Making analytics work for you

Paul Boag

Do you get the most out of Google analytics or are you just scratching the surface? In this post we discover that analytics is about more than user sessions, page views and bounce rates.

Like pretty much every other website owner on the planet I have Google analytics installed on Boagworld. However, I shared one other characteristic with the vast majority of website owners – I didn’t really have a clue about how to use it effectively.

The problem with analytics

If you listen to season 1 of the Boagworld Show you will know that my entire approach to web design is built around the idea that a website should generate a return on investment. To achieve this we need to be able to measure the successes or failures of our websites. Although this can be achieved in a number of ways, one of the most common approaches is to use web analytics.

The problem with web analytics is that most of us (myself included) do not really understand how to turn this massive amount of data into something useful.

Too little detail

When it comes to using something like Google analytics most of us never get past the default reports on statistics such as page views, user sessions or bounce rates. Although this information is useful it doesn’t give us much of an insight into the return our website is providing.

Google Analytics

We need to dig deeper if we want analytics to be truly useful.

Too much detail

The idea that most of us do not fully utilise Google analytics is something we have discussed before on the show. On a couple of occasions we have had an analytics expert (in the form of Matt Curry) on the show to explain to us all the Google analytics has to offer.

Although these discussions have been interesting, when I came to think about Google analytics for Boagworld I realised that I was still none the wiser as to what I should measure.

This is not because Matt’s advice was bad. It was just too complex for a website such as Boagworld. It was perfect for something like an e-commerce site, but I struggled to translate this to a content oriented websites such as Boagworld.

I therefore decided to approach the problem from a completely different perspective.

Start with the objectives, not the tools

Instead of allowing my usage of Google analytics to be dictated by the tool itself, I stepped back and asked myself what exactly I wanted to know.

To answer that question I turned to my business objectives and success criteria which I established in the first episode of this season. These included:

  • To create an increase in the number of people contacting me about work.
  • To create an increase in the number of people visiting the Headscape website.
  • To create an increase in the number of tweets & links back to Boagworld content.
  • To create an increase in the number of people following other Headscape employees via twitter or their personal blogs.
  • To create an increase in the number of people talking about Headscape via social media & direct links.
  • To create an increase in sales of supplementary material.

Some of the success criteria (such as mentions on twitter) would need to be tracked outside of Google analytics. However the majority could be monitored within the application if it was set up correctly. In particular I decided to focus on:

  • The people visiting the Headscape website.
  • The people subscribing to the blog.

It is easy to become overwhelmed with data. The answer is to focus on one or two metrics initially.

The reason I decided to focus on only 2 areas was because I knew I was more likely to monitor them regularly if I kept things simple. If I started monitoring a lot of metrics it would be easy to get overwhelmed by the complexity and give up. I reasoned that I could always add more metrics later if things went well.

That said, my interest was not just in the number of users subscribing to the blog or visiting the Headscape website. I was also interested in anything I can learn about who these users were.

For example, were users more likely to subscribe after reading a certain type of blog post? Or were users coming from a particular referral source more likely to go on and visit the Headscape website?

It is not enough to watch certain metrics go up or down if you do not understand why they are doing so. What I needed were custom reports that allowed me to track this information.

Setting up the basic reports

I now had a clear idea of what I wish to achieve. I knew this involved being able to track clicks on links leading to Headscape or buttons allow the user to subscribe. I also knew it would involve setting up some custom reports within Google analytics to allow me a better understanding of why users completed my calls to action.

Unfortunately this was beyond my knowledge of Google analytics and so I turned to our in-house analytics expert Chris Scott.

Chris was incredibly helpful and I learnt a lot about setting up custom reports and events tracking. I now had a firm foundation to start monitoring the success or failure of the website.

Better still the information provided in my custom reports would give me an indication as to what subject matter encouraged people to complete my calls to action. However, there was more I could do to tailor my content perfectly.

Improving content analytics

I was also keen to set up the new Boagworld Website so that I could run multivariate testing. This would allow me to tweak the design and content in order to maximise the number of users who either subscribe or visit the Headscape website.

Fortunately this was relatively easy to achieve using Google’s website optimiser and a WordPress plug-in.

Screen capture from Ryan's tutorial

Having Google Website Optimiser will allow me to test a range of factors that may effect Headscape visits or blog subscriptions. Just some of the factors I intend to experiment with include:

  • In-post calls to action.
  • Post titles.
  • Post length.
  • Use of imagery.
  • Post structure.

My belief is that alongside the analytics on what kind of posts proved the most popular, this multivariate testing will allow me to significantly increase conversion rates.

It is important to have an ongoing plan as to how to improve your site analytics. That is why I also decided upon other indicators to track once I have made improvements to the number of people visiting the Headscape site or subscribing to the blog. Although I wouldn’t track these indicators immediately (for fear of overwhelming myself) I planned to track them once progress had been made in my initial metrics.

Going beyond the basics

Although knowing what causes people to visit the Headscape site or subscribe to the blog is a great starting point, it does not help me achieve all of my business objectives. As you can see from my objectives above I also needed to be able to track:

  • The profile of the Headscape brand.
  • The visibility of other Headscape employees.

The new Boagworld design includes a footer that highlights other Headscape employees and so I could use Google analytics to track the number of clicks these links receive. I could also do a similar thing with the author profiles which appear next to each blog post. This means I could see whether it was worth their time to write for boagworld or whether the links in the footer alone would be enough to increase their profiles.

Boagworld Footer

However, Google analytics is only able to take me so far. I’m not just interested in how much traffic Boagworld drives to the sites of other Headscape employees. I also want to know whether Boagworld increases their online profile and that of the Headscape brand. I therefore need tools that track mentions of individuals and links to their websites.

Social media and link tracking

I know that the work we win at Headscape does not always come via the Headscape or Boagworld websites. In many cases we have simply been recommended and the prospective client contacts us directly. We therefore cannot rely solely on Google analytics to track the success or otherwise of brand building exercises. If one of our aims is to increase the brands of Headscape and its employees then I need a tool which will allow me to track mentions of those brands beyond my own websites.

There is certainly no shortage of tools that offer this kind of functionality. At one end of the spectrum is something as basic as Google alerts (which tracks mentions of your brands on Google) to an enterprise level solution such as Spredfast (that provides a host of tools for monitoring your brand across everything for websites to social networks).

One of the more popular tools for this kind of brand awareness is Klout. Although Klout gives a reasonable indication of your influence on social networks like Twitter or Facebook, it does not provided the wider picture. For example, it only monitors Twitter or Facebook IDs so failing to include mentions of other keywords (such as full names). It can also only monitor social networks and does not include mentions elsewhere on the web.

Because my objective is to monitor all mentions of Headscape and its employees irrespective of where and how they are mentioned, it was obvious that Klout was not the tool for me.

In the end I settled on a tool called social mention. This tool impressed me because you can search on any keyword irrespective of whether it had an associated Twitter or Facebook account. It was also able to monitor across the range sources from blog posts to forums and social networks.

Social Mention

Social mention will allow me to see how effective our online marketing efforts are at increasing brand awareness for Headscape, myself and other employees. My hope is that having this information will allow me to tweak my approach to maximise the return. For example, which is more effective: writing a post for Boagworld or for another website such a Smashing Magazine?

Having this kind of information will help me target my limited time and resources most effectively.

Limited time and resources

Ultimately, that is what all analytics is about. We have limited time and resources to put into our sites and marketing. We therefore need to get the best return possible for that investment. Without analytics we have no way of knowing whether we are achieving this. The trick is to strike a balance between meaningful analytics that help decision-making and something overly complicated that confuses and takes too much of our time to understand.

The transcript for ‘Making Analytics Work for You’ is now available.