Web analytics tools help you track your site's statistics, which let you see how many people are looking at each page, what sites they came from, and other information to help develop a picture of who your audience is. But which web analytics tool should you use? This article, completely updated in 2011, summarizes what six different nonprofit experts recommend.
How many people visit your website every day? What do they do there? Which features are most popular? Was that big redesign worth the money? If these questions keep you awake at night, you're a good candidate for a web analytics tool. Such tools track your site's key metrics to help you measure traffic, understand your visitors' needs and behavior, and gauge click-through rates to new content or features — in short, they help you answer these questions and others like them.
Data-tracking needs are similar for all organizations, including nonprofits, libraries, small businesses, and corporations. But given the vast array of analytics tools out there, selecting the right package can be overwhelming.
Idealware talked to six nonprofit experts about the web analytics tools they've seen work well. We also consulted postings on a number of nonprofit listservs and scoured reports on the topic. In this article, we summarize what we've learned to help you understand what to consider when choosing an analytics package, and identify free tools and applications to help you better monitor your site's visitors.
There's no point in looking for a tool unless you have a sense of what information you want to track. Needs can vary from simple traffic-monitoring to complex analyses on the behavior of specific user groups, support for multivariate testing, and more.
What important metrics and figures should you keep in mind when selecting a web analytics package? We've broken them down into three overarching areas to track, with multiple metrics to help you understand different aspects of each.
The first thing you want to track is an accurate measure of how many people are using your site, which is neither as easy nor as clear-cut as you might think. Metrics which address this statistic include:
Next, you'll want to track who the visitors to your site are, in broad terms, and what they're doing when they visit - in other words, what site features and pages engage them? Which ones go ignored? Metrics to help understand these factors include:
Lastly, it can be beneficial to track where visitors to your site are coming from. This can help you find similar sites or better understand the types of things that lead people to you. Metrics include:
These metrics should be enough to get you started, but powerful web analytics tools support even more sophisticated analysis. There are people who make a living analyzing web statistics — if you have a large site and the desire for deep usage analysis, you may wish to consult with one of them.
The world of analytics is complicated by the fact that not every software tool handles metrics in the same way. Determining what sequence of web actions to interpret as a "visit" or a "unique visitor" is complex, and somewhat subjective. Different tools calculate these figures differently. Some types of software — called "log analytics" software — look at traffic based on a log of what pages your web server provides, while others rely on what's reported back by "cookies" — pieces of information sent back by each user's browser. Don't be surprised if your metrics vary somewhat among tools.
So now that you know what to track, what web analytics software should you use to track it? You may already have some of the tools you need. Many shared hosting companies, like DreamHost or LunarPages, offer web statistics through the same control panel you use to administer email addresses and check available file space.
AWStats and Webalizer are the two most common, and both are relatively basic "log analytics" packages that offer information about visits-over-time, most-visited pages, referrers, search strings, and some data about your visitors' browsers and locations. Webalizer is a bit more popular, but AWStats's reports are generally considered somewhat easier to understand.
Because these built-in tools are purchased and maintained by your Web host, there are no fees or installation required. While basic, they are perfectly adequate options if you simply want to keep an eye on your site.
You may have seen site counters on the bottom of web pages — basically, they're a numerical display that counts, and shows, the number of visitors to your site. A quick word about site counters: Don't use them. All the free tools listed here will give you the same information without interfering with the look of your site.
In a class by itself, Google Analytics offers substantially more functionality than the basic tools, and is free — unlike most of more-advanced tools listed below.
Unlike Webalyzer or AWStats and other tools provided by hosting companies, you need to install Google Analytics on your site. This involves pasting a chunk of HTML code provided by Google into every page. This piece of code sends back "cookie" information to the Google server. Adding the code requires basic HTML know-how, but Google's directions are pretty detailed and clear, and the process shouldn't require a huge amount of time. Depending on the size of your site and how it's set up, installing the code might take anywhere from a couple of minutes to a few hours. But once it's added, Google displays your statistics in a custom reporting interface you can view online.
In addition to the reports offered by tools like Webalizer or AWStats, Google shows how often visitors come to your site, tracks visitor conversion across a series of pages, compare the behavior of different types of visitors (such as new vs. returning, or those from different referring sites), and much more. A selectable date range allows you to analyze any given time period instead of being limited to a monthly view (as you are with AWStats and Webalizer). Almost every set of metrics can be sliced and diced to drill down to exactly what's of interest to you.
New features continue to be added every few months, creating an increasingly powerful tool. The powerful reporting and filtering tools let you set up custom reports and segments to view specialized subsets of your data. It won't easily let you track advanced Flash sites, and does not automatically track downloads of files like PDFs, but otherwise is a great free option for analytics.
Large organizations may want to look beyond Google Analytics for more powerful features. There's no shortage of available options. More advanced tools like Lyris HQ Agency Edition (formerly Click Tracks), WebTrends and SiteCatalyst provide substantially more: more control, more powerful metrics, much more freedom to perform detailed user segmentation, the ability track detailed patterns, and in many cases, sophisticated data charts such as trees or interactive layouts that make it easier to track complex sites.
They'll also support complex or Flash-based sites that Google Analytics will not, and offer professional technical support, as well. More advanced features come at a cost. The lowest-end packages start at about $100 per month, and you'll likely need to pay $500 per month or more to get features that rival Google Analytics.
The first question to ask yourself when deciding on an analytic package is, will Google Analytics meet my needs? If it will, there's no point in spending money on a more advanced tool. In fact, Google Analytics is a good default option for a lot of organizations.
If your needs are even simpler, check to see if you have a control panel and analytic tools available through your Web host. Or, if you're familiar with web statistics tools and want more than the analytics and limited control that Google offers, picking a more powerful analytics package might be the way to go.
The right package can make a big difference in your ability to understand visitors' needs and your site's traffic. Choosing the right option means you'll be able to track exactly what people are doing on your site, get all your questions answered, and maybe even sleep a little better.
Thanks to TechSoup for their original financial support of this article, as well as to the Annie E. Casey Foundation for funding its update. We also thank the nonprofit technology professionals who provided recommendations and advice on this article and the 2009 version of it:
Image: Charts, Shutterstock
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