Friday, February 25, 2011

By the Numbers

Kristian McInnis
SAIT Library

You know you have a great website and awesome e-resources that get lots of use, but how do you prove that to managers and funders?

Web analytics systems let you see exactly what is happening on your website:
  • who visits
  • for how long
  • what browser did they use
  • and a lot more….
There are several options for implementing analytics on your website, but I will focus on two popular choices, both of which are used at SAIT Library:
Which of these two products you choose largely depends on your needs and circumstances. Both Google Analytics and Webtrends serve the same function, counting visitors to your site and tracking their activity. However, each arrives  at those numbers in very different ways. Basically, Webtrends bases it’s counts on server logs while Google Analytics relies on JavaScript tags. This means every file served by your website (eg: HTML pages, JPEG images, PDF documents) gets counted by Webtrends. With Google Analytics, only webpages or URLs that included the JavaScript tracking script get counted (this generally excludes web-based objects like images, PDF documents or Flash).

Look around online and you will find quite a bit of discussion about the differences between the two products and how they count. Insights from Imulus has a comparison table outlining key features of these products and some analysis of their performance.

Google Analytics will, however, meet the needs of most users. When considering  Google Analytics keep in mind:
  • It is free of charge
  • Has several options for exporting data
  • Is simple to set up and share access
  • Supports basic conversion tracking and AdWords
  • Has lots of documentation and forums for help, but no direct client support
  • Stores all (anonymized) tracking data at Google, which may raise privacy concerns for some
  • Has no support for direct counting of outbound links, or non-HTML objects like PDFs or Flash

Webtrends also has many of the same features, though for for very large/high traffic sites or those who really want segment their visitors for marketing purposes it has some more robust cability. Otherwise, the key points about Webtrends are:
  • As commercial software, cost/year for large sites can run into the tens of thousands of dollars
  • Software can be locally hosted on your web server so visitor data is never seen by a third party
  • Supports counting outbound links and non-HMTL objects of your site
  • Has direct client support provided by help desk staff

Beyond your tracking what happens on your library website, analytic systems can also help you understand how visitors are using other online resources and tools available through your library.

It is possible track activitiy on dynanic pages, like your catalogue which generates a unique page for most queries, and identify the types of pages (search results, user account page, requests page, etc.) visitors are accessing.

Analytics can also give you insight into the use of your e-books, databases and other e-resources by patrons. One of the great challenges of gathering usage information about  these resources is that vendors often count similar activities in different ways; each having a separate defintion of activities like views, visits or accesses.

Using outbound link tracking cannot tell you what a user does within a 3rd party product or website, but does give you a common base for counting the number of times the URL for a resource is accessed.