Are you a skeptic? Come on, I know you are!

One thing this blog is making me do is really get back to basics, which is great. So what is web analytics and why might website owners not embrace it? The¬† Wikipedia entry has a technical definition, but it’s really just studying the behavior of your website visitors. That sounds simple, but there is so much involved in studying behavior and *why* we should study behavior. We’ll talk about the skeptics a little later.

When I began getting involved in analytics back in 2001, the company I worked for used WebTrends as their analytics package. Back then we used log analyzer (which, like the name suggests, analyzes log files). I can still remember sitting at my desk doing other work for 2 hours (depending upon the date range) while waiting for a report to run. Those were the good ol’ days … or … not.

Today there are two *main* ways to collect quantitative analytics data – log files and page tags. There are advantages and disadvantages to both. No matter what you choose, though, the key to using web analytics to your advantage is to measure the data and relate it directly to your website goals. If you don’t do this, you’ll find yourself swimming in data with no idea what to do with it.

You may also find people in your department, school, or unit (and maybe that somebody is you!) who think this is all bunk. The numbers are always wrong, so what’s the point of measuring?

A lot of skepticism around analytics centers around the fact that the numbers are never perfect. Cookie deletion, cookie rejection, turning off javascript can all skew numbers. True. But, let’s heed Avanish Kaushik’s advice and get over it. Why? Because it doesn’t matter.

Why doesn’t it matter? Because it’s *off* consistently across your site. That’s why trends are so important. You can argue that the statement, “I got 1,500 visits last month” may or may not be perfectly true. You can’t argue, however, the truth to the statement, “our visits are up 10% over last month.” See the difference? The 1,500 number doesn’t mean anything anyway, even if it were a concrete, true, golden number. Putting it in context with the previous month (or other date range) makes all the difference. You can do the same thing with all your other metrics.

If you remember that measuring anything on the web is never *perfect*, but measuring trends can be *accurate*, then you’ll start to embrace the power of web analytics!

9 Responses to “Are you a skeptic? Come on, I know you are!”

  1. Dude. I am not typically the kind of person excited about web analytics, but your passion and excitement is contagious! I love your posts!

  2. Shelby says:

    Thanks Shannon! I appreciate it. Yes, I am very passionate about web analytics. It’s so exciting to think about everything analytics can do. I want everyone to see the possibilities! : )

  3. Stevie Rocco says:

    I like this idea A LOT, believe it or not. And I am SO not into marketing usually. What I’d like to know is how we might be able to leverage web analytics to do some actual data mining that might help learners; e.g., how do learners taking a typical path through content come to understanding? What resources did they find most helpful?

    You know what I mean? Kind of like Amazon: “Other Learners who answered this question in X way found the following resources helpful…”

  4. Shelby says:

    Great question, Stevie. There are a few ways you could do this.

    I know that in Omniture’s Discover you can segment by “product” and say, basically, for people that viewed this product, what other pages did they view? I’m not sure if Google Analytics can do this type of thing or not. If anyone out there reading this knows, please comment. In the meantime, I’ll research if GA can do this and let you know.

    A clunkier, but more immediate way to look at user behavior from a specific page would be to use the site overlay or clickmap feature. This tells you from a specific page, where the user clicked. I know Google Analytics can do this.

    You could also do a path analysis from a specific page. So, if you want to see where a user went from a specific page, it would tell you the popular paths users take (to and from). I warn against long path analysis, though. Path analysis can be misleading since user behavior (from a pathing perspective) is so varied. If you look at the pathing holistically, though, you can find patterns according to different areas of the website. Again, I would tread lightly with path analysis, though. I know Google Analytics can do this as well.

    Great question. Thanks.

  5. Christina says:

    I really don’t understand web analytics; Google Webmaster Tools throws me for a loop. Thanks for helping me take my first step in trying to understand this stuff. This is probably the first thing I’ve read that makes sense and I can say, “ok, I get this.” I shall read on . . .

  6. [...] There are limitations that every web site deals with as well. When IT folks tell you the data is crap because of ¬†deleted cookies, users using different browsers/computers, blocking javascript, etc., etc. … smile and say, “get over it.” There is nothing we can do about these and the data will never be perfect, but that’s ok. That’s why trending is important. [...]

  7. Dragan says:

    Sweet contest, totally doing it

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