In the seven years since Google Analytics launched, the realm of analytics has changed hands from the purview of the IT department to the marketing department and beyond. But just because we can readily access the tools does not mean that we are necessarily putting them to good use. To gain some insight into this we interviewed Brian Clifton, author, consultant and trainer, who specializes in performance optimization using Google Analytics.

Brian acted as head of Web Analytics for Google Europe from 2005-2008 and recently released the third edition of his "Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics," used by students and professionals worldwide. 

CMSWire: Do people collect data that is useless or unnecessary?

Brian Clifton: No, and let me say that I don't think collecting *any* kind of data is useless. However, it can be distracting and generate a higher level of "noise." The mistake I see most often is people not focusing i.e., they simply look at all of the data all of the time. Beyond the high level reporting of metrics such as total visitor counts, total revenue etc., looking at all of the data all of the time has very little analytical value. Therefore, what you need to do, is chop up the data into meaningful groups of similar data points i.e., segment.

Example segments to enhance the signals from the noise:

  • Customers
    • A segment that includes only visits from existing customers -- even if they do not purchase from your site when they visit. This is why this segment is so valuable -- these visitor have bought from you before!
  • Engagers
    • After customers, Engagers are your next most valuable group of visitors. They have shown engagement, i.e., made an effort, perhaps even given you their contact details. Examples include registrations, contact requests (form submissions), file downloads, ranking products and content, comments and feedback, video views, clicks on social love buttons etc.
  • Mobilers
    • A segment that includes only visits from mobile devices. Mobile is a very different experience to browsing on a bigger screen. Lots of implication for your web site structure/design if this segment is significant to you.
  • Non-Bouncers
    • A segment that excludes all bounced visits i.e., removes single page visits that have no engagement. The theory is that these visitors are clearly not interested in your website, so remove them from your analysis.

Of course these segments are not mutually exclusive and you can be very creative by combining them.

My point is that data "noise" is not something to be discarded. It's only noise relative to a specific question you are trying to answer at a particular time. When you look at answering a different question, that noise can be a rich data stream indeed (people have won nobel prizes for analyzing noise!). Therefore, always collect the full spectrum of web data and user segmentation as your tool for focus and analysis.

Editor's Note: To get more insights from Brian, follow him on Twitter @BrianClifton

CMSWire: How can a company decide which data to collect? Are there common metrics/strategies that work across the board or does it change on a case by case basis?

BC: My approach when I first engage with a client is not to show or look at any analytic reports. I usually get an odd response to that when I have been hired as the web analytics expert! However, the first meeting is a workshop where I sit down with the marketing team to understand their needs and abilities. By needs, I mean understanding what tasks they perform as a group and therefore how they can measure the success (or not) of that. A metric that measures success is known as a Key Performance Indicator (KPI).

For example, as a group we investigate:

  • What is producing the lead generation (call to action)?
    • this can be a contact-us form, interactive quote generator, registration sign-up
  • What is driving the call to action?
    • Video demo, fact sheet (PDF download), on-site testimonials/press/PR, your detailed support section, special offers
  • Which are the key landing pages?
    • Often this is neglected with a default answer of "the home page." However, where a visitor arrives on your site is critical to getting them to convert.
  • What are the key marketing channels used to drive visitors?
    • Usually a mix of SEO, AdWords, banner ads, email marketing and social activities. Often these are not tracked correctly. By that, I mean the arriving visitor is tracked, but not assigned to the correct channel/campaign they came from. In fact, 9 out of 10 times I find email visits incorrectly labelled as a "direct" visit. That is, campaign tracking is not being used.