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Review: Google Analytics

Who’s visiting your website? How did they get there? And what are they doing once they get there?

Those are questions you probably ask f you control a website, either as a blog author, webmaster, or website owner. If you rent space at a web hosting company, you probably get some sort of free usage statistics report. Typically, these work by parsing your web server’s usage log, which keeps track of what files have been requested by visitors. While these packages often give you valuable information, they don’t always tell you everything you want to know.

Want to know something on the Web? Most of us have gotten into the habit of turning to Google for answers. The search and web-services giant has recently made their Google Analytics tool freely available to everyone. While it may not be able to tell you everything you want to know about your website, it can certainly be a valuable tool.

The home page for Google Analytics is http://www.google.com/analytics/. Follow the Sign-up now link to start using it. Like most of the new Google services, it's tied in to your Google Account, which is probably based on your Gmail Account. Once you have a Google Analytics account, you’ll be able to use it to track up to ten different websites. That’s a handy feature if you are a web developer who manages sites for a number of clients.

Google Analytics does not work by examining your website’s user log. Instead, it tracks activity on pages where you insert a small bit of Javascript. This can be both an advantage and a disadvantage for you. If you have a very large site (for instance, I manage one site with almost 3,000 pages), many of the free statistics programs will only focus on the most active pages. If you are interested in some of the activity in your “long tail” you may not be able to get it. Google Analytics will track all the pages where you’ve inserted the script, so it can help focus your attention. Of course, that can be a disadvantage, too, for it means you need to get that script on to every page you want to track. If you have a template-based site, you can probably add the script that way. Another disadvantage is that it will be difficult, and in some cases impossible, to track activity on non-HTML files, such as PDFs or MP3s.

Once you’ve got it set up, what can it tell you? A whole lot. In fact, the reporting interface, or dashboard is set up to give three different views: for executives, for webmasters, and for marketers so that the data of most interest to these groups will be front and center. All the basics are there: visits, page views, visits by source, referrals. As a webmaster, I appreciate how information is presented on my visitor’s browsing experience. For instance, at my own company site, bjkresearch.com, I can see that 33 percent of the visitors are using some version of Firefox. Clicking the plus sign next to Firefox, and I see that 43 percent of the Firefox users are already using Firefox 2.0, 35 percent are using Firefox, and so on.

Similar information is available for platforms ( hmm, my Mac market share is up to 10 percent), screen resolution (only five percent of my users use 800 by 600, the rest are all at higher resolutions), and so on. It also tells their connection speed – in my case, only four percent are on dial-up, ten percent are unknown, and the rest are either using corporate networks, cable, or DSL.

If you are engaged in e-commerce, features called the Conversion Summary and Defined Funnel navigation are very helpful. You can set up Google Analytics to monitor how many people follow a certain path. At my site, I’ve configured one path to show how many people stop first at the BugBlog, then go over to the Subscribe page to learn about newsletter subscriptions to the BugBlog Plus, and then actually follow the link to subscribe. (Sadly, not nearly enough people.) You can set up multiple paths, or funnels, that let you see how close the visitors come to actually sending you money.

You may wonder why is Google  making this service free for everyone? It may just be out of the goodness of their hearts. Or it may be the fact that there are many features of Google Analytics that tie right in to Google AdWords. If you are advertising through Google, then Analytics will show you which ads and keywords are most effective for you. It will also show you the Return on Investment (ROI) of different advertising campaigns you may run. Since I don’t advertise through AdWords, but merely run their ads on my site, I can’t tell how useful these reports are.

Google Analytics was fairly easy for me to configure; I judge something as easy if I don’t need to read too many help files in order to get it working. If you do need them, there are quite a few Help files and FAQs available. I used them to research one particular question – how can I use Analytics to track how many people download an MP3 file via a subscription via iTunes or some other podcatching service. I couldn’t find the answer online, so I used a link to contact Google. I got back a detailed answer within a day. Unfortunately, the answer told me bad news – Analytics can’t track MP3 downloads via something like an iTunes RSS feed. However, you can set it up to track how many people follow a link within an HTML page on your site to download an MP3.

Google Analytics does not do everything, so it’s probably best used in conjunction with one of the user log-parsing programs that can capture the total activity of your site. On the other hand, it’s definitely worth more than you pay for it. Privacy advocates may be uneasy about Google “tracking” them, but from the perspective of Google Analytics all use see is the aggregate activity. You know that a certain number of people are doing something on your site, but you have no way of knowing that one of them was a Mr. Richard Feder of Fort Lee, New Jersey.