How to: Monitor your web stats with Google Analytics

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How to: Monitor your web stats with Google Analytics

We demonstrate a free service that reveals how visitors use your site, helping you to fine-tune it for usability and profitability.

If you’ve ever run a website, you’ve perhaps wished you could peer over the shoulder of a visitor. How valuable it would be to see which links they jump to, which pages they miss… and to watch as the mouse sweeps past the “buy now” button, to land instead on that distracting Facebook feed that seemed like such a good idea. Web analytics technology gives you almost this degree of visibility into how visitors use your site.

Analytics works by using JavaScript to record a unique cookie on each visitor’s device (assigning a randomly generated tracking ID to preserve anonymity). As the visitor browses your site, this can be used to track exactly which pages they visit, which buttons and links they click, and how long they spend on each page. The main analytics application collates and analyses this information to give you, through a simple control panel, a complete overview of how visitors use your site.

MAKING SENSE OF ANALYTICS DATA

Dividing your data into segments means you can analyse exactly the data that matters to you.

 

Before the widespread adoption of analytics, website development was conducted largely in the dark. If you had a big budget, you might book usability lab sessions during development, but the data would be limited by the number of testers you could afford – and once the site went live, the information flow stopped. It was impossible to really know exactly what visitors to your site were doing. Today, we have the opposite problem: analytics provides us with so much data that it can be a challenge to filter the important information from the noise.

Some metrics are familiar from the good old days of the website hit counter. Your unique visitors and page views in a given period are good indicators of the general health of a site. However, analytics software can also provide dozens of more sophisticated measures.

A crucial one is the “bounce rate” – not least because Google takes it into account as part of its ranking algorithm. The bounce rate of a page is the percentage of visitors who leave at that point. A high bounce rate on any page – other than directly after a transaction – is bad news. A bounce rate of 75% or more on your homepage indicates visitors aren’t seeing what they expect when they arrive following a search. This is bad business, and anathema to your Google ranking.

Analytics doesn’t only tell you which pages people are visiting on your site, it can also reveal how they’re accessing it. For example, you can discover what proportion of visits are made from mobile devices, and which OSes and browsers are most popular. You can see how many visiting devices are capable of playing Flash videos. Keeping an eye on questions such as these, and how they evolve over time, can guide your marketing and development strategy.

Installing Google Analytics

If you aren’t already using analytics, you ought to be. Below, we’ll walk through installing Google Analytics. This is by far the most popular free analytics package, although there are numerous others, and the process is much the same whichever package you choose.

To set up Analytics, you’ll need a Google account. Use this to register with the service at http://analytics.google.com. Once you’ve done this you can build analytics into any number of websites. For each site, Google Analytics will generate a block of JavaScript code that uniquely identifies the site to its servers, using a proprietary JavaScript library called “ga. js”. This code must be inserted within the HTML header of every page you want to track.

Exactly how you achieve this depends on how your site has been constructed and hosted. If you’ve created your site manually using PHP, then it’s only a case of updating the appropriate template file. Similarly, if you’ve created your site using Dreamweaver’s template system, you can paste the code immediately before the tag in the appropriate master file.

All popular content management systems including WordPress, Joomla and Drupal offer plugins for incorporating Analytics (see next page for a walkthrough). Moonfruit users can add Analytics from the Services menu, while Wix.com Premium users can find the setting in My Account | Manage Premium. For users of Serif’s WebPlus X5 it’s even easier: select File | Site Properties and click the Analytics option. Paste the code into the space provided and update the site.

For online shop owners, hosted shopping carts such as Volusion and BigCommerce can also be linked to Analytics by simply pasting in the tracking code. Of course, such services provide their own metrics, but Analytics offers a far more detailed set of statistics that can be combined with the other information it stores on your site.

Once Analytics is set up, go back to your control panel and verify the code is working correctly. Users of online site creation tools such as Moonfruit may need to wait a few hours before the update takes effect.

Learning about your visitors 


 Google Analytics lets you compare different types of traffic according to user-defined goals.

 

Google Analytics begins gathering data as soon as the code is in place. To get to your site metrics, go to http:// analytics.google.com and select the appropriate website. This should load your Audience Overview; set a date range via the dropdown at the top right and use the calendar control.

This overview displays commonly used metrics: visits, unique visitors and page views. In isolation, however, these are pretty meaningless – they’re sometimes called “vanity metrics”. As a website owner, whether you have something to sell or not, your aim is to engage visitors, so you should be more concerned about the average time spent on the site by each visitor, the number of pages viewed per visit and the bounce rate of each page than raw visitor numbers. Quality before quantity is a key principle of successful web development – and Analytics lets you see how you’re progressing.

Analytics also provides a way to monitor the success of your SEO efforts. Select the Traffic Sources menu, then Sources | All Traffic, and you’ll see each traffic source in order of visits – including what proportion of your traffic comes from Google, with AdWords and organic search traffic listed separately. You can see whether the proportions are growing or falling by using the date dropdown set a period with a viable amount of data (usually a month or so). Click the “Compare to past” checkbox and Analytics will compare with the preceding period. Each source has two entries, one for each period, along with a value showing the percentage change and whether it’s positive or negative.

Another useful metric is how quickly pages on your site appear. Select Content | Site Speed and you’ll see a load time in seconds for each page, which helps to quantify the effect of that embedded Facebook stream! For the perfect overview of how your site is being used by your visitors, click Audience | Visitors Flow. This generates a useful infographic, which you can use to follow the paths people use through your site, making it obvious where you need to work on grabbing their attention.

NEXT PAGE: Connecting to AdWords & AdSense, Setting Goals, Segments...

Connecting to AdWords & AdSense

One of the advantages of choosing Google Analytics is the ease with which you can integrate it with other Google services. Most online shops and businesses drive traffic to their sites using AdWords, Google’s pay-per-click advertising service. You will, of course, already have conversion tracking set up within AdWords, so you’ll already know which ads and keywords are profitable. By linking this service with Analytics, you can get a complete picture of a customer’s journey through your “sales funnel” – and spot any leakage points. The more you’re spending through AdWords, the more valuable this information is. You’ll find the option to do this under Tools and Analysis within your AdWords control panel.

In a similar way, you can use Analytics to track AdSense statistics. AdSense is Google’s display ads network, which, as we discussed last month, allows you to earn a modest income hosting ads on your site. There are several metrics you can monitor from the AdSense control panel, but linking in your Analytics account adds a new level of detail. By clicking the AdSense link under the Content menu in Analytics, you can see which pages on your site have been receiving ad clicks, and how much those clicks were worth. Ad performance is specific to your particular site, so paying close attention to which pages are making money and which aren’t can do far more for your profitability than any general approach.

Setting goals

With so much data at your fingertips it’s important to stay focused on what’s important to you. One way is to add your most commonly used data views to the Dashboard by clicking the Add to Dashboard button. You can, however, take a more flexible approach by creating and monitoring custom “goals”. These might be completed sales, visits to a particular page or other desirable occurrences.

To create a goal, click the cog icon in the top-right corner to go to the Settings screen. Make sure the correct profile is set in the dropdown and click Goals. You’ll see that goals can be grouped into sets, but for now you can simply click “+Goal” underneath Set 1.

One common use for goals is to track purchases from specific sources. For example, let’s say you’re running a Facebook Ads campaign. Facebook doesn’t provide its own conversion tracking for ads, but you can work around this using Analytics goals. All you need to do is append a unique query string to the destination URL in your Facebook ad (such as www.mysite.com.au/?fb), so that visits from that source can easily be identified. With this done, you can track arrivals from Facebook by simply selecting the URL Destination goal type and entering the URL, complete with the trailing query. This is an easy way to keep tabs on whether your Facebook ads are really effective.

If you’re more interested in how long visitors spend on your pages, you can set up a “Time on Site” goal, so that any visitor who remains on the site for more than the time you specify is recorded as a goal success. You can then simply compare two time periods to monitor your progress. You can also set up a goal relating to pages accessed per visit, another measure of visitor engagement.

Once your goals have been up and running for a while, you can view the various metrics from the Conversions | Goals section of the Standard Reports tabs. Switch to the Funnel Visualisation to see how effective your sales process is at moving potential customers from the landing page to the goal page.

Segments

The value of a good analytics package isn’t only in the data it gathers, but in how effectively it allows you to make real-world decisions based on that data. For example, let’s say you run an e-commerce website and you’re thinking of investing in a mobile-friendly version of your shop. You can work out whether the investment is worthwhile in the short to medium term by looking at two metrics: the percentage of visitors using mobile devices to visit your site, and how valuable they are to you. These figures become even more useful if you can spot a trend over time, since this will give you an idea of how urgently you need to make changes.

To look for a trend, click Audience | Mobile in your Standard Reporting tab, and choose a recent period – the past month, for example. Now click the date dropdown and select a period to compare, ideally the same month in the previous year. If you see a significant positive change in the percentage of visitors using mobile devices, it could be time to take action – but first you need to discover whether that mobile traffic is really of value.

One way to establish this is by setting a meaningful goal, then comparing what proportion of mobile users achieve it versus desktop and laptop visitors. To do this, create your goal, then go to Conversions | Goals and select Overview. Under Goal Option, make sure you choose the particular goal you’re focusing on. Finally, to compare mobile visitors with those using desktops and laptops, you need to define them as a Segment of your audience.

To do this, click Advanced Segments at the top. Make sure only “Mobile” is selected in the left-hand list (Default Segments). We want to compare this with traffic that excludes mobiles: no such default exists, so click the +New Custom Segment button on the right. Give the new segment a name such as “Non-mobile”, change the expression to “exclude”, “mobile”, “containing”, “yes” and click Save Segment. The Overview should show two lines – one for mobile traffic and another for all other traffic.

Analytics thus allows website owners to make decisions informed by real, granular data rather than gut feeling or wishful thinking. The longer you’ve been using Analytics, the more valuable the information it provides is; so, if you don’t have analytics software installed, now is certainly the time to break out the HTML editor and grab your lab coat.

NEXT PAGE: Cookie regulations, Real time analytics, Set up Google Analytics on your WordPress site (Walkthrough)...



Cookie regulations

Analytics software uses cookies to anonymously track a visitor’s progress through your site. This is necessary because when you move between HTML pages, information stored in the browser’s memory is lost. Some controversy exists over the use of cookies and how they factor in terms of compliance with the National Privacy Principles laid out in the Privacy Act of 1988.

Muddying the water is the fact that the UK recently completely revamped its stance on cookies, with new regulations now in force requiring that users be given an explicit choice whether or not to accept cookies. Cookies essential for the site’s functioning are exempted, but it’s hard to argue that an analytics cookie is “essential”. So if you’re using analytics you’ll need to implement a cookie opt-in process when visitors first arrive on your site. This isn’t great news for webmasters: when the Information Commissioner’s Office (the government body responsible for implementing the new law) implemented an opt-in process on its own website, its own analytics data collapsed by more than 90% – although that may be partly down to the ham-fisted way in which it was implemented.

In Australia, much of the use of cookies relies on the doctrine of implied consent. Cookies that enable information to be collected when that information is not of a personal nature (such as a unique ID number) are outside of the Privacy Act all together.

For cookies collecting names and email addresses, it’s a lot greyer - we recommend a look at the guidelines here: http://www. sitecompliance.com.au/docs/thirdpvol.pdf

Real time analytics

Analytics are hugely useful for tracking long-term trends; but sometimes you can learn much more from watching how visitors are interacting with your site in real-time.

For example, if you’ve been running a campaign on your Facebook page or via Twitter, real-time analytics lets you follow the impact each update has on the behaviour of your fans as it happens. You can then adjust your marketing methods and even the layout of your site, on the fly, to make the most of positive feedback. It becomes possible to run several ad experiments per day, rather than having to roll out changes on a large scale. This can save money for large e-commerce sites, which typically spend a huge chunk of their marketing budgets on pay-per-click marketing such as Google AdWords, and need to generate the best return.

Real-time analytics is also invaluable when a site is being developed, upgraded or repaired, since it allows you to follow the progress of visitors through the site – and spot problem pages or features instantly. Google Analytics now offers a Real-Time view, but services such as Chartbeat and Clicky offer a richer live view of visitors’ behaviour. Both charge a modest monthly fee but include generous free-trial periods, so you can test whether the insights they provide are worthwhile.

WALKTHROUGH - Set up Google Analytics on your WordPress site:

Step 1:

Go to http://analytics.google.com and sign in with your Google account. Click Sign Up and complete the form, setting up your first website for tracking – you can add further sites later. You can also choose here to share Analytics data with other services. Select your territory, tick the terms and conditions box, then click Create Account.

Step 2:

Ignore mobile options, as we’re tracking a website, not an app. You can choose to track a single “www” domain, or keep the option to add subdomains later. Analytics generates a tracking code that goes before the closing head tag on each page you want to track. We’ll use a WordPress plugin to insert this automatically

Step 3:

In the WordPress Dashboard, select Plugins/Add New and find the “Analytics Head” plugin by Lukasz Nowicki. Install it, then click Activate Plugin. Go to Settings and click Analytics Head, then paste your Google Tracking ID into the Google Analytics ID box. Tick “Hide for administrators” so your own visits aren’t counted.


Step 4:
Pop back to Analytics and click Save to finish setup. To test it, click Home, then click Real-Time (Beta) | Overview on the left. You’ll probably see zero visitors: log out of WordPress, browse around your site and after a moment you’ll see the counter tick up. You can click Content and watch this change as you browse.
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