Measuring is knowing. But not all measuring is equal. In this post, I would like to explore the importance of web analytics for your website without getting lost in the jungle of available tools and more importantly, types of tools. Further articles will dive into more details for each specific tool and what key metrics you should be keeping an eye on.
This article is intended for small businesses and entrepreneurs that cannot afford the cost of outsourcing all their analytics needs to a third party, and need to “do the work”, at least partially, themselves.
The first type of website analytic tools are the most ancient ones: the ones that are run locally on your web server. These tools read the web servers’ traffic log files and produce readable reports from them, such as AWstats.
Since these tools have direct access to the webserver traffic logs, the data is in a sense very accurate, because every user interaction is recorded. Since these tools use interactions that are recorded on the server level, they aren’t subject to limitations by browser cookies or other settings. In a sense, these tools give you a “best-case scenario” of your actual web traffic.
These tools usually come pre-installed when you signup for a web hosting package, and no configuration is needed to start using them.
The bad news is that these tools are usually a bit too optimistic and tend to interpret a lot of bot traffic (traffic that is generated by automated software and not humans) as real traffic, giving you a false sense of your website’s popularity.
Cloud-based web analytics
These are currently the most popular ways of measuring web traffic. The uncontested leader on the market is Google Analytics. Google Analytics is a very complete solution, and also a very complex one. To fully master Google Analytics you need to dive deep into the different functionalities, and that could take a while. On the upside, the suite is 100% free.
Compared to server-side solutions, Google Analytics and its competitors (I will discuss those later in this article), have a much better capacity to filter out non-human traffic such as bots from its statistics. Therefore, you will get a much more “conservative” view on your website traffic.
As said earlier though, Google Analytics has one big issue: it can be complicated to set up and use. The dashboard you see above requires quite a bit of work to prepare, and if you are a non-technical user that might prove challenging to achieve.
Luckily, many companies have created tools to simplify both the installation and the interface of Google Analytics for end users. If you are a WordPress user, one of the most competent tools is Monster Insights.
It offers easy integration and setup of Google Analytics for your site and a dashboard interface that gives you your “core vitals” in a simple interface. The plugin (an add-on piece of software for WordPress) comes in a free version that is already quite complete, but you can get a premium version that unlocks additional functionalities.
Other tools on the market are Omniture from Adobe, Kissmetrics, and Clarity from Microsoft. Omniture is geared to enterprises and probably less interesting for smaller businesses, but Clarity, which is a new tool and an attempt from Microsoft to steal some thunder from Google, is a great solution. It’s very simple to use and included recordings and heatmaps out of the box.
Aggregated web analytics
The third type of web analytic tools are tools like Semrush and Ahrefs. The core functionality of these tools is to help you to build your SEO visibility through benchmarking your site against that of your competitors on several levels.
For example, imagine you want to rank high for a certain keyword on Google Search. Google Analytics will rarely give you a lot of insights on this, not for yourself. Semrush on the other hand has millions of queries for millions of URLs in their database, so you can find the exact position you rank for a certain keyword on Google Search. More than that, you can check your competitors’ rank, and see what they are doing better or worse.
These types of tools offer you, in a nutshell, insights into the performance of your competitors and comparable businesses. The trade-off is that these are estimated numbers, as Semrush will not give direct access to another customer’s actual analytics, even if this customer has connected their Semrush account with, for example, their own Google Analytics.
Let’s be frank here. Most of us care how we rank in Google Search, so having as many insights as possible on how your site is performing there is of critical importance. An essential tool to achieve that is Google Search Console.
Bing (Microsoft’s search engine) has a similar tool called Bing Webmaster Tools, but considering that Google Search servers 92% of the search market, it’s logical to say they don’t count that much here.
Google Search Console gives you a wealth of data on how healthy your domain is from a Google Search point of view. It also shows you the actual performance of your pages in their search results. Tools like Semrush will simulate the same result, but with Google Search Console, you are getting all the data right from the source, and for free.
Putting it all together
If you made it to the end of this article, you must be wondering what tools you should actually use. The answer is, it depends on what information you are looking for.
Managing a website’s performance cannot be done with one single tool (or at least not without a lot of integration work). You will want to be aware of what is going on at the most basic level of your traffic, so keeping an eye on the raw log files through a tool like Awstats is something you should do. If you see serious drops in traffic there, even if a lot of the traffic comes from bots, it might indicate an issue you will have to investigate at a higher level.
A solution such as Google Analytics will then allow you to build useful dashboards for the different aspects of your web traffic (audience overview, organic versus paid traffic, etc…). Segmenting your data is critical in order to be able to make informed decisions on what to do next.
Aggregator tools such as Semrush then give you insights into what others are doing and how your efforts compare to them. It will allow you to build and improve an SEO content strategy based on what keywords you wish to improve your rankings on, amongst other things.
Finally, the Google Search Console will give you critical information on how your site is performing on the Google Search engine and will flag any issues and errors you need to act on in order to avoid penalties (these are given by Google Search to “punish” sites that commit sins against their rules by demoting them in the search algorithm).
This is but a brief (and first) effort in creating some clarity on the available web analytics tools today. In other articles in this series, I will dive into Heatmap and Recording tools, tagging tools such as Google Tag Manager, and more.
The main learnings to take away here are:
- Measuring the performance of your web traffic should be done with different tools, not exclusively with one tool
- Each tool will give you different total numbers across different metrics, the important thing is to use them to discover trends in your data
- Some tools are for free (most of the Google tools) but for others, you will need to pay. Semrush and Ahrefs are expensive, but absolutely essential when you are trying to build out an SEO strategy.
Please let me know in the comments below what you thought of this piece, and how I can improve it!