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Being Information Driven: Understanding the Meaning of Data
October 5, 2010
1. Data Over Time Has Meaning
The single most important thing to understand with web statistics is the idea of longitudinal data. No metric at any point in time has a particularly identifiable value. However, over time the longitudinal trends can begin to tell you things about how your website and your efforts to promote your website are performing.
2. Nothing Is Exactly What It Seems
The second most important thing to understand about web statistics is that they don’t mean what they say. The nature of the web, computer networks, computers and handheld devices is such that there is no way to know for certain how many of X actually occurred. In other words, if your stats say 2,123 visitors came to your site, you know that it wasn’t 5,000 and it was likely more than 1,000.
Granted the range may not be so broad, but the range is larger than you may be used to dealing with. Each metric can appear as either more or less than it acutally is. The reason for the lack of precision is that some “visitors” may be on the same network and all look the same. Some “visitors” might close a browser and open another. Some “visitors” might use their phone on the train and then a computer at home and later an iPad in bed.
However, because the same kinds of imprecision exist this week as in previous weeks, the numbers across time can begin to have meaning. For example 2,320 “visitors” this week does not mean 2,320 people. However next week if you have “4,156” visitors you know that you had more people than the week before.
Anyone, or any tool that tries to tell you exactly what your statistics means is frankly either confused or misleading you. You can never know exactly how many of anything happened, or exactly what that means. All you can really know is trends.
3. Basic Web Statistics Concepts
There are a ton of data points that servers collect each time your web page is viewed by a visitor. Most statistical packages will do a good job of pulling out the various points, and for a given organization some will have more meaning than others, but here is a short list of key points to understand:
- Page Views: A page view is an aggregate of the hits above, ie when a visitor comes to your site, regardless of how many hits the page might create, this statistic shows it as 1 page view. This is the most meaningful stat you can monitor.
- Visitors: Visitors are not people. Visitors can be search engines. Visitors can be automated scripts written by spammers. Visitors can be a person using multiple devices in multiple locations. Visitors should be understood to contain a subset of people. Again, over time you can begin to interpret growth as more people coming to your site.
- Pages: The pages that are visited on your site is an easy metric to understand. We only make note of it here as one of the key metrics to keep an eye on. It will tell you a lot about how your visitors view your site, and how they view your site often will be different than how you think they view it.
- Referrers: This metric tells you how people arrive at your site. It is key to understanding the investments you put into SEO, Facebook, Twitter, partnerships, etc and the traffic they are driving to your site. This statistic literally tracks who is referring traffic to you. In our clients web data the overwhelming majority of traffic comes from Google and other search engines, with about 2-5% coming from social media sites like Twitter and Facebook.
- Search Phrases: This metric tells you how people have found your site. When someone does a search on Google and then clicks your link, this metric tells you the search the person used to find you. Again, this is an invaluable tool to understand how your visitors view your site.
Among the dozens of data points your stat package may provide, these are the key metrics to watch.
4. How To Use Your Data
Data begins to become information when you look at it longitudinally. In order to be data driven you have to understand what you are looking at, and then monitor that data over time. In addition, watch your traffic and look for spikes of activity related to efforts you put into other areas of marketing. When you send an eBlast do your page views go up? When you post an article to Twitter do you get any referrals? When a partner links to your report are their visitors coming to your site to download it?
Google Analytics can provide some valuable insight into your web traffic, but if it is your only tool we strongly encourage you to find other tools. Google Analytics will never capture all of your web traffic. Only log based tools can do this. So if you are only using Google Analytics, you are only getting part of the picture.
That said, don’t abandon Google Analytics, because the insight it provides in many cases is quite unique when compared to other tools. In addition Google Analytics is well integrated with other Google tools the sum of Google’s tools can be greater than it’s parts.
We’ll be writing an entire article on Google Analytics in the coming months.
Rolling Our Own
If you need to look at your data in ways beyond basic web stats you might want to give us a call. Because our CMS can be used to look at web traffic in context with social media activity and eBlast reporting, we can provide insight you otherwise might not be able to get.
In addition to providing insight that you can’t get if you are using multiple tools for your web strategy, we can also create custom views and reports for your particular site. In a world of data we give you the information you need.