Being able to measure the performance of your web site is of critical importance if you're doing any marketing at all. Although the accuracy and transparency of measuring the performance of advertising campaigns on the web has never quite lived up to its promise, it's still infinitely better than anything marketers have had available in the past.
But before you can start reaping the rewards of the vast amounts of data available at your fingertips, you must have 100 percent solid tracking set up on your web site.
Even if you aren't planning on getting into detailed stats any time soon, making sure everything is set up now will give you a wealth of historical information in the future. (Web developers: it's a good idea to install Google Analytics on new client websites by default. They'll thank you later.)
Many tracking packages are available, ranging from the free to the very expensive. Your web server almost certainly has something basic installed already.
However, for most small business web sites, Google Analytics is a good fit. It's fast, reliable, powerful, and free. We'll assume you're using Google Analytics for the rest of this column, but most of the advice will be the same for whichever package you use.
If you haven't done so already, start by signing up. Grab the tracking code and follow Google's instructions on how to install it on every page of your website (or ask your web developer to do so).
That may sound obvious, but some websites only place the code on the home page or a handful of other pages. It has to be on every page!
Another common pitfall is when you have a website run by two different pieces of software (e.g., Joomla running the main pages and WordPress running a blog section). If this is your scenario, double check that the tracking code is everywhere it should be. Likewise, if you ever install more sections of your site using different platforms, ensure that the tracking code is put into them immediately.
Installing the tracking code itself is usually straightforward (simply a case of copying and pasting the code into the right parts of your site's templates), but if you're running a platform such as WordPress, you might need to install a plugin that will handle Google Analytics for you.
It's also worth using an automated testing utility to check that the code is present on every page of your site.
Now that we've done the easy bit, the next step is to configure your profile. This is fairly straightforward, and usually only needs to be done once.
Most of these settings are obvious, but these areas deserve special consideration:
- AdWords: If you're running an AdWords account, or someone is doing it for you, you must link your AdWords and Analytics accounts. This will give you a lot more insight and intelligence into your AdWords campaign, and, importantly, allow you to import goals from Analytics into AdWords. This is important as Analytics more flexible than AdWords when it comes to goal configuration, so you can use it to track more types of conversion.
- Site search: Google Analytics can track the usage of any internal search facility your site has, as long as the latter exposes search terms in your site's URLs (if it doesn't, ask your developer to set it up so that it does -- it's an all-round good thing to do). Being able to track internal site search will give you invaluable insight into what people expect your website to provide for them, and show you how behavior differs between people who do and don't use the search functionality.
- E-commerce tracking: If you run an e-commerce website, tracking transactions in Google Analytics is another must. Even if your e-commerce platform provides stats and tracking, it's well worth using Google Analytics as well, as it will, in most cases, provide better integration with information from the rest of your web site and your marketing campaigns. In addition to switching this on in your profile, your platform has to be configured to support Google Analytics transaction tracking. Most widely available platforms already support this, but if yours doesn't, contact your supplier and ask them to add this functionality. You won't regret it.
- Filters: You can do incredible and wonderful things with the filters in Google Analytics, but for now, it's just a good idea to filter out traffic from your own or your company's IP address, so Google Analytics isn't tracking your own usage of your website.
The most important, not to mention the most misused and under-used, part of Google Analytics is the conversion goal setup. Tracking important user actions as conversions on your site is vital for monitoring and optimizing the performance of your marketing campaigns or site optimization efforts.
Most small business websites fail to set this up correctly or thoroughly. Give yourself a pat on the back if you've already done everything outlined below!
Google Analytics makes it easy to track three different types of user behavior, and by working with virtual pageviews, you can track almost anything else that happens on your site. A virtual pageview is a powerful tool that lets your site trick Google Analytics into thinking that a new page has been loaded -- you can use this to track all kinds of events on your site (see below for a more detailed explanation).
The three types of conversion are:
- URL destination: There are a few options here, but the gist is that you score a conversion whenever someone hits a particular page on your site. This is most often used to track form completions, such as a contact or newsletter sign-up form, but you can also use it for micro-conversions, such as people viewing a key page of your site.
The main pitfall here is that when tracking form completions, the URL of the completion page must be different from the form's main page, or it can't be tracked separately (this is good practice anyway). However, many website platforms use the same URL both before and after form completion. If this is the case for your site, ask your developer to change it pronto!
- Time on site: This simply measures the amount of time a user has spent on your site. You can set up a series of threshold values as different goals with different values (e.g., one minute, two minutes, etc). This is useful for measuring your audience's engagement with your site, and is general best treated as a micro-conversion.
- Pages per visit: This works in a similar way to time on site, but just measures the number of different pages a given user has opened. It's best used as a micro-conversion.
Now, these options are nice, but you have to choose how to use them. Google Analytics gives you 25 slots for goals, divided into five sections. How you organize these makes no difference as far as the hard numbers are concerned, but can make a big difference to how easy it is for you to monitor and manage your results.
It's worth putting some thought into this, along with what exactly you're going to measure. Your exact configuration will depend on your own site, but for a typical small business site, you might end up with something like looks a bit like this:
- Set 1: Contact actions
- Contact form complete
- Order form complete
- Newsletter sign-up
- Email link clicked
- Set 2: Site engagement
- Blog comment
- Feedback/poll widget completed
- Set 3: Downloads
- White papers, brochures, etc.
- Set 4: Micro-conversions
- Contact page viewed
- Product pages viewed
- Set 5: Engagement metrics
- Time spent on site
- Pages per visit
There's really no end to what you can do with goals, making advanced use of different URL match types, virtual pageviews, and the Google Analytics API. For most small business sites, 25 slots and the kind of ideas given above will more than suffice.
The key is to think carefully about anything that you could use to optimize your site's performance, above the obvious contact forms and the like. It's better to start with more goals and reduce them over time if you find some to be redundant, rather than the other way around.
If you've got e-commerce too, that will have to go in as well of course (it's worth tracking e-commerce with goals as well as Google Analytics' transaction tracking so you can make use of goal funnels). Remember to test your goals thoroughly and often, especially if you're making any changes to your site's URL structure.
Lastly, I've mentioned several concepts here that could do with further explanation:
- Micro-conversions: These are small actions that a user has taken on your site -- not a direct contact or a sale, but perhaps something that has a chance of leading to one in the future. These could be blog comments, brochure downloads, etc. Micro-conversions don't exist as a separate entity within Google Analytics. You simply specify one by assigning a given goal a very low value.
- Goal values: Each and every goal should have a value assigned to it -- no ifs, buts, or maybes. Assigning goal values opens up a whole new world within Google Analytics (per visit goal values, etc), that allow you to track the value of campaigns or pages in a much more accurate way than by merely counting raw conversion numbers. They effectively allow you to say that different goals aren't created equal.
Assigning specific values can be tricky, and you may have to refine the values over time. However, they only have to be accurate relative to each other. They don't have to have accurate absolute values (unless your site also has e-commerce). For example, I might start by giving the site's main contact form a value of $100 and work from there. Slightly less important forms might have a value of $80, scaling down to micro-conversions with values such as $1 or $2. Always use relatively large numbers, or vital information might be lost to rounding errors in the Google Analytics interface.
- Virtual pageviews: A virtual pageview is a trick that makes Google Analytics think a new page has been loaded. This page can have an arbitrary name, but shouldn't be the same as any real page on your site, so it can be tracked separately. You then set up this virtual page as a destination goal within Google Analytics.
You can use virtual pageviews for several purposes, but a common use for a small business site would be to track when an e-mail link has been clicked (note that you can't actually track whether the user actually sent an e-mail or not though!) or when a PDF file has been downloaded. Speak with your developer about adding virtual pageviews to your site to cover these basics.
- Goal funnels: Funnels are powerful tools for monitoring usage of processes that lead a user through multiple steps. Classic examples of this would be a shopping cart, checkout or complex user registration process. They allow you to see where users are dropping out, thereby showing you the main obstacles in the process, and combined with virtual pageviews can give you a high level of detail on how people are using your site's forms.
Note that it's not really worth setting up a funnel for something such as a simple contact form, but if you have an e-commerce site it's a must for your checkout!
That was a long haul, but you should now be armed with everything you need to know to set up bullet-proof tracking for almost any small business web site. Please comment if you've got any further ideas or if you think I've missed anything!
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