Web analytics are nothing new to the world, but many people don’t understand web analytics data well enough to make effective use of it in their jobs or businesses. You might have heard, or even wondered yourself, “How many hits is my site getting per day, per month, per year?” Or you might have heard claims such as, “Our site gets 80,000 hits per day.” The problem with both of these situations is that the person asking the question or making the statement doesn’t understand web analytics.
We at CivicPlus believe in the power of understanding web analytics and understand the implications of being able to interpret and make decisions on web analytics data. One of our goals is to help you not only understand basic web analytics data, but how to make decisions based on it. See how one of our clients has already started making this happen here.
What Do All the Numbers Mean?
Basic Traffic Data
There are 5 basic web analytic metrics that relate to traffic that we will focus on here…and “hits” isn’t one of them. A “hit” actually relates to the server the site is on. If a page on a site has 79 images on it, it will generate 1 hit per image on the server plus one hit for the visitor landing on the page (not to mention any other resources the page needs to load from the server). Therefore, that one visit generates 80+ hits and becomes an unusable web metric.
- Visits – this is the number of visitors to your site in a given time frame. It does not account for visitor types or frequencies of individual visitors. Example: I came to your site 5 times in 30 days. For those 30 days I will count as 5 visits.
- Unique Visitors – This is a unique individual that might have visited your site numerous times, but is only counted once as a visitor. Unique visitors are identified using a cookie on their computer. Example: I came to your site 5 times in 30 days. For those 30 days I will count as 1 unique visitor.
- Page Views – This is the number of pages viewed on your site. Example: I came to your site 5 times in 30 days, but each time I came I viewed 10 pages. For those 30 days I will count as 50 page views. If you want to determine pages per visit (or how many pages does the average visit view) divide the total page views for a given timeframe by total visits for the same timeframe
(Page views ÷ Visits = Page views per visit).
- Average Duration or Average Time on Site – This is the average time spent on your site during any visit. It is derived by taking the total time on the website for a given timeframe and dividing it by the total number of visits (Total time on site ÷ Total visits = Average time on site).
So, now you should have a basic understanding of web analytics regarding visitors. But, that can mean very little if you don’t understand the sources where those visitors are coming from. Our next step is to look at common traffic sources on web sites.
Common Traffic Sources
There are four common traffic source groups and these may or may not include various subgroups, depending on your analytics platform.
- Direct – This is traffic that has come to your site by either typing in your URL in their address bar or clicking a bookmark. There are some other cases that can cause traffic to show up as direct such as untagged links (whether placed by you or someone else), bad redirects, vanity URLs or improperly tagged campaigns.
- Referrals – This is traffic that has come from another site to your site. It does not relate to traffic coming from a search engine nor should it reflect any campaign based links you have tagged for specific tracking purposes.
- Search – This is traffic from search engines. Most analytic platforms will break this out into Organic, Natural or Paid. Organic is basic search traffic from sites such as Google. Paid is traffic from sites that such as Google that have clicked a search ad that you paid to show up based on search terms used.
- Other – This bucket typically relates to campaign-based traffic that has been tagged for specific tracking purposes such as social media links, email marketing links or direct marketing.
Making Use of Web Analytics Data
Unfortunately, there are a few caveats to all of the information above.
- Cookies – No these are not chewy, gooey morsels of sweet goodness. Cookies are used to anonymously identify visitors as new/returning, etc. However, users have the ability to delete cookies or not allow the storing of cookies which can augment your data in ways you can’t control.
- Multi-device World – We live in a multi-device world where many of us own multiple devices which access the internet and frequently have a work computer we use as well. Most analytics platforms cannot determine new vs. returning visits, etc. cross-device. This means if I access your website on my home computer and later on my tablet or smart phone, your analytics won’t be able to identify me as a returning visitor because the cookie that was stored after my first visit isn’t on my second device.
Despite not being able to do much regarding the caveats of cookies and a multi-device world, at this point anyways, it is good information to understand and will provide a better overall understanding of your web traffic. Now, what to do with all of this?
One of the first keys to making use of web analytics data is to determine what data is relevant to you. If you know you aren’t creating marketing campaigns on or offline that utilize custom tagging for tracking purposes, you can probably ignore most data in the “other” traffic sources bucket. But, if you are working doggedly to drive traffic to your site via links placed on others sites or on social media, visits from referral traffic might become very important.
The most important thing to remember when determining which analytics metrics are important to you, is to remember the goal of what you are trying to achieve. If you have a goal of driving 30% more traffic to your site, but your site is a blog with very short posts, average duration or time on site might be irrelevant.
Determine Goals and Make Decisions
Determining goals will help you determine which metrics illustrate success or failure in reaching those goals and can help you understand where changes need to occur to ensure you hit those goals next time. Goals should be as specific as possible without being too granular.
For example, you have goals of increasing traffic by 100% in one year. You’ve focused on referral traffic and have increased that 200%, but have only increased overall site traffic by 20% in 9 months. When you look at organic search traffic you see a decrease of 72% which accounts for more traffic overall than the 200% increase in referral traffic. You have now uncovered an opportunity to increase organic search traffic and hit your goal by the end of the year, but it might be too late to meet your overall goal.
Had your goals been more specific, you might have uncovered this situation much earlier and still had much of the year to adjust strategy and meet or exceed your goals.
Ultimately, the key to understanding basic web analytics comes down to knowing what basic metrics are, understanding what drives those basic metrics and how to use those metrics to determine the success or failure of your website and/or make decisions about your websites future. At the end of the day, you determine what is important to you and how to use it but without the basic knowledge, making those determinations and truly understanding the state of your website is nearly impossible.