A common theme I have noticed across many Web Analytics practitioners is that the moment they get access to the data they dive, and they dive deep.
You open the tool and they are instantly on: “how is that page doing” or “can I report on all the campaigns that are driving traffic to these six pages and measure retention” or “ I want to pull out these six pages and measure exit rates” or “can the tool email me a daily summary of all the visitors who visit my page and don’t submit” or “I have my key performance indicators (KPI’s) and I want a detailed report across all top pages on the website.
The theme, almost 100% of the time, is that the users go into micro-reporting, but they have often spent very little time either understanding business website goals or understanding what is happening at a macro level. Rarely do they bother doing what's perhaps key: spend time understanding the bigger patterns in the data.
If you are into Web Analytics almost always start with a rock solid understanding of understanding data at a macro level and resist the urge start understanding data at a micro level. You might not see the forest for all the trees.
The amazing thing is that this the “simplest” thing you can do and it is is surprising how many people don’t spend time on it (it is perhaps hard to resist the allure of having every piece of data you could possibly want on your finger tips, for every page of your site and for every person who comes to your site).
This is not very complicated. Here are four simple macro-questions that you should answer before you go anywhere deep:
# 1: How many visitors are coming to your website?
This is the simplest first question you can and should answer. Measure Visits to your website (sum of sessions) and measure Unique Visitors (sum of unique persistent cookie_id’s).
These metrics look deceptively simple, they are not. For more on what you should look for and things to be careful about please read this post: Standard Metrics Revisited: #1: Visitors.
For both of these metrics see how you are doing, is it what you had expected, are they being measured correctly (they might not be, refer to the aforementioned post). Get a comfort level that you understand these metrics and understand them well.
Quick Note: It is optimal to avoid diving into number of repeat visitors, and this rate or that view and all that, for now. Just for now.
# 2: Where are they coming from?
The second question is a even better one, so full of promise and hope and goodness. Where do all these visitors come from. Look at two reports: Referring URL’s and Search Keywords.
You will almost always be surprised at how people find you (and your guess as to how they might be finding you are probably misplaced).
Referring URL’s helps you understand which websites are sending you traffic and which are not. It is a great way to begin to understand both what you are doing that is causing traffic to come (relationships, direct marketing, other campaigns, affiliates etc) and what you have not done that might be causing traffic.
Look for surprises, you will find them.
With search dominating the landscape look for how much traffic you are getting for search engines (in your referring url’s report) and then dive deeper into what key words and key phrases are sending traffic from each search engine. This is a gold mine of actionability, specifically for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and, if you are big enough, Pay Per Click (PPC) / Search Engine Marketing (SEM).
Look for non-branded keywords (they will indicate you are getting prospects – people early in the consideration cycle) and secondarily if you are getting traffic at the right level for your branded keywords.
Quick Note: Notice we are not doing which countries or states or zip codes and all that. Unless you are in a deeply geo specific business (say in Europe) this can be a distraction at this early stage.
# 3: What do you want them to do on the website?
The problem with web analytics data is that once you get access it can be such a huge time sink (especially for geeks like me). Every place you turn there is a new piece of data, a new rat hole you can go down on, another mirage you can follow. And it can be kind of fun.
Don’t do that! :) Step away from your website and take a long cold hard look at yourself and your business.
Then answer these simple questions:
A) Why does your website exist?
B) What are your top three web strategies that you are working on (could be paid campaigns, could be affiliates, could be updating content on the site, could be you are trying to get digg’ed, could be effective merchandising, etc.)
C) What do you think should be happening on your website?
Write down the answers and publish them far and wide in your company and your local newspapers.
The output (your answers) could be metrics or KPI’s that you think measure success (though this might be unlikely), it could be simply a list of acquisition strategies for your website (SEO, PPC, DM etc) or it could be a mission statement that somehow ties to your company bottom line. The altitude you can calibrate later, it is important that you have some precision in what you want your customers to do on your website.
Quick Note: Marketers, Analysts, Website Owners: Notice this is the third question and not the first one. That is because I think you should have some semblance of context from your web data to even think about this clearly. Often sans the web data you really don’t have the low amount of basic web reality understanding that would help you answer these questions correctly.
# 4 What are they actually doing?
Your first shallow dive into the data. Look at these four things in your reports:
A) Top Entry Pages: Learn how people are getting into your website.
B) Top Viewed Pages: This is a great way to know what content is being consumed, it will probably be different from what you think should be consumed so it is a great way to get educated. It can also help you, in conjunction with top entry pages, why people end up looking at what they do.
C) Site Overlay (Click Density) Analysis: For your top viewed pages look at the site overlay report and analyze the click patterns (only on the top ten most viewed pages on your site, to keep it simple). It will help you understand navigational challenges on your website, it will help you understand visitor intent, it will suggest optimization actions you can take.
The goal is for you to simply get acclimated with content consumption and navigation behavior on your website. This will give you so much more context and a richer understanding of customer behavior. That in turn will be critical as you dive into measure obvious famous metrics like Conversion Rate.
Quick Note: The ordering here is important. We tend to dive directly into measuring conversion rate and it will turn out to be rather pathetic and then we work our way backwards (with our eyes closed) and inevitably it is frustrating. A better ordering is to understand customer experience to the extent you can with these simple reports and then work forwards. Also notice we have not done path analysis.
I am sure you will agree with me that there is nothing particularly genius about the questions above or the suggested reports. They are simple and straight forward. My goal is to simply encourage those who have just started with web analytics, or those who are currently frustrated, to focus on macro analysis and not step into the quicksand of micro analysis. Far too often we all go micro, and sadly we are never able to go back.
Would you agree that these are good questions for macro analysis? Do you have a good understanding of macro behavior for your website? How can this be improved? Please share your feedback via comments.
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