Thursday, July 23, 2009

Google Analytics: How to make the most from learning about your visitors

In a previous post, I talked broadly about the capabilities of Google Analytics, and I showed off some of the basic mapping tools through telling a short history of this blog. This post provides practical advice on using the mapping functions in Analytics to your advantage. Here, I focus on getting the most from the mapping functions. In the future, I plan to point out some of the other cool features of Analytics.

Aside from being easy to read, Google Analytics maps are interactive. This interactivity is my favorite feature of Google Analytics. To show how this works, I'll take you on a journey though the Google Analytics maps.

The Map Overlay feature starts by giving you a world map. As the legend in the lower left hand corner demonstrates, areas with darker shades of green have accounted for more visits.

Clearly, my blog has primarily been visited by my fellow Americans, but that does not tell me much. We want to know more, and we can investigate by clicking on The United States in the world map. This brings us to a map of the fifty states.

From the map, it's clear that Illinois and Montana have accounted for the most visits, but let's investigate further. When we click on Illinois, we are given city-level information in the form of circles whose size corresponds to the number of visits from that city. Here's a view of the traffic from Illinois:

Chicago really stands out on the map; Chicago suburbs have contributed a lot of visits as well. Do you want to know which Chicago neighborhoods accounted for the most traffic? What about your visitors' street addresses? No can do. Even though greedy bloggers like me want that information, Google is vigilant about privacy. Google Analytics most detailed map is the state map with city dots.

But, that's already more information about your visitors than most people would expect. It's hard to be greedy when Google is so generous with the information.

How have I put this information to use? You may say, "So what? Now, you know where your visitors are coming from, but do you really have enough information to use?"

The answer is Yes. There's even more information than the maps suggest. Below each of these maps, there's detailed information about the visits from each city or state or region. For example, I know that big red dot on the Illinois map corresponds to 812 visits from Chicago. The average number of pages per visit is 1.77 and the average Chicagoan's time on the site is one minute and 28 seconds. For each dot, I have the same information.

Why's this useful? This information tells me where my content is best received. For example, if the average number of pages per visit were 1.01 for a region, that would suggest that those viewers come to my page, and immediately, leave. They don't see what else I have to say.

There are two interpretations of few pages per visit. First, the content is bad. Therefore, people exit quickly. Second, the readers are fickle, and would leave quickly anyway. In either case, low pages per visit indicates that you should to focus your blogging resources elsewhere. Your goal is to engage your readers, and that happens as they click through to your other content.

How do you discover what content works for attracting and keeping visitors? Analytics has another wonderful tool that is integrated with the mapping features: cross-classification. Analytics allows you to cross-classify where your viewers come from with what pages they've viewed.

Where does Analytics allow you to do this? There's a dropdown menu between the map and table of information about the map. For example, if I want to cross-classify by Landing Page, I just get my screen to look like this:

Of the 812 Chicago visits, 483 came to the front page first, 93 went directly to Rules for Driving in Chicago, 71 went to Companies Tony Loves: The Windy Citizen, and 34 went to Who Pays for Chicago Fireworks?

Moreover, the report also gives me the average time spent on the site and the average number of pageviews of someone from Chicago who visited that article first. Now, that's useful feedback. I wrote the Windy Citizen piece both because I genuinely like The Windy Citizen concept and because I wanted to share my other ideas with Windy Citizens.

Therefore, it encourages me that the average number of pageviews from the 71 Windy Citizen visits was 1.56. People were clicking through to see what else I had to write -- not on every visit, but people who read that article generally engaged the ideas in my blog. That's what I wanted. By contrast, other articles that I thought would be more successful in engaging readers were not. That's useful feedback -- both positive and negative.

And, this is just one feature of Analytics that I actively use. There are others, and as an added bonus, the Google Analytics interface is intuitive and organized. If you have a website you want people to read, Analytics is a great toolset for discovering the strengths and the weaknesses of your content. As Analytics provides comprehensive information on your web traffic, your website will be that much better if you put it to use.

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