Online business owners have it tough. It's not enough to build a website, troubleshoot it constantly, fill orders, deal with customers and create marketing campaigns. If you want to grow your business, increase sales and improve your customer experience, you have to dive into analytics — and we don't mean just checking how many people visit your site every day.
Through Web analytics, you can figure out how visitors find you, watch how they move through your site, track where they go after they leave and see how many of them are wearing purple shirts while they peruse your site.
OK, maybe that last one isn't true. But analytics could change how you run your business. You'll learn which referrals and ad campaigns are effective and which should be dumped or tweaked. You might redesign your site to increase your conversion rates. Maybe you'll realize that you need to develop a mobile app or adjust your site for mobile users. Whatever the outcome, you can reap the benefits, but it takes work.
There are an overwhelming number of analytics programs out there — here are 10 of the big ones. Many are free or don't require much of an investment, so it's worth a look around to see what will end up being the best fit for you.
Would you expect any less from Google than the gold standard? There are other traffic-analysis programs that can dig deeper and provide more services, but Google Analytics is the market leader because of its combination of function and value. It's free — you can't get a better deal than that.
Google Analytics gets good marks across the board for its basic services. For starters, you can monitor visitor numbers, traffic sources, devices, location, social media shares, conversion rates and visitor flow. There are also plenty of nitty-gritty details available for hard-core analyzers who need to know about things like the screen sizes of their mobile-app users. And of course, the program also ties in with Google's AdWords and AdSense programs.
On the downside, Google Analytics is so complex that learning the full program can be a challenge. Another common complaint is that its real-time stats aren't as responsive as they could be. And some users have expressed uneasiness over the fact that Google isn't collecting all this data solely for the benefit of the user.
Piwik is an open-source, self-hosted analytics program that's frequently cited as an alternative to Google Analytics for those who are uncertain about how Google might be using its customers' data. Like Google Analytics, it's a flexible, broad-overview platform that focuses on visitors: where they come from and what they do once they're on your site. It's useful for any kind of site, be it e-commerce, content-driven, an intranet system or a government site. You can install Piwik on your own server or pay a small fee to have a third party host it for you.
The drawbacks of Piwik that people mention have to do with real-time information and time tracking. Real-time viewer data is available, but it isn't very detailed. There's also no way to accurately tell how long visitors spend on your site unless they view multiple pages. If they stay on their landing page and leave from there, you might not even know they were there at all. And if you're looking for funnel analytics, then you'll be disappointed — you'll have to get that from another service.
SEMRush focuses on your competition; its specialty is comprehensive keyword research. ("SEM" stands for "search engine marketing.") With a database of more than 100 million keywords, SEMRush can give you an astounding amount of information for a ton of websites [source: SEMRush]. Just type in a URL, and you'll get a list of keywords along with a stat-loaded chart that tells you how much traffic the site gets for each keyword and the site's search-engine rank. For each term you'll also see the total number of results, the amount of advertiser competition and a yearlong trend analysis. (Google's U.S. version is the default search engine, but you can change it.)
Using information from SEMRush, you can monitor your site and spy on your competition to your heart's content. Compare keyword results in organic and paid search, examine your competitors' marketing strategies, find out how much they spend on advertising, watch their daily position changes and find other potential rivals based on keyword overlap with your site. And that's just for starters. As you might expect, SEMRush doesn't come cheap: Prices range from $70 to $550 per month [source: SEMRush]. We can only imagine the data mountain you'd get for the high-end plan.
Parse.ly Dash might have a somewhat awkward name, but it's a dream come true for bloggers and proprietors of content-driven sites. Launched in 2012, it's a content management system that allows you to optimize your site based on detailed analysis of each article. Dash breaks down the articles on your site by author and subject, revealing the most popular posts in each category and who's reading them. It can also troll your archives, analyzing past articles and alerting you when an old post starts getting page views again. Tracking page views and traffic patterns can help you optimize your site and plan future articles.
Beyond digging into your own site's performance, Dash provides Web-wide topic trends in real time, allowing you to immediately tailor posts based on what's popular at the moment. A 2014 update featured the addition of videos and social media posts to content analysis. Dash is a pricey service, so it isn't for the casual blogger. But if you have the budget, it's a tool that you probably can't afford to be without.
While Parse.ly Dash provides services for bloggers and content producers, KISSmetrics excels with e-commerce sites that need to optimize their conversion funnels (the pathways customers take through a site to the checkout screen). It specializes in consumer behavior, tracking viewer activity over multiple sessions on your site and alerting you to holes in the funnel that could be making your site less efficient and costing you sales.
One of KISSmetrics' signature features is the Path Report, which tells you the specific routes customers tend to use on your site. That knowledge will give you insights on how to optimize your site to plug up the "leaks" where people tend to drop out. Then you can make other adjustments so the common pathways are more easily accessible. Once you do that, the orders will start rolling in ... until something changes and you have to revamp the site all over again. But at least with KISSmetrics you can stay one step ahead of the game.
Alexa, which is owned by Amazon, has been around since the infancy of the Internet — first it was a search engine and online archivist, and now it's all analytics, all the time. So, as you might guess, Alexa is hanging on to a lot of data. It provides traffic data and other statistics on 30 million websites, and the company site attracts millions of unique visitors every month [source: Alexa]. The company's main claim to fame is the Alexa ranking, which is a comparative traffic listing that's updated every day.
Alexa is seen as a decent source for site comparison and general traffic trends, but there are questions about its accuracy. The company is tight-lipped about exactly how it gets its data. At first it was primarily through tracking users who downloaded its toolbar. Now it's from a "global traffic panel" of people who use a certain browser extension and from sites that choose to be monitored through the installation of an Alexa script. So it's hard to tell just how solid of a cross-section is being examined. Smaller sites don't get the detailed treatment of larger ones, so if your site doesn't get massive amounts of traffic, Alexa might not be very useful.
When the chatter turns to "advanced analytic suites," Clicky is always a popular topic of discussion. It's at the low end of the price scale (there's a very basic free version, and the pay version starts at $9.99 a month for 1 million monthly page views), but it gives a lot of bang for your buck. Clicky offers the same features that other analytic services do – unique visitor count, traffic patterns. But its claim to fame is its real-time analysis and "heatmaps," which show you where people tend to click and focus their attention on each page of your site.
Clicky users are also fond of its simple interface and the ability to view stats without going to Clicky's site. The program provides an on-site widget that lets you learn more information about your current visitors and referrers for a specific page or for your whole site.
Clicky is most often compared with Google Analytics. Although the Google service is free, many prefer Clicky, saying that it has fewer bells and whistles but an easier learning curve.
Facebook is the social media platform of choice for many online businesses. Some companies might even use a Facebook page in lieu of a website. If you know you get a lot of traffic and loyal customers from Facebook, it definitely pays to use Facebook Insights — it's the only program that gives you data about your Facebook audience.
You don't have to do a thing to install Facebook Insights or start using it: It automatically starts giving you reports once your page has 30 likes. It'll give you basic data, like your total reach (how many people have come into contact with your page in the past week). A step above that is total engaged (the number of people who've clicked, liked, commented or shared one of your posts). You can even learn when most of your fans tend to use Facebook, so you can time your posts for when the most people are likely to see it immediately. All in all, Insights is a valuable tool for absolutely no money and little effort on your part.
If any part of your site's traffic comes from YouTube videos or if your business's primary home is a YouTube channel, YouTube Analytics is a helpful tool. A YouTube channel can be optimized just as a website can, and you can get the data that can help you improve your channel from YouTube Analytics — for free.
YouTube Analytics packs a whole lot of information into just a few pages. You'll get all the demographic data on your audience and subscribers, plus your traffic sources, average page view duration and social media shares. You'll also learn about your audience's engagement: Do they watch your videos in entirety, and if not, where do they tend to stop? Once you've digested all of it, you'll have all the info you need to start optimizing, building your viewership and monetizing your channel. Whether you decide to tailor the content to your audience, make more interesting videos, change your design or all of the above, you'll have YouTube Analytics to thank for it.
Some YouTube videos get millions of views; others get zero. Learn about the clips with zero views at HowStuffWorks Now.
Author's Note: 10 Sites That Let You View Your Web Traffic
I am no fan of data-crunching, so writing this article made me realize that if I ever come up with a genius idea for an online business, I need to leave lots of room in the budget for an SEO guru who will be able to navigate these systems.
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