Don’t Be Afraid of Your (website) Data

Google Analytics OverviewEveryone else is collecting data, so shouldn’t you be, too? It sounds scary, but it shouldn’t be.

My work is a mixture of building brand new websites for clients who have never had an online presence and of renovating websites for clients who have been online for a while. For the former, we have a blank slate (more or less) and get to really set the direction of the site.

For the latter, I always ask to see their website data–whether they’re using whatever their host offers, Google’s Analytics, or something else–I just want to be able to get in and get an overview feel of how their visitors are using their site. I’m not an expert–I only know enough to be dangerous–but what I see there can be helpful to me.

Unfortunately, I’ve had a couple of these where we discover that there is no data collection system in place (or if there is, they don’t have access to it!). One client’s site was reporting data, but it turns out that the tracking script was only installed on part of the site, and not at all on a critically large section of it, and had probably been that way for years. They had no idea how that part of their site was being used and how it could or should be retooled to be more effective.

You may be reading this and thinking, “Why do I need to collect data? I’m an ideas person and math and graphs and charts make me ill!”

That may be true for you, and just because you collect it doesn’t mean you ever have to look at it. But even if you never do, someday you’ll be meeting with someone like me, and I will ask you about how your clients/community/friends use your site. If you’re not collecting the data at all, you won’t truly know, and you won’t know what is or is not working with your content.

It’s maybe a bit like keeping all of your business receipts to give to your accountant when it’s time for him to do your taxes. You may not know how to do your taxes, but you know he needs every scrap of paper you can pack into the shoebox so that he can take care of them for you, right?

And you may find that someday, you do want to know. Maybe you don’t usually use email marketing, but you send a campaign to promote an event, a campaign with a link to your site in it. Wouldn’t you like to know how many people came to your site to view that page?

Or maybe you’d like to have me build a huge frequently asked questions section for your site. Wouldn’t it be great to see what people are searching for on your site, so you can know what some of those questions maybe need to be?

Even if you aren’t a numbers person, you want to have the data so that someday you can have a numbers person look it over. For this reason, I set up Google Analytics on every single site I build or renovate. I make sure that both I and my client have access to the data. I set up the account so that the client can keep the data even if they move to another theme, host, or designer in the future.

Google Analytics is my data gatherer of choice, but there are others. It’s free, and integrates with other useful Google tools, which is nice. So set up an account (client level–so I have many accounts in my Analytics account, and I can grant client access to their data without giving them anyone else’s), a property (usually the same as the client, but if the client has two totally different projects, they would be two properties), and a view (this is the actual domain you’re tracking).

If you’re running a WordPress site, it’s very easy to get the script running on your site. You could do it by hand, but I prefer to use Joost de Valk’s excellent free plugin. Install the plugin on your site, connect it to your Analytics account, and you’re done. Optionally, you can tell the plugin to ignore logged in users (I’m not interested in keeping track of my own visits, for instance!).

Even if you’re not a data person, someday I can pretty much promise that someday, you’ll want this information in some form or fashion, so go ahead and start collecting it now. You’ll be glad you did.

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