As part of the process in developing a strategic website, or any business planning for that matter, one of the first steps is to identify a target audience. These are the people to whom the business or organization wants to speak. These are the groups of people whose engagement with the organization or business brings real value.
Inevitably, the first discussion of this topic leads to two or three identified groups. Depending on the organization, they could be groups such as “government executives that reside outside of the capital”, or “18-24 year old males that are not pursuing higher education”, or other similar groups.
But, almost without exception, the final group identified is “General Public”.
It is very understandable why this is included. And there are three general reasons for this. The first is incomplete planning. The second is fear. The third is an overly-broad view of their mission.
Very few businesses and organizations enjoy the planning process. It is difficult and time-consuming, it forces tough decisions, and sometimes it just seems to get in the way of action. But without some level of planning, success is then simply a matter of luck. Still, the planning often gets pushed to the back burner, or done at a very superficial level.
Even if the planning is taken seriously, the second reason for considering the general public as a target market is fear. Or more precisely, the fear of missing out on something. When in business or trying to advance the goals of an organization, it is easy to be seduced by and dream about the big score. In other words, the fear that there is someone out there that you will miss often overrides the logic of pursing the known return. Hence, the inclusion of “general public” to cover everything else.
Finally, every business or organization has to realize that not every single person will be converted to their mission if only they have the opportunity to convince them. Despite how passionately a business or organization believes in and pursues their mission, not everyone is interested. That is a difficult notion for some people to accept, particularly among some non-profit organizations.
But all of these notions are counter-productive. Any organization or business requires an expenditure of resources to meet their goals – whether those goals are profit-based or not. The reality is that it is impossible to speak to everyone equally and in the same manner. Whether or not it is planned, decisions and trade-offs have to be made. Identifying target groups allow these decisions to be made in a logical instead of haphazard manner. It produces the greatest benefit from those resources expended.
And what about the fear aspect – that something will be missed? There are two responses to this. First, what does that potential missed opportunity look like? If this can be expressed, then this identifies another target group to add to the list. If this cannot be expressed, then there is no way of addressing this opportunity, so why not just speak to the people that will provide a good return?
The whole purpose of planning is to produce strategies to apply to operations that will advance the goals of the business or organization. Target audiences are those groups on which it is worth expending resources because there is the expectation of a beneficial return. So consider what it means when “general public” is included. Those very specific groups that provide a value to the organization of business have already been removed. General public now means the entire population, minus those that are expected to provide a benefit. Is it really worth considering this as a group on which to spend time, money, or effort?
It really is true that if you try to speak to everyone, then you will be speaking to no one. Your message must be crafted to speak to your target market. Listing “general public” as your target audience just gets in the way of what you really need to be successful.
I do not think it means what you think it means.
Inigo Montoya, from The Princess Bride
Sorry to piggyback off one of the classic lines from The Princess Bride, but sometimes your Google Analytics data does not mean what you think it means, as I found out from a real world example.
Recently, I was starting analysis for a new website, and found some strange results. Looking back from the launch of the website to the present day, there was a major discrepancy between the number of Unique Visitors and the number of New Visitors to the website.
I am well aware of the difference between the two metrics, and equally well aware that this is a common question that is asked on Google Analytics forums. The issue behind most of the questions has been answered many times, including on the Google Analytics blog. The crux of the problem, most of the time, is that a visitor can be counted as a unique visitor, but not a new visitor, if they have visited your website before the time period you are analyzing.
But, in this case, we were looking at the data from the launch of the website to the present. So, there was no such thing as visiting the site before the analysis period, and we would have expected the New Visitors to match with the Unique Visitors. But, as can be seen from the chart below, this was not the case. The number of Unique Visitors was much greater than the number of New Visitors.
My first instinct was to do an internet search for anyone that had seen this discrepancy. Although I found lots of references to a difference between the two, it always occurred for a given time range, or for a subset of pages. So, the internet was no help.
Finally, I managed to track down what was happening, and it had to do with how the site was set up, and how the tracking code was implemented on the site. The catch was that this was not a stand-alone site. It was a site that was a subset of a larger site. To complicate matters, when the analytics were set up, two trackers were placed on the pages of this subset – one for the master site (XXXXX-1) and one for the subset (XXXXX-2). So, every hit on the subset was actually being reported for two Analytics properties.
Now, here’s the catch and the crux of the problem. When Google Analytics checks for a New Visitor, it looks at the properties of the cookies on the site. And what it checks for is whether the root URL of the site matches the cookie. Since my subset had the same root URL as the master site, it was identifying people as return visitors even though it was their first visit to the subset.
So, if a visitor had been to the master site six months ago, and then came to the subset on the day of launch, they were being regarded as a Unique Visitor by Google Analytics, but not as a New Visitor. The only people that were New Visitors were those that had never been to the master site before coming to the subset of pages.
In the end, understanding how this metric was being counted in our particular case actually opened the door for a couple of measures involving interaction between the two parts of the site. But, it demonstrates how important it is to understand exactly how Google Analytics compiles data, and how sometimes the data is not exactly what you think it is.
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In Part 1 of this series, we looked at the basics of creating a Google Analytics dashboard, and in Part 2, we looked at events and goals as a critical part of a comprehensive web strategy, and how they show up on your dashboard. Today, in Part 3, we’re going to look at customizing your dashboard widgets.
Now that your dashboard has been running for a little while (and hopefully you have a few downloads to report), it’s time to start customizing it. We’re going to work with the “Goal Conversion Rate” widget. This shows the percentage of visits that resulted in a conversion to one of your goals. The widget should look something like the image below.
But now, suppose we want to make a change. We’ve decided, perhaps because of a business initiative or new focus, that we don’t want to lump all of the goals into one pot, but we want to know what’s happening specifically with Goal 1 (which we named “Product XYZ”). Also, we only want to know what’s happening with this goal in Canada, because we’ve just launched a nationwide advertising campaign, so we’re looking for feedback only in the one country.
Fortunately, our dashboard widgets provide some easy-to-use means of changing our data. If you put your cursor in the top left corner of the “Goal Conversion Rate” widget, you’ll see two symbols appear. Click on the one that looks like a pencil, and this will take you to the Widget Settings screen, as seen below.
This is where we can make some changes to the data being shown, for instance, limiting the goal conversions to our first goal. In the pull-down that says “Graph the following metric over time”, change this from the current “Goal Conversion Rate” to “Product XYZ (Goal 1 Conversion Rate)”. Now, we want to only consider Canadian traffic, so we’ll do that with a filter. Click on “Add a filter”. Where it says “select a Dimension”, set this equal to “Country/Territory”. In the final box, enter “Canada”. We may want to change our title at this point to say “Goal Conversion Rate – Product XYZ in Canada”, then click on “Save”.
And you’re done. Now, your widget shows you exactly the data that you had determined is important for your business.
But, now what about adding new widgets to the dashboard? There are two ways of doing this. First, you can build a widget from scratch, right from the dashboard, using the same interface that we used to edit our first widget. But there’s an even easier way than this. Probably, if it is some data that is important to you, then you have already looked at it in the standard or custom Google Analytics report. While you’re looking at the data in reports, you can add it to your dashboard with a single click. Just above your report, you’ll notice that it says “Add to Dashboard”. Just click on this, then tell Google Analytics which dashboard you want to use, and it will be added automatically.
Data interpretation and presentation are what makes Google Analytics such a powerful tool. The dashboard feature is a great place to keep your at-a-glance charts, perfectly designed to show you what is important.
But, as is often the case with Analytics, the hard part is deciding what is important, and that is a business decision. Fortunately, once this decision has been made, Google Analytics is there with the tools to help you along the way.
In part 1 of this series, we discussed the initial steps in creating your dashboard, and how to delete what isn’t important. In this post, we’ll go through the steps in creating events and goals, then we’ll add some some important items to the dashboard.
Our destination in this post is going to be to add some measurement around visitors that download some important documentation – for instance, a product specification form. Perhaps we have an on-line business model where customers download a specification form in the hope that this then leads to an on-line purchase. But now the boss is complaining that he doesn’t think the form is very attractive, and believes that a redesign would prompt more people to follow up on an order.
But the problem is that we don’t even know off hand how many times our specification sheet is downloaded, much less whether or not the redesign leads to more actions. So, as a first step, let’s get Google Analytics to record whenever a visitor downloads the specification sheet.
If you were to look at the HTML code underlying the page with your specification sheet, it would look something like this:
<a href=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/Documents/Product XYZ.pdf”><img alt=”Download product XYZ specification sheet.” src=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/images/DownloadIcon.jpg”></a>
We are going to add a Google Analytics Event to this code. An Event is essentially a little piece of code that, whenever it is activated, tells Google Analytics to take notice and record it. What we can do is add it to the HTML code above so that whenever a visitor clicks on the download button, Google Analytics records that action.
If you look in the Google Analytics documentation, you’ll find a specification for the _trackEvent method that says the following:
_trackEvent(category, action, opt_label, opt_value, opt_noninteraction)
Below, we’ll show an example of how to put this into your code, but first we have to figure out what all these parameters mean, and how best to set them. The official description of each of these parameters are:
- category (required): The name you supply for the group of objects you want to track.
- action (required): A string that is uniquely paired with each category, and commonly used to define the type of user interaction for the web object.
- label (optional): An optional string to provide additional dimensions to the event data.
- value (optional): An integer that you can use to provide numerical data about the user event.
- non-interaction (optional): A boolean that when set to true, indicates that the event hit will not be used in bounce-rate calculation.
In essence, Google Analytics provides four items that you can customize to suit how you need to track the action. You have total freedom to set the three string and one integer parameters as you need. So, for our example, we may want to have the following
- category: ‘Product XYZ’
- Action: ‘Download Spec Sheet’
- Label: ‘Product Page’
- Value: 1
- Non-Interaction: True
So, to implement this event in your website, you have to update your HTML to read:
<a onclick=”_gaq.push(['_trackEvent', 'Product XYZ', 'Download Spec Sheet', 'Product Page', 1, true]);” href=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/Documents/Product XYZ.pdf”><img alt=”Download product XYZ specification sheet.” src=”http://www.yourwebsite.com/images/DownloadIcon.jpg”></a>
Now, every time a visitor downloads your document, Google Analytics knows about it. From your perspective, since you have identified this as an important action, you now have a means to keep track of how often it is being downloaded.
Now, let’s set this up as a goal in your Google Analytics. Once you’ve logged into Google Analytics, click on the “Admin” near the top of the page on the right. If you have multiple profiles, at this point, you may have to select the profile you’re working on. Once you do this, you should see a “Goals” tab. Click on this, and you should see a screen like the one below.
Google Analytics lets you specify up to 20 goals, in four sets of five each. We are going to set up a goal in the first set, so click on the “+ Goal” in the first goal set. In the next screen, give the goal a name (say “Product XYZ”), and specify that this is an Event. For the goal details, choose the category option “that is equal to”, and fill in “Product XYZ” in the box. Leave all the other options either empty or equal to the defaults. Once you have done this, choose “Save”.
Congratulations, you’ve just set up your first goal in Google Analytics. Now, remember when we first set up the dashboard, we left in the widgets dealing with Goals? Now, whenever we get someone downloading your product specifications, Google Analytics will record that action, and your dashboard will update.
Creating events in Google Analytics is very powerful and flexible, particularly when we combine them with goals and add them to the dashboard. In the example above, when we defined our goal, the only event parameter that we specified was “Product XYZ”. So now, if we have set up other events dealing with “Product XYZ”, such as a visitor downloading an order form, or perhaps a visitor clicking on a button that automatically generates an inquiry about Product XYZ, so long as you have set the Event Category equal to “Product XYZ”, all activity around this product will generate events, and can be analyzed together through this one goal.
The biggest strength of Google Analytics is the depth and detail of the data it can provide.
The biggest weakness of Google Analytics is the depth and detail of the data it can provide.
Once you start delving into Google Analytics, the easiest task possible is to get totally lost in the data. Click here, click there, find a fascinating number or graph, marvel at the data portrayal, be amazed that someone from Azerbaijan found your website, then start over again. Before you know it, the day has gone by, and although it may have been fun playing, you have been anything but productive. And, odds are, though you have sifted through pages of numbers, facts, and performance measures, you probably have not made a single decision based on the data. There is just too much to absorb all at once.
Now is to make friends with the Dashboard. This is the first part of a series of blog entries discussing the Google Analytics Dashboard, complete with some examples, and some limitations.
The Dashboard in Google Analytics is like your executive summary. This is the place to find all of the important, big picture stuff that is actually going to have an impact. But before you can measure the important stuff, you first have to determine what is important. And how do you do this? Through your organization goals and Key Effectiveness Indicators.
First off, where do you find the Dashboard? In your Google Analytics, first click on “Home”, then you’ll see “Dashboards” down the side. Click on Dashboards, and just below it, you’ll see a line that says “+ New Dashboard”. Click on this, and you’ll be given the option for a “Blank Canvas” or a “Starter Dashboard”.
For this example, we’ll click on “Starter Dashboard”. Give it a name, we’ll call it “Download Info Sheet”. Then click on “Create Dashboard”. You’ll see that the dashboard is now added to the list at the left. For our fictional example, we’re going to assume that we have a website with a very important collection of downloads, and it is important to us that visitors download these information sheets. So that’s why we’ve created a special dashboard just to record some important information about information sheet downloads.
When you first start off, Google has a few basic items already here. We’re going to start with some of these items, while we delete others. But the key is that you can customize what you see to reflect what is important to you. Here is where the customization begins, and Google Analytics makes it pretty easy to add whatever is important, and take away what isn’t.
Each item on your dashboard is called a widget. Notice how every widget on your dashboard has a little spoked wheel on the top right corner. This is to access the settings for the widget, where you can change what it displayed, where you can filter what is shown, or you can delete the widget entirely. One of the best moves you can probably make at this point is to delete some of these items.
So, what is the first step? Try out your delete on these widgets. Take away all but the “Goal Conversion Rate” and the “Goal Completions and Goal Conversion Rate by Source” widgets. Remember, this exercise is going to look at your level of success in enticing people to download your information sheet. While the other widgets give interesting information, they are not pertinent to the question at hand, so we’ll take them out.
In this post, we’ve discussed creating dashboards, and removing non-important information. In the next post, we’ll talk about goals and events, how to create them, why they are important for Analytics, and how to add them to our dashboard.
Recently, I was working with an organization that was building a new website. My role was to help with the strategic role of the website, work on SEO and analytics, and help them evaluate the bids submitted from a number of companies to build the actual site.
Included in one of the bids was a line item in the budget, under the heading Search Engine Optimization, and the amount of $250.
I’ve seen this before from various bidders, and I have to say that I can’t blame them for putting in an item like this. Companies and organizations have heard of this magical thing called “SEO” that is the magic bullet that guarantees internet success. Unfortunately, not including a line item like this may have the consequence of having their bid disqualified. I can see the decision-makers standing around a table, five or six bids laid out in front of them, and someone saying “let’s dismiss this one out of hand – they don’t say SEO, while this guy does SEO, and it’s only $250″.
Problem is, for only $250 you don’t get real SEO. Only some window dressing, if you even get that.
In this instance, I had been working with this group for a bit of time on developing a web strategy, so they knew what was involved in Search Engine Optimization. They knew what the process entailed. They knew that you needed to understand your organization’s goals and strategies and tie them to the website. They knew that you had to identify your main target demographics and put yourself in their shoes. They knew you had to research actual web usage to develop keywords. They knew content had to correspond to the keywords and target audiences. They knew you had to customize your measurement software and analyze performance. They knew SEO was not a one-time only item.
And they knew that you can’t do all this for $250.
So what was included in the $250? Who knows, but I would not be surprised if it included items such as filling in meta keywords (which has absolutely no impact anymore). Maybe submitting a sitemap (which has very minimal impact).
Search Engine Optimization is not a small add-on. Sure, they may be some technical items that you can do to an existing website to make it more search-engine friendly. But when building a new website, those should be as standard as windshield wipers on a car.
If you are paying an extra $250 for “Search Engine Optimization” on a new website, you should be quite suspicious. It means one of two things. Either the company you are talking to does not know what SEO really is. Or they are trying to charge you extra for the windshield wipers.
For a non-profit organization, it is critical that people become engaged. The organization has a mission, and advancing that mission inevitably involves engaging people for financial, volunteer, or other kinds of support. Society doesn’t change without a push, and the organization is there to provide that motivation. The website plays a role. Exactly what that role is may change between organizations, and in today’s world, it’s almost guaranteed to be an important factor.
But meeting the goals of a non-profit organization is an ongoing process. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to advance the mission without being able to measure progress. In measuring engagment with people through a website and other internet strategies, having tracking tools such as Google Analytics is only the tip of the iceberg. Even more important than gathering the numbers is having the ability to understand and interpret what the data is saying.
Engagment is not a yes/no option – different people will engage with your organization at different levels. It is up to each organization to build their own model for levels of engagment, and to use their website to support their efforts.
In the for-profit world, this is a well-studied topic, often referred to by terms like “marketing funnel” or “customer path”. It is the process that their customers pass through that eventually leads to buying a company’s products or services. It usually looks something like the picture below, although each business will have their own terms, and may add or subtract stages to the process depending on their particular situation.
For non-profits, there are similar paths and stages for how people are engaged. Although there are quite a few models out there for a “non-profit marketing funnel”, the reality is that the goals of non-profits are much more varied than in the for-profit world, so the models are themselves more varied. What is your ultimate level of engagment? Is it a volunteer? Is it a regular donor? Is it a commitment to action? Is it a participant? Maybe there are multiple streams that are applicable to the organization. Perhaps it looks like the diagram below, or perhaps it looks more like a plate of spaghetti, with multiple directions.
Although the web site is an important component of engagment, it has to be remembered that a website is simply a tool to help a non-profit meet its goal. It should be designed keeping in mind people who are at the various levels of engagment in your model, and the website can encourage them to advance up the chain. It should be easy for someone at each level to find the information that they can relate to, and it should provide what they need to move to the next level. And it should be measured as it happens.
There are a variety of website actions that can be recorded, and they can be interpreted in terms of the levels of engagement model for the organization, such as
- visiting multiple pages
- downloading white papers or fact sheets
- making an on-line donation
- participating in social media
- contributing to a forum
- joining a mailing list
- sending an email
- inquiring for nearest location
- signing an on-line petition
The trick is to link the user’s action back to the engagment model, to use it as an indication of the success of the website in helping meet the organization’s goals.
Even before Dr Jekyll self-dosed himself to become Mr Hyde, the idea of self-experimentation runs through our culture. As any fan of comic books know, without self-experimentation, half of the super heroes of our fantasy world would never have come into existence.
In the world of search engine optimization, our industry has laid out a series of best practices, based on guidance from the search engine companies themselves and from the experience of practitioners. And, like in the world of science, it is only through experimentation that we can really understand the world around ourselves, and improve our base of knowledge.
But, when someone is paying you to improve the returns of their website, it would be unethical to try experiments on their website just to see what will happen. So, we need another way.
In my personal case, I have access to a second business. I am co-owner (with my wife) of The Turret Bell. This is a small seasonal store that specializes in Prince Edward Island Books and Music, and has a year-round on-line sales outlet. For years now, I’ve been using this site as my own private little plaything, trying different SEO and analytics ideas. Over time, partly as a result of my experiments and partly because of some fundamental problems with the structure of the site, it had become a bit disorganized and unfocused. So, I embarked upon a complete redesign of the site.
And this is where I decided to play Dr Jekyll, and break some of the rules. The only one who would be hurt would be me and my site, and in the end I’d have a better idea of what would happen if I wasn’t careful.
In this case, I wasn’t changing the location of the site. It would still be at www.turretbell.com. But, I thought I’d drop in the new site and replace the old site without taking basic SEO precautions like page redirects.
I tracked what would happen with a handful of keyword phrases, items that we previously ranked highly for, such as “Prince Edward Island Books”. I fully expected to see a drop in ranking, but was a bit surprised by the impact of my experiment.
First, within a day or two, Google Webmaster Tools started screaming at me about broken links, since some of the old pages were still resolving, but the links off those pages were dead-ends. Then the ranking dropped. For instance, for “Prince Edward Island Books”, we were in the top two or three before the change.
After the change, we dropped right out of the top 50. Essentially, we became invisible.
I was expecting a hit, but the extent of the drop took me by surprise. It really emphasized to me the importance of planning and carefully executing a strategy for making major changes to a website. This little experiment sure taught me a lesson about making sure that everything is lined up carefully when updating a website.
Unfortunately, it’ll now be a bit before this website recovers. But I certainly have a better appreciation now for the potential consequences next time a client comes to me with plans for a new website.
In the meantime, if anyone wants to purchase some PEI Books and Music, I have a website that could use the help.
There is certainly no shortage of search engine optimization tips, tricks, advice, and rules available on the internet. However, the vast majority of the articles you wil find are oriented towards business sites, not non-profit or charitable organizations. Despite there being a large overlap between the SEO tactics for businesses and non-profits, there are some fundamental strategic differences.
The most fundamental difference, of course, is the purpose of the organization. Businesses exist to make money. An investment has to have a positive financial return, bringing in more money than was expended. Money is the objective. For non-profits, this is flipped on its head. Money is not the objective, but it is the constraint. Whatever the objective of the non-profit organization, there are very few that have an unlimited pot of money, so they have to figure out how best to achieve their goals within the constraint of their budget.
Optimizing for non-profits is, in my opinion, a much more difficult problem. The objective is often more difficult to quantify, making evaluation more difficult.
So, how does this affect search engine optimization. On the surface, it seems that it is the same beast – get the highest rankings and the most visits possible. But that’s only the first layer of the puzzle. Not all visitors are equal. While the business has the option of just increasing their budget and ignoring the bad hits (so long as the overall profit keeps growing), the non-profit does not have that flexibility. Increasing an investment in one area means reducing an investment elsewhere.
That means that evaluating your effectiveness is even more important. But it’s also harder.
Many non-profits invest in SEO or pay-per-click advertising, and judge the impact of their efforts through website hits. But that isn’t good enough. The organization has to go further, and determine the value of a visitor. Since it’s not about the profit, this is not an easy task, but it is possible, especially if the website is developed with this in mind.
Search engine optimization is not just about increasing your ranking and hits. It is much more difficult and complex that that. And if you’re a non-profit, the task is even more difficult.
So, what can you do? Many of the business-oriented tactics do apply, which is good. But evaluating their effectiveness is somewhat different when you don’t have a profit objective. It all comes down to determining a value of your visitors, which comes from your organization’s objectives. Why do you exist? What is a first-time visitor worth? Does a repeat visitor indicate success more than a first-time visitor? How about a subscriber? Someone who donates? What are the different levels of engagment, and what is each of them worth? These are all very difficult questions for an organization to answer, but they are essential for a true SEO effort for non-profits.
Search Engine Optimization is a sexy term these days. It has worked its way into the standard business language over the past couple of years, and is today’s version of the advertisement in Yellow Pages – something that every business feels it needs, or they might be left behind by their more aggressive competitors.
But even given its sudden prevalence in business circles, search engine optimization is still little understood, particularly by small and medium sized businesses and organizations that do not have the time and resources to dedicate to the topic. After all, it is a pretty technical field that requires specialist knowledge, tools, and skills.
Or does it?
If I sit down with a small business owner to discuss their website, I can talk on for hours about canonicalization, site hierarchy, URL structure, user agents, and a number of other technical issues. But is that really the most important thing about search engine optimization? Is it a topic that is so specific that you need advanced degrees to understand?
No, it isn’t.
So, what is the one piece of advice I would pass on to the small business owner? Take a look at your website from the perspective of your customer or potential customer. Look at your content.
Consider your website from a fresh perspective. Look at every page individually. Who is this page speaking to? Is it targeting your existing customer? Is it targeting a first-time visitor? Is it targeting the guy around the corner who just wants to know what time you are open?
The most important part of search engine optimization is your content. What does your website say, and who is it speaking to? Is it a match for your potential customer, and for what they are asking from the search engines?
For almost any website, the one improvement that can be made is to improve content. Make sure that you are speaking to your target audience clearly and without jargon. That is the most important factor in search engine optimization.