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Evaluating Websites with Web Analytics

It comes as no surprise, but as of 2008, 61% of US adults and approximately 83% of internet users have used the internet to find health information. Relatedly, many medical libraries and health organizations rely on their websites, blogs, and social media to connect with their users or distribute much needed and requested health information. With more staff and time committed to maintaining social media and websites, how do we gauge the efficacy of these efforts? How do we know that our users are finding and accessing the information they need or want through our websites and other online tools? How do we know that users are actually following the breadcrumb trail from Twitter or Facebook to our website, and then navigating to relevant pages? Web analytics is the answer!

Web analytics is the study of the impact of a website on its users, and is a valuable tool to assess and evaluate your online presence. We often think of assessment and evaluation as something we do only in conjunction with a specific event or program. Simple website evaluation can be as easy as asking yourself a few fundamental questions. Yet, an ongoing assessment and evaluation of your web presence through web analytics is an easy way to understand what resources your users are accessing and how often they are visiting your site! There is a wide array of free and low-cost analytics tools that are now available across a multitude of platforms.  These tools have made it possible for non-profits to take advantage of these important statistics. In a 2008 study conducted in The Netherlands by Voorbij, the researcher found that most cultural heritage institutions use web statistics to assess the production output and costs of digitization activities. These nonprofits used a variety of web analytics programs, but all used the statistics for “practical purposes, such as adapting the web site or setting priorities for further digitization” (Voordbij, 2008). Web analytics programs make it easy to setup and track specific website or social media statistics through customizable features and follow what matters the most to your organization or library.

Many of these tools perform similar functions, so here’s the real question: what should you be tracking in your web analytics? There are a few metrics that you can start tracking to get started. These generally fall within three areas: acquisition, behavior, and outcomes, as described in this blog entry. Within the acquisition category for non-profits and libraries, this includes metrics such as visits, the behavior category includes page views, time on site, and bounce rate, and outcomes category includes conversion rate. Now what do all of these terms mean? We’ll cover some of the larger concepts in this blog entry and address the rest in the second part of this blog series, but full definitions of all the major metrics are available through the Digital Analytics Association.

The Digital Analytics Association (formerly known as the Web Analytics Association) describes the “Big Three” metrics as unique visitors, visits/sessions, and page views and these concepts serve as the foundation for understanding and using other metrics (adapted from the Web Analytics Association “Big Three Definitions”:

  • Visits/Sessions: an interaction with a website, in which an individual requests the transfer of content one or more times.
  • Unique visitors: An inferred individual who visits a website one or more times and who is counted only once during the reporting period.
  • Page views: the number of times a request was made and content was transferred to be viewed.

For non-profit organizations and libraries, the first steps in web analytics includes tracking visits, unique visitors, and page views as these metrics track how users are accessing your website. Tracking “visits” is a good place to start because you learn how many times people access your website and which areas of your website are most popular. If there are underused areas or tools, perhaps these are things that you can push in your social media presence or add direct links to these pages from the homepage.

Unique visitors can be separated into two categories: new and returning visitors. If you have a large number of returning unique visitors, then you might want to set a goal for attracting new unique visitors. Tracking these two groups separately can be a useful way in understanding how effective you are in advertising your website and your online presence. It can also help you understand how often people return to your website (and how often). Returning visitors is an indicator of how well you are connecting with your audience and if you are providing new and valuable content that keeps them coming back.

Page views can help you understand if people are finding what they want, easily and efficiently, and if the content on your website is relevant to your users. You can also track how number of page views changes if you start linking your website from say, a Twitter feed or Facebook page. If you find that your visitors are only viewing one or two pages before leaving your website, then you may need to rethink the placement on your website of the most important and relevant information

These three metrics are only the first step in using web analytics and give only a glimpse of user patterns and actions. In conjunction with other key metrics, you can easily evaluate your website and determine if it is meeting the needs of your users.

References:

Fox, S., and Jones, S. (2009). “A Shifting Landscape.” The Social Life of Health Information. Pew Internet & American Life Project. Retrieved from http://www.pewinternet.org/Reports/2009/8-The-Social-Life-of-Health-Information/02-A-Shifting-Landscape/1-Americans-are-tapping-into-a-widening-network-of-both-online-and-offline-sources.aspx

Hawkins, A. (2012, February 29). Andrew Hawkins on Evaluating Websites and Online Services · AEA365. AEA365: A Tip-a-Day by and for Evaluators. Retrieved from http://aea365.org/blog/?p=5878

Kaushik, A. (2011, December 12). Best web metrics/KPIs for a small, medium or large sized business. [web log post]. Occam’s Razor. Retrieved from http://www.kaushik.net/avinash/best-web-metrics-kpis-small-medium-large-business/

Voorbij, H. (2010). The use of web statistics in cultural heritage institutions. Performance Measurement and Metrics, 11(3), 266–279. doi:10.1108/14678041011098541

Web analytics. Webopedia. Retrieved March 7, 2012 from http://www.webopedia.com/TERM/W/Web_analytics.html

Web Analytics Association. (2008). Web analytics definitions. Retrieved March 7, 2012 from http://www.webanalyticsassociation.org/resource/resmgr/PDF_standards/WebAnalyticsDefinitions.pdf.

Web Analytics Association. (2006). Web analytics “Big Three” Definitions. Retrieved March 7, 2012 from http://www.webanalyticsassociation.org/resource/resmgr/PDF_standards/WebAnalyticsDefinitions.pdf

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