The basics of web analytics - how to get started
When I started a career in marketing in 2012, web analytics felt a bit mystique. The agency I started working for had no one who understood how to use Google Analytics. And back then, most clients also struggled to make sense of the data
I learned to use the most common web analytics tools, and it took some time. But when I could navigate through the dashboards and find helpful information, it was easy to impress my colleagues and clients.
The hardest part in web analytics was, and still is, coming up with actionable insights and finding the information you can use to make better decisions. According to Nielsen's Annual Marketing Report 2022:
…marketers understand the need for audience data, yet they struggle with varying aspects of their data strategies, citing notable challenges with data access, identity resolution and being able to derive actionable insights.
I've seen how marketers and website owners paralyze when they open an analytics dashboard. Mynewsdesk surveyed the data-driven mindset and found that only 19% of the survey respondents rated themselves as having a high data literacy. In other words, only one in five felt comfortable interpreting data graphics and presentations.
Data can give you insights, but it can also lead you astray.
In this post, I'll explain why you should take the time to learn the fundamentals of web analytics and how it can help your business.
Introduction to web analytics
Almost every company has a website. And I would argue that it's their most important marketing asset.
A website lets you showcase your products and services and breathe life into your brand.
You have complete control over your website and the freedom to decide how it looks and feels, unlike with social media channels, where you are bound by the platform's policies and guidelines.
Companies spend money to build and maintain websites, so it makes sense to understand what potential customers think about their websites.
Web analytics is a process aiming to discover actionable information from website data.
The process consists of collecting and assessing information on website usage. Analytics helps you understand how people find your website, interact with it, and who your customers are.
In this post, I will dive deeper into how this works.
Web analytics vs. app analytics? Some web analytics tools are used to measure website and application usage. In this post, we're going to focus on websites.
Let's dive in.
Web analytics key concepts and metrics
When I started exploring web analytics tools over a decade ago, it felt impossible to remember the concepts and three-letter acronyms such as KPI, SEM, SEO, CPA, CRO, and so on.
You don't need to know the entire lingo to start analyzing website usage, but there are a few concepts you should understand.
Two types of data are used in web analytics: quantitative and qualitative.
Quantitative data describes what happens on your website and where people come from. Most web analytics tools give quantitative data.
Qualitative data describes why visitors behave the way they do. You usually get qualitative data from customer interviews and surveys.
Next, I'll walk you through some fundamental concepts of web analytics.
A quantitative measurement, a number, such as a value or a rate.
An attribute used to segment your data. For example, when you look at which page on your website had the most visitors last month, the page is an attribute, and the number of visitors is the metric.
A time period
Refers to the time frame the data was collected from, such as the last 30 days.
Website visitors or visits
The number of visitors over a specific time period.
Almost the same as visits, but it groups interactions a single user made together within a given time. One visitor can have multiple sessions, but a visitor is anyone who has at least one session.
The number of times a page on your website was loaded. A single session usually has multiple page views.
The number of completed actions, such as signing up for your service, making a purchase, or submitting a contact form on your website. Conversions are desired actions that help drive your business goals.
Measures the percentage of your website visitors who completed a desired action. If you had 10,000 visitors and 500 converted, your conversion rate is 5%.
Other actions visitors complete on your website, such as watching a video, clicking a button, or downloading a document. Events are actions that help you understand how people use your website, but they are not categorized as conversions.
The channels that drive people to your website. Common traffic sources are organic search, paid search, social media, or email.
Refers to visitors who found your website via unpaid search results from Google and other search engines. Tracking organic search results is essential to understand how your search engine optimization (SEO) strategy works.
Refers to visitors who click on paid search results and end up on your website.
Key performance indicator (KPI)
A metric used to measure a website's performance against business goals. They help you track whether your website achieves its goals or not.
A tracking script or tracker
A snippet of code you embed on your website. It collects website usage data and sends it to a web analytics tool like Volument.
Shows how visitors experience your website the first time they land on it.
Indicates you how people spend time with your content. Volument, for example, uses a 15-second stay rate metric to understand engagement. If you had 1000 visitors, 500 stayed on your website for over 15 seconds, and your engagement rate was 50%.
The conversion funnel
Describes the stages visitors go through before they complete a desired action on your website. The funnel visualizes the customer journey and helps you understand how people interact with your website.
Web analytics use cases
Analytics use cases depend on your goals. Marketers, growth hackers, developers, designers, founders, and salespeople have different needs, but they can all find use analytics tools to find beneficial information.
Here are the most common use cases for analytics.
Measure website traffic
This is the most basic website analytics use case. You want to understand how many people visit your website, where they come from, and what they do.
You look at your traffic data and notice that your most popular page over the last 30 days has been a blog post on productivity tips. Most visitors found the page via Google. You decide to create more similar content and focus efforts on search engine optimization.
Understand User experience
Web analytics data can give you valuable insights into how people experience your website. When users interact with your content, how do they behave? You can identify patterns and opportunities to improve your UX.
The data tells you that 73% of your website visitors spent less than 15 seconds on /the pricing page, and only 0.8% of those visitors convert to subscribers. With further inspection, you find out that the page copy is hard to understand and does a poor job of explaining the product benefits.
Measure website performance
Website speed impacts user experience and conversion rates. According to a study by Portent, a website that takes less than one second to load has a three times better conversion rate than a site that loads in five seconds.
Google's Web Vitals, for example, measure user experience by looking at site performance, which has also become a well-known ranking factor in Google search.
Your site data shows that first impressions decreased dramatically over the last 30 days. One month ago, you started using a new third-party form tool. Page speed insights show that the form tool script takes almost two seconds to load, delaying other site resource requests. As a solution, you force the script to load after all the critical elements have been loaded.
Web analytics has become an invaluable tool for marketers. Analytics gives insights into your marketing campaigns’ performance and whether your messages and creative ideas resonate with your target audience. You can track campaigns and follow their performance, which helps you decide where to spend your money in the future.
You build one landing page and test how it resonates with your audience. You boost the page with LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook ads and see that traffic from Twitter doesn't generate any leads. You decide not to spend any dollars on Twitter ads in the future.
Benefits of web analytics
Web analytics can give you a competitive edge if you know where to look. But, it’s not a switch you turn on and wait for the results. You have to do the work and dig through the data.
Let's look at the common benefits of web analytics.
Understand your market and audience
One of the core tasks in web analytics is understanding where visitors come from. You can use traffic information to build customer and market insights.
For example, you get a good sense of your audience by looking at traffic sources, geographical data, and the content they engage the most with.
Build better user experiences
Web analytics reports can help you identify bottlenecks and user behavior patterns or preferences. A typical example is that a website has a poor mobile user experience. The design is not optimized for mobile devices, so you see lower engagement numbers when you compare desktop usage with mobile usage.
Optimise marketing efforts and spend
Marketers care about web analytics because they get helpful information on marketing activities: which activities are killing it and which perform poorly. With web analytics, you can track marketing campaign performance and see which channels and content generate the best results.
You can dive deep into your content marketing efforts and find what topics work for you.
Traffic and user behavior insights help you optimize your marketing spend. If visitors from Facebook don't engage with your content and are not interested in your product, spending money on Facebook ads seems like a waste.
Make data-driven decisions
Analytics can help you identify growth opportunities and evaluate your marketing strategy. Instead of relying on gut feelings or random thoughts, you can validate your hypotheses with data.
For example, suppose search engine optimization is an important, strategic choice for your marketing team. In that case, you can use analytics to assess your efforts and validate your decision.
Get customer insights
With some actual customer behavior data, you can create more relevant messaging and marketing campaigns and fine-tune your site design to better serve customers and improve retention.
Web analytics tools
The marketing technology landscape has exploded during the last decade. There are a lot of tools for marketing and website analytics, but there is no one size fits all solution.
An e-commerce site is a different beast than an investor relations website. Your business needs should be the starting point for your search.
You can try multiple solutions, but remember that every solution adds complexity to your marketing stack.
Here are a few analytics tools you can start exploring.
Volument is insight-led web analytics. It's a newcomer in analytics and aims to make web analytics more accessible and privacy-friendly.
It differs from other analytics tools by focusing on simple, automated insights. Instead of navigating multiple dashboards and reporting views, Volument is like a social media feed with automatically generated insights about your website.
Volument excels in understanding how people behave before they take action using unique metrics on first impressions and content engagement.
Volument is anonymous and privacy-friendly. It complies with EU privacy regulations and with CCPA and PECR. You can use the platform for free up to 10,000 pageviews per month.
Who is it for?
If you want simple, privacy-friendly insights telling you what works and what doesn't, Volument is an excellent choice.
If you look at the usage of traffic analysis tools, Google Analytics is clearly the number one.
Google Analytics, or GA, has been the standard in web analytics since 2005. This was the first analytics tool I learned to use.
GA has always had a free plan, which made it popular. Because the tool is widely used, you can find many resources on how to set up GA and tips for best practices.
It's not a simple tool. Data scientists and marketers with data skills love the complexity because it allows them to do advanced stuff, like exporting data into BigQuery and building custom reports.
But complexity is also the reason why people are looking for alternatives. Some people lack the time or resources to learn how to use GA.
And European companies using GA are worried because it violates EU privacy laws.
Who is it for?
Suppose you need to do a lot of custom reporting. You're not concerned about how GA plays with EU privacy regulations. In that case, GA might be a good fit for you.
Matomo, formerly known as Piwik, is an open-source Google Analytics alternative. If you're looking for a privacy-friendly GA option, Matomo might suit your needs.
Matomo gives you comprehensive reports. The UI will look familiar to GA users.
You can use Matomo for free if you host yourself. The cloud version, hosted by Matomo, starts at 19 dollars per month. You can buy different add-ons, such as an A/B testing tool.
Who is it for?
Matomo is a good choice if you're used to the GA-style dashboard and reporting but want a tool that takes privacy seriously.
Clicky is a privacy-friendly analytics solution released in 2006.
The tool gives you a straightforward UI with all the basic metrics and is simple to use and navigate. Clicky also has a free plan.
Who is it for?
Clicky is a good choice for a simple, privacy-friendly tool without heavy customization.
Web analytics best practices
There are things product documentation won't teach you. Here are some best practices I wish someone had told me about when I was getting started with analytics.
Define clear goals
Without clear goals, things will get messy. You must decide what information and benefits you want to achieve with analytics. This helps you choose the right tool, create a setup that supports your work, and focus on the metrics that matter.
SMART is an excellent and often-used framework that states that your goals should be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound.
Set up custom conversion and event tracking
Measuring desired actions gives you valuable data on how people interact with your website. With custom conversions, you can measure how many people sign up for your SaaS product or submit a contact form. Measuring events gives you a more detailed view of how people behave.
So, when you set up your analytics account, customize conversions and events.
Don't just focus on conversions
Most marketers use conversions as a key metric. The problem with focusing on conversions is:
a) You need a good amount of conversions for statistically significant insights; this might take some time for small and medium-sized websites.
b) Sign-ups or other short-term metrics don't explain why people converted. And, if your product doesn't deliver on its promise or visitors have false expectations, you will lose these people anyway. You want relevant traffic and visitors who are genuinely interested in your service.
Conversions matter, for sure. But, measuring first impressions and engagement helps you understand what people think about your content. Top-of-the-funnel metrics help you optimize the user experience and create sustainable growth.
Comparison is the key to actionable information and helps you quickly spot trends.
If you just look at how many visitors you had last month, it doesn't tell you that much. But things get interesting when you compare it to what happened the month before or look at the same month one year ago. Instead of values, focus on relations and trends.
Use relevant data
Data can be an effective agenda amplifier, so always work with relevant and statistically significant data sets.
If yesterday you had five conversions more than the day before, that doesn't mean anything. Most likely, it's just some normal fluctuation in your data.
Break the silos and excite your colleagues
Tools can only see the raw data, but every moment has a broader context. Behind every traffic spike or anomaly, there are more than just numbers and values.
Get your colleagues involved. When marketers, developers, designers, and salespeople work together, it's easy to experiment with new ideas and react fast when things go south.
Web analytics and data privacy
Web analytics and other marketing analytics tools have been in the spotlight since GDPR came into effect in 2018 and the announcement of third-party cookies’ death.
The problem with analytics tools has been using identifying cookies to track users across different websites without their explicit consent.
In the EU, GDPR and the ePrivacy Directive regulate how companies can collect and process personal data. Google Analytics, for example, has already been banned in five EU member states for not complying with GDPR. These decisions, though, have nothing to do with cookies but instead with data transfers between the EU and the US.
The thing is, web analytics has nothing to do with identities. It's about trends and understanding how anonymous visitors interact with your website.
There are a lot of privacy-friendly web analytics tools, like Volument, on the market, and I strongly recommended to check them out if you're not a fan of big tech.
Don't get intimidated. Web analytics is not rocket science, and you don't have to know everything to get started.
Choose an appropriate tool, embed the tracking script, and start collecting data. You can learn all the technical and advanced stuff later.
But, don't collect nice-to-know data. Make sure you have a purpose and a goal.