traffic.

Five Really Useful Pre-Installed Analytics

Whether you blog and use a free blog service like WordPress or you own a small site, your service will probably include a few pre-installed analytical tools. Here are five analytic tools you should familiarize yourself with. Once you are comfortable working with them, you may want to expand your knowledge and the effectiveness of your site by learning about a few advanced options.

Search Terms

Search terms are the words users type into search engines to find their way to your site. Pay close attention to the terms used, and then incorporate them throughout your site when it makes sense to do so. Just keep in mind that any type of keyword or search term "stuffing" on a site will, in the long-term, damage your site's search engine ranking.

Think of search terms as insights into what a user considers your subject. For example, if your site is about old press-metal toy trucks, a user may search for brand names (like Tonka) and use the words "vintage" or "classic" instead of "old". Once you get a feel for what a user types in to find your site, you can begin using the terms in a natural way inside your content.

Referrers

Referrers let you know which site a visitor was on right before he or she landed on your page, and this can offer a lot of insight into the type of visitors your site attracts. For example, did a visitor come from another page on your site, or did he land there following a search engine recommendation or a link on another website? If he came from another website, visit that site to understand its content and how it leads users to yours. If applicable, reach out to the other website and leave comments or develop a relationship.

Clicks

Wordpress Click Tracker
Wordpress Click Tracker

If you want to increase your page views, take time to study clicks. This stat lets you know which outbound links users are clicking on to leave your site. This is a good tool for understanding which specific content readers on your site are looking for. By examining the top five or ten links they click and then studying those pages, you can develop content that more closely matches what your users want.

Page Views

Page views are probably the best known and possibly most overused statistics of all. Not to take away from their importance because you really have no site without page views, but page views must be quality ones if they are going to have any long term effect on your site.

This stat helps you identify the most popular content, themes, and subject matters you have, but another often overlooked attribute of this information is that you can learn which days and which time of day your site receives the most traffic. This is extremely helpful when dealing with content updates because you may choose to update based on when more users are on your site.

Shares

In a world of social media, you definitely want to monitor shares. Unless, for some reason, your niche does not need or use social media, you will want to know when your content is being picked up and shared by your users. Again, this is a good indication of content that works.

Three Advanced Metrics You Should Know About

Although these metrics may not be tracked by your service, there are ways to get the information through both paid and free services. The information gleaned from these three categories can boost page views by allowing you to tweak you content so it is more in line with your objectives and your users' desires.

Bounce Rates

Bounce rate tracking tool
Bounce Rate Tracking Tool

Bounce rates offer some of the most informative data you can collect by revealing who doesn't want to be on your site. This metric collects the percentage of users who land on your site and immediately click off of it.

Obviously, the higher the bounce rate, the less effective your site is. This can be caused by a variety of issues which you will want to investigate. One common issue could be that the search terms that lead people to your site do not align with your site's content. Another possible reason for bounces is that the headlines that pull users in do not accurately portray what your site is about. Regardless of the issue, it is in your best interest to resolve it.

New Versus Returning Visitors

Generally speaking, the more return visitors you receive the better, regardless of whether you sell items or simply display content. However, there should be times when the new visitor number is higher. For example, if you run a marketing campaign or hold a contest with the goal of attracting new users, you can gage the effectiveness of your campaign by monitoring this number.

Pages Per Visit

Often referred to as a site's "stickiness," this metric gives you an understanding of the quality of your content and possible issues with navigation. If you have high-quality content, your page per visit count should be relatively high, which is a good thing. You can also use this information to figure out if users are being forced to click too many times to get to the information you want them to have. In that case, you can adjust the navigation to rectify the problem.

Popular Analytical Tools

Each of the various web analytical tools tend to focus on specific attributes to develop their own niche in a crowded market. Here are a few services that offer everything from heat maps to tracking a user through your site.

  • Google Analytics
    Google Analytics
    Google Analytics (free): Possibly the best known of all the free tools, Google Analytics is an extremely powerful tool. To use the service, you place a piece of coding on your site, but you may need to use a plug-in for blog services. Once installed, you can see stats and create graphs and charts to more clearly visualize your site's traffic. This service is free as long as your site generates less than 10 million page views a month.
  • Adobe Analytics: In 2009, Adobe acquired Omniture SiteCatelyst, one of the most well-known web analytical software systems on the market. Besides collecting the metrics listed above (and many more), this tool collects and displays reports in real time. You can also follow a user or group of users through your site and learn very specific actions based on the demographics of your visitors, provided they are registered users and you collected information like age, gender, location, etc. when they registered. A free trial is available, but paid subscription is required after that.
  • CrazyEgg: This is an interesting service that offers some very powerful information to let you fine tune a site and take it to another level. The company uses heat maps to let you know where users click, who clicks what, and where they scroll. This tool is also very useful when doing A/B testing for your site. A paid subscription is required, but you can try the service on a free trial for 30 days.
  • Optimizely: This site is all about A/B testing. Use this tool to set up a test or multiple tests, and then the tool will let you know which option is best. Once the test is set up, all you need to do is place a small snippet of coding on your site. This service also offers a free trial, but you'll have to subscribe to keep using it.

Analytics for Email Newsletters

If you send out email newsletters, you will be introduced to a whole new set of metrics. However, you should only concern yourself with the following three initially.

  • Email open rate statistics
    Email Open Rate Statistics
    Open rate: Like it sounds, this is simply the percentage of users that opened your email. Low open rates tend to indicate poor subject matter, poorly written subject lines, or poorly timed delivery.
  • Click through rate: This is the percentage of clicks compared to the number of links inside the email. The higher the percentage the better since it indicates users like the content and are clicking on the links.
  • Bounce rate: This is one to watch closely because a high bounce rate means you either have an inaccurate list of email addresses or you are being blocked as spam.

What Are Your Goals?

It is important to know your goals before you jump into web analytics because your goal determines which metric is most important. For example, page views may not be as important as page depth if you have a site with an extreme niche. On the other hand, an ecommerce site may be more concerned with conversion rates and quality of visitors as opposed to quantity of visitors or high page views. By clarifying your goal, you can focus on the handful of stats that will give you the most "bang for your buck."

What Are Web Analytics?