Website analytics are confusing

People access your website through a variety of means. They might read your material directly on the site itself. Or they may get an RSS feed of your articles. Perhaps, they even receive your information via email. Your content might appear in other people’s sites who load up your RSS feed. Some people might view your content in “aggregators” like iGoogle or NetVibes. In other words, there is a growing plethora of ways in which people can get hold of your material – many of which don’t involve them actually going to your website.

Checking your analytics data is only partly helpful to your website

Checking your analytics data is only partly helpful to your website

And that is a problem for many businesses. In order to know how well your company is doing you need some guide as to readership levels. Knowing the numbers of people who visit your site and what they access is important. But because there are now so many different ways in which your content can be found, any web analytics program only gives you part of the story.

Web analytics programs like Google Analytics or (the superior) Clicky, don’t tell you as much as you need. Even though they can provide raw numbers, who accessed which page, the subscribers to your RSS feeds and so on, they don’t tell you what you really need to know – the precise numbers of people who read your material. For instance, you might have just one subscriber to your RSS feed. But if that subscriber is posting your feed on their site which gets half a million viewers a day you think you have fewer people accessing your material than is actually the case.

This is the same problem that has beset print publishers for centuries. The Times, for instance, knows exactly how many copies of today’s newspaper it has printed. It also knows how many get returned by the newsagents and therefore knows exactly how many copies were sold. But how many people read that newspaper? Some people buy the newspaper but then don’t get time to read it. Others buy it and share it with members of the family. Some newspapers get left on the train where half a dozen people might read through it. Knowing how many copies are sold only tells newspaper publishers part of the story.

The same is true on the web; analytics programs can be confusing because they only tell you part of the story. They are very good at giving precise data about the visitors to your website. But how many people were sitting looking at that computer screen when your material was accessed? Sometimes you share content by showing it to people, perhaps members of the family look at the material together. Equally, in the office your web page may be up on a screen in the reception area where everyone walking past has a look at it. And your content may be viewed in a conference where a presenter is showing your material to 500 people in the audience. In each of these instances your web analytics program records one view, but it may be dozens or hundreds more. In the same way as a newspaper sale does not record actual readership, neither does a hit shown in an analytics program accurately reflect the real numbers of viewers your pages have.

Analytics software is not completely helpful

  • Analytics programs miss out important information
  • Technical issues reduce accuracy of analytics programs
  • More people read your content than your analytics program suggests

On top of this there are growing technical issues at play. Most analytics programs require the use of a piece of code called “JavaScript”. Usually this is loaded last, so people don’t have to wait to view your content. With some big pages, people may have read what they need to read and move on before the analytics program gets a chance to record that the page was accessed. Also, some big organisations switch off JavaScript as a security measure, resulting in the fact that access to your pages will not be recorded at all. And many web companies advise their clients to edit the “Hosts File” (a file on your computer that can be used to prevent access to certain websites). By editing this file, companies can prevent Google Analytics from recording their own access to their own website. That’s important for big firms where their analytics could be confused with the numbers of all the people in the company accessing their own website. By editing the hosts file to prevent, say, Google Analytics from recording anything it means that the data they see in their Analytics account does not include the company’s own access to the website. But in doing this it also prevents Google Analytics from recording access to any website, thus impacting on the statistics of every other website that uses the Google system.

What this all means is that the data from analytics programs is incomplete; it only presents part of the picture. And therein lies the problem. People focus on the pretty graphs, the statistical information and the array of tables as though it were fact. It isn’t; it’s a guide, that’s all. Checking your analytics is an essential component of good website planning and improvement. But don’t take it as gospel. Consider all the other information you have about your website and how people access your material. A good way of doing this is to get the SEOBook Toolbar. This allows you to check a range of data on your website – and your competitors. In this way you can see how well you are doing in comparison with your competition. Taken together with your own analytics information, this will help provide you with a more complete picture of what’s going on with your website.

Analytics programs are valuable, but like newspaper sales they don’t provide the complete picture over what’s happening with your content.

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