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Using Analytics to Understand Your Site

Summary: Whether it has been over 10 years or just 6 months since your last major website redesign, analytics are a great tool for getting fresh insights into how people are using your site!

First, let's just clear things up - analytics simply means statistics. Common web analytics focus on counting users, pages, and time. For example, how many people visited your site, which page they visited the most frequently, and how long they stayed on a page. Although you can dive deep with analytics, it's best at the beginning to start with the basics. Interpreting statistics is more of an art than a science, so sticking to the basics means you won't get any incorrect ideas about how people use your site.

Ideally, you want as much history as possible for your site, but even as little as one month's worth of data can be enough to get you going. At Princeton, we recommend using Google Analytics, a free web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic. While OIT does collect analytics for most of the sites we run, we encourage each site owner to create their own account which will give full access to all of the information collected. So, if you aren't already using Google Analytics, it might be time! You can now "connect" your existing Princeton Google account with Google Analytics, and for those who don't have a Princeton Google account, you can register your Princeton NetID with Google to get access to many of their services.

Rather than giving you a detailed definition of each analytic, let's look at a real customer here at Princeton. We'll jump right into some real world data so you can see the big picture and understand how analytics gets used. Currently (June 2016) we are beginning to work on a website redesign for Campus Recreation. Although no one on staff had access to any analytics, and they weren't even sure they were being collected, it turned out they were under the universal Princeton account for Roxen sites. If your site is hosted by Web Development Services (WDS) then it is likely we have analytics on your existing site.

Since Campus Recreation had multiple years worth of statistics for their existing Roxen site, the first thing I did was generate reports for the past month, quarter, and year. A sample of the annual report is below, which reveals more than 300,000 unique visits for the year. You could say that's a lot!

Graph of page views

When we looked beyond the total number of visits to the site and zoomed in to the most frequently visited pages on the site, we found our first insight. While people may have typically started at the "home page" of your website in the past, today they are more frequently conducting a Google search that brings them directly to a page inside your website. People's behavior on the web is always shifting as technology continues to evolve. In fact, Google searches often account for more than half of the traffic to your site!

So, in the chart below, we see that there are actually three pages that got more traffic than the home page. Combined, almost 33% of traffic to the Campus Recreation website comes from just those pages - facility schedules, the gym page, and summer camp. Compare that to the much lower 5% of total traffic that the homepage represents.

Table of page views

What can we do with this insight? During a redesign process, we work with internal stakeholders who are responsible for determining what information goes on a particular site. Often, they will focus on the home page of the site as the primary area to advertise, promote, and include information. This can lead to an over-emphasis on the home page, which by its nature can't fit all of the information contained in the site. But actually, using analytics to inform our process, we can see that the home page is much less frequently visited than the other three pages - by a large margin! Armed with this knowledge, design efforts and strategy can be focused on taking advantage of all that traffic (think of foot traffic in a mall) and putting more time and thought into how to structure and present information on those frequently visited pages.

This is just one small example of the insights you might find in your website analytics. Analytics always require interpretation, but here we have very straightforward data that suggests a different approach and focus than what site owners and stakeholders might assume.

Stay tuned for more helpful posts from Princeton's Web Development Services staff!