As I mentioned in my post about off-page optimization factors, keeping track of site traffic and visitors is extremely important. You really need to understand where your traffic is coming from, what keywords are driving the traffic and why so that you can optimize your site. It can be complex and confusing, though, so what is a beginner SEO to do?
- Check with your host. Most hosting companies offer at least some sort of bare bones log-based web analytics as part of your package. Many times this consists of something like AWStats or Webalizer, which are pretty standard and offer stats that are probably sufficient for very small sites. Study these and get familiar with some of the nooks and crannies, like where your traffic is coming from and what keywords are driving the traffic.
- Go real time. If you haven’t heard of Yahoo’s MyBlogLog, it’s an online social site that’s especially targeted to blogs, but other sites are welcome. It’s big with SEOs. In addition to all of the social networking and community building opportunities, you can pay for their statistics service ($25 per year) and see real time traffic information for all of the pages to your blog/site. All you have to do is paste some tracking code within the BODY tags of your template or pages. The information is incredible – where your traffic is coming from today, what they are clicking on within your site and what outbound links they are clicking on. Reports can be run for various time periods. It’s a hidden feature that you need to check out.
- Get a full-blown analytics package. If you’re looking for free and don’t mind Google having access to your data, sign up for Google Analytics. It’s a slick, feature-rich analytics program with most of the bells and whistles beginner SEOs could want. In fact, there is a learning curve in trying to find all of the features and figure out what they mean. Like with MyBlogLog, you have to insert tracking code on pages you want Google Analytics to follow. If you run an ecommerce site, it can even track conversions with some advanced set up.
- Do it yourself. If you don’t like the idea of Google or anyone else having access to your stats, you could run log-based analytics software on your own. This is time-consuming and, as your site grows, can become impractical because log files can be huge. You might have to download your log files and run the software to analyze them or install analytics software on a dedicated web server. One free option is WebLog Expert Lite which also offers paid versions with more features. Running log-based web analytics software used to be the norm. I’m only offering this as an option to those who are really paranoid about their data. By the way, Google also offers a log-based solution called Urchin, but, it’s definitely not free.
- Go commercial. There are zillions of commercial web analytics packages available with all sorts of wiz bang features. The problem with wiz bang is that many of us wind up banging our heads against the wall trying to figure out the wiz. From experience, I highly recommend spending time trying out trial versions of any analytics product you are considering. See if you understand how they work. Find out how available support will be for you. Some of these companies charge you a ton for the product, give you a few months of support and then want a contract for continued support and updates. Be absolutely sure about what you are buying into. One company I know of spent thousands on one of the top log-based analytics packages, couldn’t get it running properly for months, then couldn’t understand the interface once they got it running, had numerous tech and support issues and finally abandoned it altogether, losing several thousand dollars in the process. Don’t let yourself fall into that trap. Understand what you are getting.
What do most SEOs favor? An informal, very unscientific poll of my LinkedIn contacts came back with Google Analytics as the definite top choice. Again, this was a very small sample and by no means authoritative, but it does seem that Google’s freebie has its fans in the search marketing community. On the commercial side, Clicktracks and Mint were also mentioned. (Note: you’ll find people who both love and hate all of these, so test, test, test before making a final decision).
By the way, it’s worth mentioning that a log-based tracking system will track every action on your site – clicks, server calls, spidering, whatever. If you want to use analytics that depend on tracking code on your pages, be sure you have the code on ALL pages. Anything without the tracking code will be invisible to your analysis software or service.
Keep in mind that these suggestions are for newbie SEOs and not for you advanced folks out there. Some of these will seem simple to power users, but someone who has never studied web analytics in the past should find these recommendations easier options for starting out.