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Web Analytics: Understanding Key Metrics

Web analytics tools, such as Google Analytics, help you track and analyze the performance of your website or blog. The sheer number of metrics can be somewhat overwhelming; there’s a lot of data available. What, then, are the key metrics for analyzing your website’s performance? There are a handful that are important to all websites. In this article, Michael Miller, author of Sams Teach Yourself Google Analytics in 10 Minutes, guides you through the most important metrics for analyzing website performance.
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Web analytics is the measurement, collection, and reporting of data regarding web usage. You use web analytics to look at the visitors to your website—who they are, where they came from, why they’re visiting, and what they’re doing during a visit.

The goal with web analytics is to better understand how a website is being used. You can then use that information to optimize the site's usage. It's more than just basic data collection; it's an attempt to learn more about how people use a site, and why.

You track web analytics with any number of online tools. Some, such as Google Analytics, are free. Others, such as Webmetrics, are available on a paid subscription basis.

These web analytics tools track many different data points regarding your site’s visitors. In fact, the sheer number of metrics can be somewhat overwhelming; there’s a lot of data available. What, then, are the key metrics for analyzing your website’s performance? There are a handful that are important to all websites.


One of the first things that people want to know about a website is how much traffic it has. There are two ways to measure traffic—in terms of people who visit, or the pages they view.

This leads us to our first key metric: visitors. A visitor is simply a person who visits your site. (More accurately, it’s a visit from a web browser; it’s assumed that a human being is using the browser.) The more visitors you have, the busier your site is.

The raw visitors number is interesting, but it’s not as relevant as the number of unique visitors your site receives. That’s because raw visitor data records multiple visits by a single individual as separate visits, which is a little misleading; it counts some people multiple times. For that reason, it’s better to track unique visitors, which counts a visitor only once, even if he makes multiple visits to your site within a 24-hour period.


The other traffic metric to look at is pageviews. A pageview is recorded when a visitor views a page on your site. The more pageviews you record, the better.

Obviously, you can (and probably will) have more pageviews than you have visitors. That’s because people can visit a page more than once a day. That’s not a bad thing.

Together, the visitors and pageviews metrics tell you how many people are viewing your site, and how many times your site is being accessed during a given time period. These metrics let you know just how popular your site is.

Time Onsite

A satisfied visitor spends quality time on your site; they just don’t hit a page and then leave. To that end, you want to track the time onsite or session duration metric, which measures the average amount of time that visitors spend on your website per visit.

A shorter session duration may indicate that visitors don't like what they see and thus leave prematurely. Conversely, a longer session duration typically indicates that visitors like what they see and are actually absorbing your site content.

Top Pages

It’s always good to know which are the most popular pages on your website—that is, the pages that accrue the most pageviews over time. This is the top pages metric, literally a listing of pages with the most pageviews, in descending order.

For most sites, your home page will rank at the top of this list, but that’s not universally the case. For example, an e-commerce site might find the checkout page at the top of the top pages list.

Top Landing Pages

Any discussion of top pages leads to the top landing pages metric. A landing page is simply the first page on your site that a visitor lands on.

Many visitors land on your home page, of course, but just as many don't. A visitor can land on an internal page if that page is linked to from another site, or if that page pops up in Google's search results for a given query. You may even create dedicated landing pages for your pay-per-click (PPC) ads and press releases, so that visitors find a page specifically designed for the topic at hand.

Your top landing pages are arguably the most important pages on your site, as they’re what visitors are coming to see. You need to know what the top landing pages are for your site, whether they’re by your design or reached organically via search, and maximize the impact of those pages.

Traffic Sources

Where are your site visitors coming from? How and why are they finding your site? This information is key to fine-tuning your web marketing activities.

To that end, the traffic sources metric helps you judge the effectiveness of your web marketing efforts. By definition, a traffic source is the web page visited just before a visitor hits your site. Something on that page drove them to your site.

There are any number of possible traffic sources, including the following:

  • Search engines, such as Google, Yahoo!, and Bing.
  • Referring sites that include links to your site. These are presumably non-paid (i.e., not advertising related) links.
  • Advertisements, such as PPC ads from Google AdWords. Visitors click through the links in these ads to visit your site.
  • Direct traffic, where a visitor manually enters your site's URL. Most direct traffic comes to your site’s home page.

You want to know a few things about these traffic sources. First, it’s important to know what percentage of visitors you get from each type of traffic source. This tells you what part of your web marketing plan is most effective.

Second, you want to identify the major traffic sources, especially those that are not ad-related, to determine why they’re driving traffic to your site. Has your site been mentioned in an article or blog post? If so, that might be a site or blog you want to cultivate in the future.


Still on the topic of traffic sources, most sites discover that the majority of traffic comes from the major search engines. That’s interesting in and of itself, but it doesn’t tell you everything you need to know.

In particular, you want to know what people were searching for that caused them to reach your site. To that end, you want to look at the keywords metric, those top terms searched for by visitors who came to your site from a search engine. Knowing what people are searching for helps you determine what keywords to use in your site's search engine optimization (SEO), as well as what keywords to purchase in your PPC advertising.

Geographic Data

There’s even more visitor data available. Some web analytics tools can tell you where visitors live, in terms of countries, states, and even cities. If you're marketing regionally or locally, this is great information. If you run a dry cleaning business in Boston, for example, and find out you're getting a ton of visitors from Brazil, you might want to do a little digging and find out why; it's wasted bandwidth. In any case, this is interesting data to look at.

Bounce Rate

How visitors come to your is important, but so is how they leave. Pages that don’t have useful or interesting content are likely to drive visitors away—before they can visit another page.

To that end, it’s important to track the bounce rate for a page or website. This metric tracks those visits where the visitor enters and exits your site on the same page, without visiting any other pages in-between. Obviously, a high bounce rate is a bad thing.

You can measure bounce rate for your entire site and for individual pages. By identifying pages with a high bounce rate, you can determine which landing pages are retaining customers, and which aren’t.

Percent Exit

Related to bounce rate is the percent exit metric. This metric measures the percentage of users who exit from a given web page.

The percent exit metric is interesting in that a high number could indicate people getting frustrated with a given page. It can also indicate a natural exit point from your site, of course, such as the conclusion page of your checkout process.

Top Exit Pages

It's also interesting to learn which pages people leave from—that is, the top exit pages on your site. Ideally, these are pages created to be exit pages, such as your "thank you for ordering" pages.

You have some investigating to do if you find people are exiting from pages that should be leading them to other pages instead. You typically want visitors to follow one or more specified paths through your site, and any page that isn't propelling visitors further down that path needs to be examined.

Advertising Metrics

When you’re tracking pay-per-click ad performance, additional metrics come into play. Obviously, you still want to look at traditional metrics such as visitors and pageviews and top landing pages, but you should also examine the following:

  • Average cost per click (CPC), or the average amount you pay for each click on an ad. Your average CPC will almost always be less than the maximum CPC you bid for a keyword.
  • Average position, which tracks where a page appears in a search engine’s search results for a given keyword. The higher your average position, the more relevant your page is to that query—and the more traffic you’ll get from that search engine.
  • Conversions, which measures the number of ad customers who actually do what you want them to do—provide contact information, download a file, or make a purchase.
  • Conversion rate, which calculates the percentage of total customers who click on your ad and then convert into a sale or other action.

You can track each of these advertising-related metrics in total for a campaign, for each advertisement within a campaign, or for each keyword you purchase.

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