Higher education websites have the arduous task of serving a large number of audiences who are all seeking different things. How do we know the website’s design and information architecture is working? Web analytics are a great asset to start solving the puzzle. There are so many layers to analytics that jumping in can feel daunting, but a few steps can make the numbers more approachable and actionable.
A wide variety of web analytics tools are available in the market, but the most commonly used (and free) option is Google Analytics (GA). The steps below relate to GA, but depending on your institution’s needs, you may want to check out other options, too.
Here are three steps you can take to start using your web analytics more efficiently.
1. Set up Unfiltered, Internal and External Views
There are many layers to GA, but the view level is where you can access your website’s reports and analysis tools.
First things first: Google creates an “unfiltered” view for you when you set up the property, i.e. a website in this case. Leave this view completely untouched, so that you’ll always have a view collecting raw data.
Next up, it’s useful to separately view how internal and external visitors are interacting with your website. You may need to check in with your IT department to find out the institution’s IP range. Depending on the size of your network, this could be a significant list. These IP addresses can be excluded for an external view, and then be the only traffic included for your internal view.
It’s also worth considering that many students may be browsing on their phones using their data plan, so if they’re not on the network, they’re going to register as external. While they’re not foolproof, these views are still a good way to determine trends. Suppose that your homepage is showing a very high bounce rate — percentage of visitors who navigate away from the website after viewing only one page — on the “unfiltered” view. These views may show that your internal visitors are skewing the data, because they’re clicking on your institutional’s portal link in the header when they arrive.
Beyond these three views, feel free to experiment and add others you find appropriate. For example, you may want to track your newsroom or employee directory in a separate view for easy review. For these secondary views, Google also gives you the option to filter bots and spam traffic. By default, a property can have up to 25 views, although you can reach out to Google’s technical support to raise this limit.
2. Let the Search Data Unearth Missing or Buried Content
Knowing your most visited and top landing pages is key, but visitors often express their true feelings with the site search. Finding out your top search terms can be a helpful indicator of content that may be missing or is buried on the website. Even if something’s on the homepage, it’s possible users aren’t spotting it and searching instead.
If you’re using a search utility on your institution’s website, make sure to specify the search query in the settings. This can be updated under “View Settings” > “Site Search Settings” > “Query Parameter.” This will ensure that search terms are showing up clean in the Site Search report.
3. Track What Really Matters With Goals
Even if you know what external users are visiting the most and what they’re searching for, are they converting? This is where goals come in. They can measure your website’s KPIs in a number of ways, including if they make it to a certain page (i.e., complete a form and land on a “Thank You” page) or perform a certain action (i.e., interact with a video in a certain way).
The options are endless, and with a developer involved, you can get very creative with goals. For example, goals are incredibly helpful when running an advertising campaign that directs to a landing page. You can measure how many visitors converted per media channel.
A Final Note
With these three steps complete, it’s important to remind yourself that the numbers are all relative. Often, people ask “but are these visit numbers any good?” Remember that it’s about the long game. Reviewing longer-term trends and comparing year-over-year data will reveal the most insightful findings as you develop your web strategy.
Jonathan Shearer is the executive director of marketing and communications at Elmhurst College in Illinois.