The Accountability of Reality

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Do you like working with data?

I’m guessing your answer was a quick yes. So I’ll ask again: Do you really like working with data?

Before you answer, let me clarify something. What I don’t have in mind is the kind of data visualization work that we all probably dream about, the kind that indulges our fantasies of Tufte-esque glory. I mean the boring stuff: gathering and analyzing data for the purpose of evaluating the performance of what we’ve designed—in particular, our websites. Much less flashy work, for sure, but certainly more useful. The good news is that anyone can do this kind of data work. The bad news is that few do.

Those who are realizing that maybe they don’t like working with data after all are encountering a critical barrier that prevents the long term success of just about anything we create: the accountability of reality. The truth is that very few things are perfect on first launch; most require some evaluation and refinement before they can attain their original goals, as well as ongoing guidance to keep from falling below expectations as the conditions around them change. For websites—remember, permanent works in progress—the reality of their performance can be almost impossible to discern without access to real user data. Without the data and a commitment to measurement as a discipline, your work will likely be in vain.

Fortunately, data is easy to come by. One of the most powerful website measurement tools available today—Google Analytics—is free of charge. There are few free tools that don’t come with some sort of catch or eventual disappointment; Google Analytics is not one of them. For the time being, it is unequivocally free and packs abundant functionality that almost certainly exceeds your day-to-day needs. Convinced? Great. If you haven’t set up an account and installed it on your website, make it a priority to do so (like, today).

Once you have Google Analytics installed and begin to accumulate traffic data, the next challenge will be in determining how to use that data to evaluate the effectiveness of your website. Though a simple search for “how to use Google Analytics” will show you that there is no shortage of help available, I’d like to provide you with a few simple tips…

Measurement is a Way of Life

First, a motto of sorts: Measurement is not an isolated step in the web development process. It is, as I mentioned before, a discipline. It does not happen once; it should become a routine. The long-term value of your website will grow as you draw actionable conclusions from your measurement and use them to improve your site. Second, a very basic rubric: Your time spent with measurement should always be in answering specific questions you have about your website. Otherwise, you will eventually degrade your practice to repetitive and meaningless number-watching.

So, what are some of the basic questions worth asking about your website? Here are three to get you started:

1. Who is driving traffic to my site?The simple answer to this question is search engines … and everyone else. Google Analytics will help you make sense of this by breaking down your websites traffic sources, which it calls “referrers,” into a tidy list ranked by visitor volume. If you’ve optimized your pages for search engines—specifically, by paying attention to page titles, meta data, H1 tags, urls, and keyword usage—you should be receiving an increasing volume of traffic referred from search engines. Google Analytics will also show you the most commonly used terms that led to searchers visiting your site. Keep an eye on those. If they don’t correspond with what your site is about, rework your meta data. The goal here is to receive visits from the people who are looking for someone like you but don’t know about you yet. As for the rest of your referrers, that long tail of unique referrals—comprised of everything from links you leave in blog comments to social media and press mentions—can represent very valuable traffic in the aggregate that you’ll want to nurture, too.

2. What are the most popular pages on my site?For most sites, the homepage will receive the bulk of new visitors, keeping it at the top of Google Analytics “top content” report. But, that doesn’t mean it’s the first page that every visitor sees. On the contrary, many of your site’s visitors will enter on a sub-page of your site. Take a look at your site’s top content and think deeply about the impression users might have after entering your site through them. While that alone is likely to cause you to rethink the information they contain, drill down a bit deeper to follow the entrance paths and see what pages users tend to navigate to next. Getting a realistic sense of flow from the user data will help you to refine the information architecture of your site.

3. How many of my site’s visitors leave unsatisfied?This is expressed in a metric Google calls “bounce rate.” Put simply, the bounce rate is the percentage of visitors who entered your site but did not continue, either because their browsing session expired or because they left your site without visiting any other pages—the lower, the better. In other words, bounce rate reflects—for most websites—user satisfaction. A high bounce rate can happen if pages have poorly optimized meta data, giving search engines and their users a false sense for what they’re actually about. On the other hand, larger sites, both in terms of content and traffic, are more likely to have high bounce rates even if most users are satisfied. The higher the number of pages, the more likely they are to attract users with all kinds of needs that, while they may be addressed by isolated pages, are not in line with the site’s overall purpose. For example, a user may find an isolated plumbing article helpful, but not explore the site any further if they’re not actually looking to hire a plumber themselves.

Digging Deeper

Each of these questions can (and should) be explored in much greater depth. The way they are framed, and their answers, too, are likely to change during the lifetime of your site. But they are a good place to start. Here are a few further resources you might find helpful:

  1. How to Use Google Analytics – An in-depth feature tour and a guide to interpreting its reports.

  2. Measuring What Really Matters – An intermediate guide to website measurement.

  3. How to Accurately Calculate Bounce Rate: More detail on understanding site-wide and page-specific bounce rate.