22 Apr 2012

Using web analytics to understand your users and improve your content

Thoughts on web publishing #3  

Using data to drive your site: Analytics

In the third and final post in my series on SEO (part one, part two), I’ll briefly outline the value of web usage stats and analytics for understanding your users, why they have visited your site and how you can use this data to improve your content and website. Bear in mind that these metrics only capture quantitative data, so you may also want to collect qualitative feedback through open-ended questions in surveys and informal feedback. Also website stats only represent people who actually visit your site; they tell us nothing about those who don’t or why they don’t.

Firstly if you have a website, blog or other content online, you should ensure you have a good form of web stats enabled for it. Many platforms like Wordpress and Blogger offer these already ‘built in’, however alternative tools can often capture much richer data. Google Analytics is a good one which is free and easy to set up via their signup page.

Your analytics won’t just tell you how many people are visiting your site, they can also show you:

Why people use your site
The pages which are accessed most frequently may reflect your most valuable, unique content, or it may be because it they are about a ‘hot’ topic, or ranked highly in SERPS (looking at the source of these visits or search keywords can help you identify which is most likely). From a library point of view, it may also highlight which services are most popular with your users e.g. referencing support pages, subject portals etc., and help you align your services more closely to their needs.  

Which pages are the primary exit pages for your site
This can show where users may be losing interest in your website. Look at how you might ameliorate this by addressing gaps and refocusing content towards why people are using your site in the first place (see point one!).  You can also measure the bounce rate - the percentage of single-page visits or users who exit your site from the landing page.

Which geographic location most of your visitors are from, or which browsers and devices they are using
This can allow you to tailor your content to the majority of your user base making it more relevant, and to ensure your website displays properly.  You can also get an idea of what proportion of visits are from mobile devices and how the activity of those users differs. 

The average length of time your readers stay and if they return to your site for repeat visits
Again this can be an indication of how good your content is at holding readers’ attention.

Goals are also a key part of analytics as ultimately, sites don't want traffic as such, they want conversions (key tasks or goals completed). In analytics you can set up goals (for example a thank you page for a sign up form or another a key page on your site) and then get reports on how many site visitors are converting, which is often the key metric in judging how effective your site is.

Sources of traffic & referrals
Google Analytics also offers a very useful traffic source report so you can see how your users are finding and accessing your content. This allows you to analyse:

The search keywords which are most frequently used by visitors to your site can yield insight into what your readers are looking for. If you are using Google Analytics, you may notice that some keywords display as ‘not provided’, this is because if visitors are logged into Google (e.g. a Gmail account using SSL) whilst searching, the keywords will be hidden from site owners.

Which other sites are linking to your website. As discussed in part two of this series, getting key authoritative sites to link to your content is extremely valuable for lots of reasons.

Referrals from twitter (Twitter referral URLs will usually begin with t.co) and other social networking sites reveal what your visitors are telling others about your site (this may be good or bad feedback, but some might say all traffic is good traffic :)).

Remember that looking at your analytics metrics is of little value in isolation; the key is to turn that data into actionable insights, and ways of improving the content and value of your site for users.


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