Most organizations today understand the importance of having a dedicated digital marketing program. Many companies realize the value that a well-optimized website and online presence have as a modern sales tool.
However, it is worth a reminder that the biggest advantage digital marketing can offer a business is measurement. The ability to track, monitor, and evaluate the performance of any effort is what allows you to eliminate as much guesswork in your operation as possible. From a marketing perspective, a large part of this is getting to know your customers on a deep level.
This means understanding what their needs are, where they spend their time, what topics resonate with them, and how they interact with your brand. To strategically invest your time and money in the right areas, you need to know what’s working, what’s not, and why.
This is where web analytics comes in.
What Are Web Analytics?
Web analytics can seem overwhelming for anyone who is unfamiliar with the terminology, metrics, or what to look for in the marketing results. The sheer amount of available information can feel like a massive sea of data points that you’re unsure about jumping into.
However, when you can make sense of it, the data will help you better understand your web traffic and gain deeper insights into what your customers care about.
When choosing an analytics tool for your business, go with Google Analytics. Google Analytics is the industry standard for web measurement platforms. It’s a highly capable and effective tool that’s free for all businesses. Regardless of company, it is the best solution. There are dozens of excellent, free resources readily available to help users learn more about the platform at any level.
But before you spend too much time looking in your analytics account and drawing conclusions, it’s crucial that you begin with a correct understanding of what these numbers represent and how they differ from one another.
Let’s start by defining a handful of basic but fundamental metrics for measuring web traffic in Google Analytics.
When looking at sessions, think total visits, not people.
Every time someone visits your website a session begins. It starts immediately when the first page loads and ends after there has been 30 minutes of inactivity.
If a user leaves your site, then returns again one hour later, a new session begins. One person can log multiple sessions on a website, so it is common for sessions to be significantly greater than users when looking at analytics.
Sessions are a useful metric for understanding how your website traffic is changing from month to month, or during key periods throughout the year. When you have marketing campaigns running at certain times, sessions can help you evaluate how these efforts are impacting traffic.
When looking at users, think individual people, not visits.
Users refer to the number of new and returning visitors to a website. It’s best to think of users as individual people, but there are a few nuances to be aware of.
Any time a new person lands on your site, Google Analytics assigns them a unique ID that gets stored in a cookie in their web browser (like Google Chrome). When they return to your site using the same browser and device, they are recognized as a returning visitor.
It’s important to know that users are tracked separately on different devices. So if the same person visited your site on a desktop and smartphone, it is tallied as a new user.
Users are an optimal way to measure unique web traffic. However, like most things in digital marketing, a single metric only offers so much intel when analyzed by itself. Users are helpful for understanding how many people visited your site in a given time period, but it’s best to look at users alongside sessions, pageviews, and other engagement metrics to really get a sense of the biggest factors driving your traffic.
More straightforward than the above metrics, a pageview is counted every time a page on your website is viewed, as you may have guessed. If someone lands on the homepage, goes to the About page, Contact page, then back to Home, that’s four views. If they reloaded the About page five times, it’s counted as five pageviews. Pageviews are counted very generously in analytics and will always be much higher than both users and sessions.
To be honest, there won’t ever be much to infer with hits as a metric for traffic. Hits are irrelevant for measuring web traffic. Hits represent too many actions, often repetitive or misleading actions. Some marketers reach for the biggest number and showcase hits as a measure of site visits or users. This is a hasty and inflated representation of actual traffic. Equating hits to a metric like sessions is misguided and ill-advised. Hits always will be much greater in volume than users, sessions, or pageviews.
Hits may be a good measure of overall server usage, but it doesn’t tell you much about your audience.
Google Analytics vs Webalizer vs AWStats
If you have yet to adopt a traffic measurement tool, there are several platforms for your business to consider. As mentioned, Google Analytics is by far the most widely used tool today. We recommend it against a few others for key reasons.
Alternative analytics platforms like Webalizer and AWStats are known to overestimate traffic data and report inflated numbers. This is because these programs collect data differently than Google Analytics.
Webalizer and AWStats are “Server-side” analytics platforms, meaning they gather data from a website’s server logs to report traffic. Instead of only showing activity from actual human visitors, the data contained in these log files includes activity from both humans and bots. The server responds to human visitors, but also to automated requests made by bots. These requests can include anything like image files, graphics, audio files, and HTML pages.
This significantly skews the data and thus shows much higher numbers than the more refined results from Google Analytics.
Overall, platforms like Webalizer lack cookies to recognize real, unique visitors, so they use data from server logs to give it’s best guess at how many actual people visited the site. Server-side collection is an inferior way to measure website traffic, especially for any sites that receive a sizable volume.
Getting Onboard with Analytics
In this article, we really just scratch the surface of what is possible with web analytics. If all of this sounds new or vaguely familiar to you, it’s a topic worthy of further investigation. Strengthening your knowledge of analytics will provide new insights about customers, how they shop, and how they buy. Without a professional analytics program, you won’t truly have the information you need to adapt your marketing strategy. Sure, you can make changes to your website, run new campaigns, continue creating content, but if done blindly the success of your efforts will be limited.