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If you own a website, you need a way to process and evaluate its data so you can understand visitors and optimize your site. So what is website analytics, and what does it measure? Use this guide to learn everything you need to know about web analytics, from how they benefit your business to which tool is ideal for your site.

What Is Web Analytics?

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Web analytics is the process of gathering, measuring, and evaluating website data. With web analytics, you can understand everything from how visitors find your site to which webpages they visit and what actions they take. This process is essential for understanding and optimizing website performance, but a complete web analytics definition doesn’t stop there.

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Web analytics can also incorporate data from other platforms linked to your website, providing you with a wide range of critical information about your business. With web analytics, you can understand performance, identify trends, and optimize your site and other digital tools.

A Quick Guide to How Web Analytics Works

To use web analytics, you don’t need a highly technical understanding of the process. However, it can be helpful to know where the data originates and familiarize yourself with the standard types of web analytics.

Web Analytics Tracking Methods

Analytics providers can use one or more methods for tracking data. The most common include:

  • Log files from website servers, which track visits and views from unique users
  • Page tags, which assign cookies to users to collect behavioral statistics
  • Combination of log files and page tags for more accurate analytics
  • Click analytics, which let you collect data in real time and is ideal for high-traffic sites
  • Customer lifecycle analytics, which tie website activity and its value to individual users

Types of Online Analytics

Depending on the analytics applications you use, you may be able to collect and process different types of data. There are two standard categories of online analytics:

  • On-Site Analytics: When web and marketing experts refer to analytics, they’re typically talking about the on-site category, which is far more common. On-site web analytics refers to the user data you collect on a site you own, and it usually includes much more in-depth data.
  • Off-Site Analytics: Although off-site analytics is less common, it’s just as important. This category refers to data and analysis that non-owners of a website can access. For example, with the right analytics tool, anyone can get data on a website’s visibility and potential audience.

Data Sources for Web Analytics

No matter which type of online analytics you want to evaluate, the process involves a few common data sources. The four most important data sources for web analytics include:

  • Hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) requests
  • Related data from the server or network that isn’t directly part of the HTTP request but that’s critical for proper transmission
  • Additional data from integral website applications, such as JavaScript or hypertext preprocessor (PHP) plug-ins
  • Third-party or external data from linked software and applications, such as email marketing platforms

Website Analytics Workflow

To use web analytics effectively, you have to follow a sequence of steps. Most people use a workflow like the one below to leverage online analytics:

  1. Collection: Website owners typically use a third-party web analytics tool to collect data. Once you complete the initial setup, the analytics application automatically gathers and stores all relevant data.
  2. Processing: In most cases, the third-party analytics app also processes and organizes the data. Many present the information in charts or graphs to make it easier for you to understand. Some even highlight points of interest, such as important improvements or alarming patterns.
  3. Reporting: While an application usually handles the first two steps in the workflow, you typically have to complete the second two manually. When you report on web analytics, you review the data, compare it against your key performance indicators (KPIs), and draw conclusions. In your report, you might also comment on patterns or recommend new courses of action.
  4. Optimization: Finally, you’ll use the data from your web analytics tool and your report insights to optimize your website. At this stage, you put your strategy recommendations into action and update your site content or promotion methods.  You might also use A/B tests to experiment with different versions before adopting the most effective one.

What Can You Measure With Web Analytics?

Before you jump into using web analytics, it’s helpful to know what your preferred application can measure. Most web analytics tools can track metrics like:

  • Acquisition Channels: Users don’t appear on your site via magic; they have to come from somewhere. Fortunately, you can track the channels that help you acquire users. For example, visitors may enter via social media channels like Facebook or Twitter, organic search engines like Google or Bing, or paid search campaigns. Users may also navigate through a direct channel, which means they typed your website URL into their browser.
  • Advertising Campaigns: If you use platforms like Google Ads or Bing Ads to run ads to your website, you can measure select results with web analytics. You can track the number of users, the cost per click, and even e-commerce transactions.
  • Bounce Rate: Visitors have to leave your website at some point, but ideally, you want them to stay as long as possible and consume lots of content. Bounce rate measures how quickly visitors leave or bounce off your site. A higher rate indicates a shorter visit and may reflect that users viewed just one webpage. A lower bounce rate confirms a longer visit that includes multiple webpages.
  • Conversions: This metric refers to any action you want visitors to complete on your website. It can mean anything from visiting a key page, submitting a contact form, downloading a piece of content, or purchasing an e-commerce product. You can define conversions within your analytics app to ensure you track what matters to your business.
  • Customer Lifetime Value: If you’re like most business owners, you want customers to make repeat purchases and spend as much as possible on your site. In other words, you want to maximize their lifetime value. With web analytics, you can easily calculate revenue per user or per channel to ensure you’re meeting your KPIs.
  • Digital Campaigns: Email and social media platforms don’t always make it easy to track results from organic or paid campaigns. But if your campaigns include links to your website, however, web analytics let you track just about any metric. You can create UTM parameters, or URLs with unique endings, for straightforward campaign tracking in your analytics dashboard.
  • Domain Authority (DA): This off-site analytics metric indicates how likely your entire website will rank on search engine results pages (SERPs) like Google. The higher your DA is, the more authority your site has and the more likely you are to rank.
  • Exit Pages: When users click away from your site, their point of departure is known as the exit page. Identifying the pages where users tend to leave your site can help you identify and fix poorly performing pages.
  • Goals: Your website analytics dashboard can automatically monitor many important goals, such as revenue or transactions. But you can also set up a wide range of custom goals to track important conversions for your organization, such as contact form submissions or button clicks.
  • Keywords: Finding out which keywords visitors use to search for your site can be incredibly helpful for improving SEO. With web analytics, you can also learn which keywords drive on-site actions, such as visits to certain webpages.
  • Landing Pages: Every user enters your website on a particular page, known as a landing page. Monitoring which landing pages are most popular or which drive the highest revenue can help you identify the most valuable pages on your website.
  • Page Authority (PA): Similar to DA, PA refers to the likelihood that a particular page of your website will rank on a SERP. A higher PA means your page is considered an authority and is more likely to rank at the top of a SERP for a relevant search.
  • Page Views: One of the simplest metrics, page views refers to the number of times a user has visited a page on your website. Tracking page views can help you gauge overall website traffic.
  • Pages Per Session: The more pages users visit on your website, the more content they consume and the greater interest they have in your business. A higher page-per-session metric can contribute to a lower bounce rate, which can signal strong website performance.
  • Revenue: If you have an e-commerce site, then your web analytics can track the amount you make from each sale. You can use this metric to find interesting patterns, such as the highest-revenue days or the channels that drive the most sales. You can also view revenue numbers over time.
  • Site Speed: Ensuring that your website loads as fast as possible can contribute to SEO, making it an important metric to monitor. Many analytics tools can tell you everything from page load time to redirection time, including breakdowns by different browsers.
  • Transactions: In addition to revenue, e-commerce marketers and website owners can track the number of transactions and their value. If you’ve set transaction-related KPIs, web analytics makes it easy to monitor this metric.
  • Unique Visitors: Although tracking the total number of user sessions on your site can be helpful, many website owners monitor the number of unique visitors more closely. This metric refers to the number of individual users who have visited your site, and it doesn’t include repeat visits by the same user.
  • User Demographics: You can learn all the key demographics for your audience, including age, gender, and location.
  • User Interests: Many analytics platforms also track the topics that interest your website visitors or categories they’re actively shopping for.
  • User Technology: In addition, most analytics dashboards show whether your website visitors are using mobile or desktop devices, their operating system, or their browser type.

Why Online Analytics Is Essential For Your Website

As you can see, web analytics can show you anything from simple metrics like how many users visited your site to more complex factors like landing and exit pages. Using online analytics is essential because it can provide insights you need to make critical business decisions. Analytics can answer many of the questions below.

Does my website have more new or returning visitors?

Both new and returning visitors can be valuable in different ways, and tracking and comparing the two can be helpful. New visitors can indicate that your website has a steady flow of potential prospects and new leads. Returning visitors can show that your content continues to provide value to users, encouraging them to make repeat visits.

Which marketing channels send the most traffic to my site?

Knowing which marketing channels contribute the most to your website or business performance can help you allocate resources and optimize your marketing campaigns. For example, if you learn that your email marketing campaigns drive a lot of traffic but few conversions, you might aim to invest less in email marketing or strive to convert more email traffic.

What are people searching for when they visit my site?

Some of the most popular keywords for your site might be obvious, such as your company name or your branded products. But other popular key phrases might shed light on the types of solutions users are seeking when they click through to your site. When you have a better understanding of what visitors are asking, you can create more helpful content for them.

What kinds of things are my website visitors shopping for?

If your web analytics app includes detailed audience data, then you can go far beyond keywords and key phrases. Many analytics apps categorize users by the types of items they’re shopping for, such as real estate or automobiles. If you find that your visitors tend to be in the market for an adjacent category, you can consider developing customized content or targeting this group with an advertising campaign.

Do users find my website content useful?

If visitors don’t find your content to be useful, your website could have a low conversion rate, which can make it more difficult to achieve your business goals. Fortunately, there are a few ways to tell whether visitors like your content. A high percentage of returning visitors, a low bounce rate, and high conversion rates for your main goals can signal excellent performance.

Does any of my website content need to be improved?

If some of your blog posts or webpages aren’t performing as well as you’d like, it’s important to identify and resolve problem areas. For example, some of your website’s most popular exit pages might be posts that are supposed to convert users rather than drive them to click away. Adding more useful content or trying a different call to action (CTA) could improve conversion rates.

Is my website driving sign-ups and downloads successfully?

Because you can set up any number of custom goals via your web analytics app, you can track both on-site and off-site conversions. If you find that your site is underperforming, you can make changes to the content, design, or traffic levels. If you find that your site is exceeding expectations, you can consider making bigger investments in your most successful efforts.

Which platform or browser should I optimize my site for?

Ideally, you want all users to be able to use your website seamlessly. However, if you have limited resources, you may need to decide which users to prioritize. Web analytics apps can show you which operating systems most visitors use or help you determine if you should prioritize desktop or mobile optimization.

How much money did my e-commerce site make this month versus last month?

With web analytics, you can get tons of helpful insight into your e-commerce performance. In addition to identifying your most lucrative sales periods, you can also find out which marketing channels or demographic groups generated the most revenue so you can recreate similar conditions in the future.

How do users typically navigate through my site?

In addition to identifying popular landing and exit pages, online analytics can help you understand the paths visitors take through your site. By analyzing these routes, you can understand issues like which questions users want to answer or how much information prospects need before converting.

Who Needs Website Analytics?

It’s easy to assume that only web developers and designers have to use analytics. While these professionals certainly do need access to web analytics, they’re far from the only ones who can benefit from the data. Here’s a concise list of the many roles that should use web analytics:

  • Web Developers and Designers: Most web designers and developers set up analytics when they create a site. When they update or maintain the website later, they can use the analytics to check performance, identify errors, and make improvements.
  • Business Owners: Even if they don’t want data on individual keyword or page performance, business owners can glean a lot of information from web analytics. They can identify channels that drive the most revenue or pinpoint pages that generate the most conversions. Then they can use the data to make informed decisions for the business.
  • Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Specialists: Most SEO experts use specialized tools for keyword research and tracking. Web analytics lets SEO specialists verify their findings and take their knowledge further. With web analytics, they can understand which keywords drive the most goal completions or the lowest bounce rates.
  • E-commerce Experts: If you sell products or services through your site, then you probably rely on your e-commerce platform for key data. Using web analytics alongside e-commerce data can give these experts a more complete picture of the business’s performance. By using web analytics to track user behavior and goal completion, e-commerce specialists can better optimize the site for maximum return on investment.
  • Digital Marketers: You don’t have to be an SEO expert or an e-commerce marketer to benefit from web analytics. Email, social media, and content marketers can all get crucial information from analytics. They can assess channel performance and ROI, and they can determine which content works best for visitors from their platform.
  • Digital Advertisers: Like most marketers, digital advertisers are also likely to find web analytics essential. Many advertising platforms, such as Google Ads, link directly to web analytics, allowing advertisers to dig deeper into user behavior and campaign outcomes.

When to Use Online Analytics

Once you understand the importance of analyzing this data, you’ll quickly adopt the mindset that there’s never a bad time to use web analytics. However, there are several points when using web analytics is absolutely critical:

  • When you first set up your website: Most website owners opt to set up analytics as early as possible in the web development process, such as when they launch their sites. By using web analytics from the beginning, you can access a complete dataset that can help with optimization and decision-making.
  • When you add e-commerce to your site: If you haven’t accessed analytics yet, it’s crucial to do so when you launch an e-commerce site. By properly setting up analytics for your e-commerce site, you can get critical data to help you understand and streamline your business.
  • When you integrate marketing platforms: Any time you adopt a new digital marketing channel, such as a social media or email marketing platform, connecting your web analytics is important. When you integrate your marketing data, you can prepare more complete and insightful reports.
  • When you run digital ad campaigns: If you set up online analytics before launching your first digital ads, you can access in-depth information about user behavior throughout the campaign. You can use the data to optimize your campaigns as they run or to enhance your reporting when they conclude.
  • When you want to optimize your website: If your website needs an update, checking your analytics is an essential first step. Analytics can point you to the most popular pages, show you how users navigate your website, and even highlight any underperforming pages.
  • When you need to decide what type of content to create: If you have the resources to create content but aren’t sure what to focus on, analytics can help. By reviewing the keywords that attract users to your site, you can understand what visitors are searching for and how you can help them find it.
  • When you have to do market research: Sometimes, actual customers don’t align perfectly with your ideal audience profile. Online analytics can help you understand who’s visiting your site and interacting with your content so that you can confirm who your visitors really are.

Best Practices for Website Data Analysis

If you invest time and resources into online analytics, it’s in your best interest to set it up correctly and apply the insights appropriately. When you follow best practices, you can rest assured that you’ll get optimal results. Some standard best practices for web analytics include:

Begin Collecting Analytics Immediately

The more analytics you have, the more data and insights you can access. Most analytics apps can share data starting at the time of installation, which means they can’t present historical information. The longer you wait, the more you limit the data collection time frame. If possible, set up analytics before launching your website so you can retain a complete set of user and performance data. If you’ve already launched your site, set up analytics right away.

Customize Your Objectives

Online analytics programs typically have a long list of metrics that they monitor by default. For example, your app might track new and returning users, site speed, and bounce rate. However, if you don’t tell your analytics tool to track metrics like e-commerce revenue, it may never track the conversions that matter the most to your business.

As soon as you set up your analytics tool, integrate external apps like your e-commerce platform or your email marketing provider. Then customize the goals that your tool tracks, such as the number of people who reach the shipping information screen on your e-commerce site or the thank you screen they get after downloading an e-book.

Establish and Monitor KPIs

Once you begin tracking online analytics, you’ll have a benchmark for performance. If you want to reach more ambitious goals and grow your business, set KPIs to work toward. For example, you might want to decrease your website’s bounce rate to 65% by the end of the quarter.

After setting goals, you can experiment with different tactics, such as adding more internal links that encourage visitors to view more related content on your site. Each time you report on web analytics, you can track your progress, making additional changes to your approach as necessary.

Be Consistent

As your website grows and your business objectives change, the KPIs you track may change. However, you should always strive for consistency in your analytics. Rather than focusing only on the top-performing metric for the period, aim to include the same metrics in every report.

By maintaining a consistent analytics format, you can compare performance and behavior against benchmarks and convey their progress over time. If you need to add or remove KPIs from your report, be clear about your actions and the reasoning behind them.

Add Insights to Your Analytics

Web analytics is much more than numbers and raw data. To extract maximum value insights from your analytics, always consider the context.

For example, your analytics app may indicate that website traffic has increased month over month. This might be an interesting outcome, but what does it mean? Explore why these results have occurred and explain what you plan to do about them. For example, you might determine that publishing more social media posts has led to increased website traffic, so you might decide to maintain the new posting frequency to keep traffic levels high.

Where Can You Access Website Analytics?

Every website produces mountains of data, but you can’t put it to work unless you know where to access it. Most website owners can access online analytics in three standard ways.

Hosting Provider

Many hosting providers share statistics for the websites they host. This option is typically the most basic, as it only gives you access to metrics like website traffic. If you want a more complete range of analytics, consider one of the two options below instead.

Website Plug-In

For many website owners, adding a plug-in is a straightforward midrange option. With a plug-in, you can track more advanced online analytics and get more nuanced insights. Because plug-ins work with your website’s content management system (CMS), you can access them in the same interface where you add or update content. That means you don’t have to manage a separate login or system to check analytics.

Third-Party Analytics Tool

By far the most advanced option, third-party analytics tools can feature hundreds of metrics and completely customizable dashboards. These tools can answer a wide range of questions about your website, providing you with invaluable insights about your business. Third-party tools do have separate interfaces and require setup, but managing the learning curve tends to be worthwhile, given the useful information these apps can provide.

How to Choose the Right Web Analytics Tool

If you want to access statistics beyond what your hosting provider offers, you need a web analytics tool. Take a look at 11 of the most popular and insightful analytics apps below.

Adobe Analytics

One of the most powerful tools in this category, Adobe Analytics tracks website performance, user behavior, and much more. While it provides a useful overview, this platform also makes it easy to segment your analytics so you can analyze unusual activity and better understand trends. This tool connects seamlessly to Adobe’s marketing analytics so you can evaluate all of your marketing efforts in one place.

Adobe Analytics also uses machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to help you get more value from your analytics. The platform is designed to translate large amounts of data into easily understandable visuals that can answer colleagues’ questions quickly.

Contentsquare

While some analytics apps are data-heavy, Contentsquare uses visuals to illustrate what’s happening on your website. The platform specializes in connecting metrics and KPIs to customer behaviors and actions that create value.

In addition to charts and graphs, Contentsquare offers heatmaps, which show you where users click or scroll on your website. By using this approach to monitor user behavior, you can better assess how visitors engage with your content — and what needs improvement. This tool also helps you find points of friction so you can make the user’s journey smoother.

Crazy Egg

Crazy Egg is designed to reveal how visitors use your site so you can optimize it for any purpose. The platform’s heatmaps show you where visitors tend to click, while session recordings let you observe how users move through your site.

With Crazy Egg analytics, you can quickly determine how visitors find your site, which content they’re ultimately seeking, and where they’re encountering roadblocks along the way. Crazy Egg also offers a split-testing tool that lets you experiment with small changes like button colors or content placement. Then you can make the best versions permanent and continue to make progress toward your goals.

Google Analytics

Probably the best-known online analytics platform, Google Analytics can answer just about any question you might have about your website performance. Once you set up Google Analytics, you can monitor how your site acquires and converts users, as well as how visitors behave across your site. You can also access audience and demographic data to deepen your understanding of your website visitors.

This platform also connects seamlessly to other Google products. That means you can easily use Google Search Console to monitor website problems or link Google Ads to advertise your business.

Hotjar

Like Crazy Egg, Hotjar is an analytics platform that’s designed to provide a deeper understanding of user behavior on your website. With Hotjar’s click-and-scroll heatmaps, you can see exactly when users scroll through your site and where they click, rather than just the pages they view.

Hotjar’s visitor recordings take this approach a step further by letting you view exactly how visitors navigate your site. The platform’s feedback and survey options let visitors communicate directly with you to inform you about their experience on your site. With this data, you can evaluate how users actually use your site without getting lost in the numbers.

HubSpot

While many tools in this category focus on website performance, HubSpot offers a more complete marketing analytics platform. With HubSpot, you can analyze website visitors, check page performance, and identify the channels that send the most traffic to your site.

You can also use HubSpot for marketing analytics to evaluate how your website, social media, email, advertising, and lead generation channels work together. Because it’s a comprehensive solution for marketing and sales, HubSpot makes it easy to gain insights about revenue, customer value, and lifecycle terms.

Matomo

A popular alternative to Google Analytics, Matomo is a web analytics tool that gives you complete ownership over your website data. It’s designed to protect website visitors’ privacy by tracking and storing data securely.

With Matomo, you can analyze anything from heatmaps and session recordings to keywords and digital ad performance. This platform also connects to your e-commerce site so that you can benefit from conversion and revenue insights.

Moz Pro

While most tools on this list focus on on-site analytics, Moz Pro offers off-site analytics and SEO insights. With Moz Pro, you can identify the most popular keywords for your website and find the next major keywords you want to target.

This platform also helps you understand how your website ranks when compared to others in your space. Moz Pro provides PA and DA analytics so that you always know where your domain and webpages stand.

Oribi

If you have questions about how to reach your KPIs faster, Oribi has answers. This analytics platform specializes in highlighting visitor and website trends. That means you can identify which marketing channel drives the most qualified prospects to your site, how long it takes prospects to make a purchase, or even which channel drives the most conversions.

Oribi can also analyze your sales and marketing funnels so you can do more with your website. With Oribi’s attribution features, you can even ensure that you’re giving credit to the right channels, so you make optimizations that really matter.

Statcounter

With Statcounter, you can observe visitors in real time as they consume your content and click through your site. You can see how they’re engaging with your content and pinpoint high-friction areas that compromise conversions. Statcounter also helps you identify potential prospects and generate leads for your business.

Tableau

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by all the data your website generates, Tableau can help. This analytics platform is designed to be highly visual so you can find important patterns and trends quickly.

Although many analytics tools focus on the past, Tableau can help you get a better idea of the future, too. This advanced platform uses machine learning to review your data and predict likely outcomes so you can make faster and smarter decisions for your business.

As you can see, web analytics is critical for your site, whether you want to access audience demographics or improve your e-commerce conversion rate. Make a point of reviewing your website analytics regularly so you can identify where you’re succeeding or falling short so you can optimize your site and outperform the competition.

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