Analytics and government Web spaces: together or apart?

11 11 2009

Analytics are important in an online, multimedia world. I have touched upon various facets of this reality in prior posts. But one aspect I have not heard much about is how analytics can be used for public sector websites, in this sense government websites.

I had the privilege this morning to sit in on a presentation by Mark Tosczak, Account Supervisor at RLF Communications, a public relations and marketing firm with offices in Greensboro, North Carolina. Even though his perspective represents 15 years of professional communication experience largely in the marketing and public relation fields, several key points he made hold relevance to government websites.

Analytics should be used to assist in understanding how people use Web based resources. Furthering this line of thought, Tosczak made a clear distinction that in order to put the analytics data to work it must be understood. Compiling large data sets will do nothing to improve Web performance or improve user experience if nobody on the development end of a Website has any idea what the data indicates.

Is it possible that the same information that can be pulled from analytics can be deciphered by other means? I think so. Additionally, I think analytics and other approaches should have their own respective seats at the proverbial Internet table. This is exactly the point made by Avinash Kaushik, a Google Analytics expert who heads the Googlepublicsector blog. He emphasizes that instead of relying on vast data streams and trying to interpret them, government websites could accomplish just as much by simply asking visitors directly how their visit to a specified government website turned out.

  • Did they find what they were looking for?
  • How easy was navigating the site?
  • Will they return in the future?

All of these simple questions can be answered via a quick exit survey, minus any analytics.

When analytics are used however, they should be closely tied towards goals. Tosczak indicated that goals are closely tied to measurable actions. Analytics are rather useful in reflecting these measurements. This may also be true for government websites, although it can be very difficult to isolate an exact goal for some political related spaces online.

Overall, analytics can play an important role in helping to understand what is happening online. However, they should not be the only source to guide major decisions relating to usability and website design. That is why simple surveys hold power in this process, in tandem with analytics. Considering both Tosczak, focusing primarily on public relations and marketing, and Kaushik, focusing primarily on government topics, regard surveys as useful applications for gathering information, this should serve as a signal that not all eggs should be placed in the analytics basket. Instead, they should be part of a omnidirectional approach for noting what is happening online and how to advance an web site using the collective intelligence from multiple types of resources.

Analytics awareness, Google has it covered

4 11 2009

Knock-knock. Who’s there? Someone with the IP address What does that mean? Why is the person choosing to visit a particular website over another? What are they doing while visiting the site?

These are questions that analytics can help answer. As a result, analytics are increasingly becoming a go-to resource for websites to garner necessary insights on how users interact with their content. I have previously blogged about analytics because they are important and becoming increasingly so as time goes on. With that being said, this post is going to focus primarily on attempts by Google to harness the power of analytics for people who are not expert web designers.

The main resource behind the Google Analytics tool is the Google Conversion University. In essence, the compilation of materials is similar to that of an institution of higher learning focused solely on analytics, what they do, how to apply them and how to make sense of them. The Conversion University contains:

  • two hours worth of video tutorials
  • video segments range between three and ten minutes each
  • collectively provide powerful knowledge for users to apply towards their own purposes

Considering the depth and breadth of features offered through Google Analytics, I am going to touch upon only a few of the most recent additions I find intriguing. User engagement is one example of recent refinement. Since every website is unique in its own right, it makes sense to measure analytics that reflect data which is catering to the websites needs. Up to recently, engaging a user typically meant them placing an item into an online shopping cart or registering for a mailing list. It was a pretty limited definition of engaging. Now, Google Analytics has moved beyond these regimented standards. Websites can define their own definition of measuring user engagement. Examples include:

  • time spend on a page
  • number of pages viewed
  • comments posted on a page
  • link use for accessing more in-depth knowledge of material teased from the original page

Clearly, much greater customization is available thanks to these newer analytics featurs.

Advancing analytics customization even further, analytics can now be tailored to generate specific titles upon users based upon a set of predefined actions. For instance, if a user visited a website and viewed an animation of the weather forecast, a tag can be assigned to that user labeled something like “weather”. Now, website designers can look at the data collected from numerous “weather” users and compare patterns of the way users rely upon website resources. Did they commonly move to other pages after viewing the weather animation or did they leave the website completely? Perhaps there is a trend for these users to check out the entertainment section of the site when the weather forecast for the weekend is pleasant. If so, can content and advertising be altered to better reach these users? These are just a couple of the specific resources that now exist with Google Analytics.

In order to understand what they do and how they can be best be applied, Google now offers tutorials on Google Conversion University. In fact, if you are interested in not just learning about these resources but want to prove that you understand their application, try taking the Google Analytics Qualification Test. This test is used to determine if a user knows enough about analytics that Google is willing to grant them a certificate to reflect this fact. I plan on taking advantage of this opportunity in the near future. If only I could have Google Analytics show trends in my daily routines where extra time exists for watching the tutorials……maybe someday.

Don’t forget a dose of analytics!

23 10 2009

If you have any familiarity with my blog, or if you don’t for that matter, you now know I am a student of interactive media. When people ask what I am studying and I tell them this, the common reaction is a perplexed look on the person’s face as they ask “What is that?” Instead of going into the explanation here, I wanted to share an insightful experience that may help to clarify the topic.
I had an opportunity earlier today to sit in on a talk by Travis Lusk, New Media Manager at WCBS Radio in New York City. He is someone who is taking traditional media, radio in this case, and helping to transition it into an online, interactive space. Highlighting the means by which this is done, he mainly discussed the importance of analytics to the online environment.

Does the mention of analytics scare you? Bring back memories of high school math classes you thought you erased from your memory years ago? I will be the first to admit I am not a math person, neither are most folks within the greater communication fields. There is no need to worry though as Lusk explained analytics do not require you to have an undue degree of mathematical knowledge under your belt to make effective use of the tools within the interactive media environment. He did specify however that it is critical to understand why people are attracted to certain content. I take this to mean you have to establish a way of getting inside the people’s heads. Analytics are a tool for providing that valuable feedback and explanations through pattern analysis.

Speaking of tracking, I was surprised when Lusk divulged just how much information online analytic tools provide. For instance, he showcased on the projection screen some examples of what data he could access regarding any particular user who visited one of the several CBS Radio websites he is in charge over. This information included the visitors name, the time spent within the website and, most eye opening to me, the location from which the user was viewing the website. Just remember, somebody is watching!

To be clear, I am not saying or even suggesting that analytics are intended to be applied for malicious purposes. Could they be, sure. Could my computer crash at any moment, sure. Lusk did provide some encouraging insight, for those who are a little on-edge by this point, about making personal connections with website users. He emphasized that if you as a media expert can reach out and touch a user, not physically but in terms of a value perspective, just once, you have made them feel important. This is tremendously important in building loyalty to foster a long-term relationship. He does this regularly when responding to user emails. Instead of having a generic company email address to respond to user’s questions, he replies with an email address that contains his name. This little step helps to establish a connection, instead of users feeling like they are one of many cogs in the machinery of modern media.

All-in-all, it was an interesting talk. Ponder over some of those points and remember that somewhere, somehow, someone is likely taking note of your actions online!