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The Importance of Analytics

Web Analytics CycleTracking analytics are a polarizing subject. On one hand, its precise measurements and metrics can provide invaluable, scientifically tested information crucial to fine-tuning your website.

On the other, its very precise nature can quickly escalate into a dim haze of confusing lexicon, a bewildering amount of metrics, and complexities that surpass even many so-called specialists.

So why bother? What can analytics provide for me, and furthermore how is it worth the steep cost...whether that is in money, time, or sanity.

A Numbers Game

Analytics is all about the numbers. There are several services out there that serve analytics metrics, such as Google, Adobe Omniture, and others, but the one thing they all revolve around is numbers. Actually more like tallies.

In its simplest form, analytics are the grown up, lab-coat wearing children of hit counters. Tracking services tell you one thing in a seemingly infinite amount of different ways: how many people visited my site?

Google AnalyticsBut it gets deeper than that. And do buckle up for this.

Let's say your website received 10,000 hits in one month. Simple enough, right?  But wait, just in navigating a website a person is likely to visit the same page more than once. Maybe a single person visited your homepage several times in the course of their visit. Okay, so 10,000 hits isn't quite accurate enough. You need to know how many people came to your site, not just how many visits were recorded.

So it's several thousand people. But wait, how often did a person visit? It's one thing if they came back to the homepage multiple times in the span of an hour, but another matter entirely if they went to the homepage the next day. How long can a "duration of a visit," or a session, be defined?

For that matter, how much time have people been spending on your site? Seconds, minutes? Milliseconds? If it's the latter, then you're being visited by search engine spiders and bots, not people. That doesn't really count as "web traffic."

But even on the other hand, if all those numbers were of genuine people, are they spending a healthy amount of time on your website? Or are they simply stumbling across it and then ducking back out. Can a visit of a few paltry seconds really hold weight against a session of half an hour? The latter is quite a visit, while the former can barely qualify as one.

For all these people, spending at least a decent amount of time on your site, are they only spending it on the homepage? Or are they taking the time and effort to explore the other sections of your website. How can you be sure these visitors are truly seeing what you have to offer? Are they coming in to stay away and peruse your wares, or essentially window shopping; practically bouncing off your homepage as fast as they came.

So from just this most basic of levels we have unique visitors, sessions, duration, and bounce rate. See, not just mumbo jumbo after all.

Proving Its Worth

Why would a website need to keep track of what browser people use to view it? Aren't they all the same?

Not quite. Obviously desktop and mobile layouts differ. But did you know that how the Web is displayed is not truly uniform across all browsers? The Big Four: Internet Explorer, Mozilla Firefox, Google Chrome, and Apple Safari all display web pages slightly differently. Also, different versions of those four browsers often display pages differently from other versions. And just to make matters even worse, the same browser running the same version but on different operating systems can display pages slightly differently.

Sometimes these differences are slight, literally pixels off. Sometimes it is major, like whole portions of the web page not formatting properly or consistently. This can lead, and often does, to throwing the entire alignment of the page into disarray. What may look fine in Chrome and Safari may look off in Firefox. What looks alright in IE9 may look terribly wrong in IE6. What looks okay on Firefox ver. 12 on Windows may be only slightly off as seen on Firefox ver. 12 on OS X.

With inconsistencies like this it's a wonder that anyone can view the Web at all. At this point you really ought to thank your heart out to your web design team for making sure that doesn't happen.

But this is where tracking really shines. Let's say after looking at your metrics you notice that visitors who use Firefox, Chrome, and Safari all seem to be mostly equal, but IE users are sharply low by comparison and have a large bounce rate. This is a huge red flag that maybe you ought to check your site's compatibility with IE browsers. Chances are your page isn't rendering correctly, perhaps even grossly off. This would explain why traffic is so low; people get turned off by broken websites.

Testing... 1, 2, 3

Multivariate TestingIn another instance one of your graphic designers has proposed a new layout. Some people in your team think the layout is too confusing, others think that it looks more modern and trendy and will better increase traffic and visitor retention. Which do you choose?

Obviously either decision is risky and could jeopardize your site's traffic. If only there were some way to test which version people liked more before permanently deciding on one design or the other. But wait, you can!

It's called A/B or multivariate testing. Half your incoming audience sees one version, and the other half sees the other layout. Now you can judge how people react. If the new design seems to retain more visitors and exhibit more in-page exploration, then you have a good sign towards your final call.

Example of a heatmapHeatmaps can literally show you what people tend to click on the most. If you discover that people are frequenting one portion of the layout over the other, the question to ask yourself is Why?

Perhaps the other sections aren't clearly labeled, or inconveniently placed? Or perhaps something about that one section is just really attractive to your target audience, so why not take that cue and make your whole website more like that?

Science: Always Worth It

Analytics can be tricky to set up, and even trickier to interpret. It's very much all about statistics and constant fine-tuning. Nevertheless it provides an invaluable tool to gleam feedback through user behaviors, detect and isolate potential trouble-spots, and perform much-needed testing.

The examples covered here are but the most basic, simplest examples of what web analytics can do. Like any instrument in the hands of a master, it can manipulate your medium to no end short of the imagination. It can perform tasks you may not have always conceived of, but now surely cannot live without.

What are your thoughts on analytics? Quantum mechanics voodoo, overhyped statistics, or something no website at any scale can live without?

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