Are you getting the basics of analytics right?

Paul Boag

Monitoring website analytics is an important part of evolving your site. Unfortunately many of us aren’t monitoring enough and look at the wrong things.

I think if we are honest most of us are floundering around when it comes to website analytics. We know they are important, but are not quite sure what to do with the data we collect. After opening the default dashboards a few times we give up and don’t check our analytics for months at a time.

At least many of us are like that. Others are serious about analytics, monitoring and adapting their sites on an ongoing basis. Unfortunately they may well be monitoring the wrong things.

Monitoring the wrong thing

The trouble is, the default dashboards in apps like Google Analytics are not always helpful. They provide data on traffic, dwell time, bounce rate etc. In most cases these are not particularly useful.

Google Analytics Dashboard
Unfortunately the default dashboards in applications such as Google Analytics are not that useful.

Knowing how much traffic comes to your site is a measure of your marketing efforts. It doesn’t tell you a huge amount about the site itself.

Monitoring dwell time is even less useful. If somebody spends 3 minutes on your site, is that good or bad? What are you comparing it to? Even if you have a comparison point, should the number be higher or lower? A user engrossed in your content could account for high dwell time. But a high dwell time could also mean users cannot find the content they need.

Focusing on these ‘default’ analytics can be a dangerous business. In the extreme I have seen posts split over many pages just to increase page views to impress advertisers. I have also seen website managers clutter their websites with related links in an attempt to reduce bounce rates.

What then should you be monitoring?

What should you watch?

The answer is simple — You should be monitoring the business objectives for the site. You do have some, don’t you?

For example, this site exists to generate leads for Headscape and to keep our brand in the minds of potential customers. Yes I know, you thought I ran this blog out of the kindness of my heart. Sorry to shatter your illusions!

I track these two objectives in two ways —

  • The number of newsletter signups. This is the best way we have to ensure people hear from us on a regular basis.
  • The number of people who go from Boagworld to the Headscape site.

Some business objectives are going to be harder to measure than others, but you should still try and measure something. Having something to measure is better than nothing, even if the metric is not perfect. For example the newsletter is not the only way of keeping our brand in people’s minds. We just felt it was the most effective. We could have measured the number of people following me on Twitter after visiting my site. We just didn’t feel that was as valuable as newsletter signups.

Now you might be wondering why I don’t measure both? Why not track newsletter signups and Twitter? It’s because I am pragmatic. I know the more metrics I start to measure, the more overwhelmed by all the data I am likely to become.

Ensuring monitoring happens

The biggest problem with modern analytics is that we have a glut of data. We can gather so much data that it can overwhelm us. That is not a problem if you have a professional analytics expert working for you (like our own Chris Scott). It is a bigger problem if it falls on you.

In those cases I recommend keeping it simple. By only monitoring 2–5 metrics you ensure that you are not overwhelmed. They are much quicker to check often. It is also easier to understand what those metrics are telling you and what changes you need to make.

The key is not the number of metrics you are tracking, but rather the amount you are checking them.

Check often

It is easy to forget about analytics. With so much going on, we can get into the habit of only turning to analytics when you need to prove a point to a colleague or client.

Regularly checking analytics is important because it ensures you are improving your website. As you spot problems in your analytics, you can tweak your content or usability to improve the results. In short checking analytics encourages site evolution.

That is why I recommend having somebody who sees it as their job to track analytics. Somebody focused on understanding user behaviour and encouraging improvements. They need to incorporate this role as part of their daily routine.

I know I am not sharing ground breaking analytics strategies here. But, I am shocked at how few website managers have a focused approach to analytics. If I asked you what goals you are tracking, could you tell me? Would it be something other than the basic dashboard analytics? If I asked you when you check analytics, could you tell me a specific schedule?