Google Analytics just makes me sad

In my last post, I talk about how Google Analytics isn’t very helpful in providing meaningful data about technical or help content. It can’t answer questions like: Did it help the reader? Did they find it interesting? Could they accomplish their task/goal thanks to my content? What do readers really want? You know, simple questions like those.

While a little disappointing, that’s not what makes me sad.

What’s sad is that the charts on the dashboard have all the makings of dysfunctional communication. For example, the dashboard seems to tell me, “You’re not retaining readers over time.” But, it can’t, or it won’t, tell you why.

Awww, come on, gimme a hint?!


Now, if I was monitoring a funnel-site for e-commerce. It would (presumably) be more than helpful. For my site, and many other informational sites, it’s not.

It started with my dashboard

I looked at the analytics for this blog (Yes, I have Google Analytics connected to my blog. It’s not completely without constructive value for informational sites). If it isn’t obvious by the lack of ads (and traffic), I’m not trying to make money from my blog. In support of this, the Google Analytics dashboard proudly proclaims that I have nothing to worry about.

Here’s what I saw on the dashboard:

  • Traffic is down over the past week. No reason why. I can guess that part of that’s due to the fact that I’ve been ignoring the blog to try and get on top of my day job as the fall semester starts tomorrow.
    Guessing isn’t scientific. Is that the REAL reason? The most significant reason? Who knows? Certainly not Google Analytics.
    If traffic was a goal, I’d be more aggressive in finding out and keeping up on that data, in which case, I’d want to monitor the number and its supporting components. But, I would imagine that the real reasons behind my traffic numbers are in the minds of my current and latent audience, not Google Analytics.
    Unless this value is connected to other metrics, it’s just a vanity metric.
  • When do users visit my blog most often? Turns out most read it on Friday mornings. Well, now that’s both interesting and something I can work with. Or is it? Why Friday mornings? (here we go, more questions than answers).
    Is it because that’s when I happen to post them? Some correlation to other data would help clear that up.
    Is that when I tweet about new posts? I don’t know if this is a cause or an effect.
    Would knowing this help me manage a help-content site? I’m hard-pressed to imagine how. Maybe time my updates?
    For my site, I might be able to use this information to time social media interactions, (or vice versa). Again, more questions.
    I might classify this as a strategic metric–one to check periodically and see if my social media strategy (to the extent I have one) or timing when I publish blog posts need adjusting, but without additional, non-Google Analytics data, it’s not very helpful.
  • How do you acquire users? This is interesting: most are direct (they enter the URL). Very few, are from social media (so maybe I shouldn’t worry about my social media strategy vis-à-vis my blog?). The Referrals tab, however, shows that most of the recent referrals came from Tom Johnson’s I’d Rather Be Writing blog (Thanks, Tom!)
    In and of itself, given the informational nature of my blog, I’m not sure there’s much to do with this information. If I was going for traffic, I might reach out to my top referrers for the occasional bump or validate that such actions are effective (and thank them), but would that apply to a help site? Maybe.
    For revenue-generating sites, apparently this is a big deal as described a few blog posts, such as Google Analytics New User Interface: How Has It Changed? (yet, they are also still trying to figure it out). I’m going to put this into the strategic data category, for the time being, but it really depends on your site’s goals.
  • How are your active users trending over time? This seemed promising and it’s headed in the universal direction of success (for many cultures, at least): up and to the right. Although I don’t understand it, I get a favorable, visceral response from it.
  • How well do you retain users? Not very well, it turns out. That warm fuzzy from the previous graph is quickly soured by the adjacent graph that shows: of the people who view the site, only 6.5% of them return the next week, and only half of them stick around to visit a week later. I don’t know why (of if it’s even appropriate), but that makes me sad. A case of loss aversion, I suspect. Yet again, another incomplete metric and a practically useless (not to mention depressing) chart.
  • Sessions by device. This shows that my blog is read on desktop 70% of the time and on a phone or tablet the other 30% of the time. That’s interesting, but I’m not going to do much with it. It’s not going to change how I author content and my blog’s layout is already responsive and works pretty well on a mobile device. There’s not much that I can do with that information vis-a-vis my content strategy. Being generous, I’ll put this in the strategic data category.

Check Engine

For help and informational content, Google Analytics are the Check Engine light of web metrics (see item 2 in The 5 Worst Error Messages in the History of Technology). It’s amazing how well their description of why the Check Engine light is so frustrating applies to web metrics as they are applied to help content:

The Check Engine Light might as well be a little glowing dollar sign, because cars are not known for being cheap to fix. First, there’s no online forum that tells you what your Check Engine Light (illuminated, kind of yellowish) means. If you have a code scanner, you could connect it to your car and find the problem, but that’s already costing you money. And that’s just to find the problem, not fix it. Because there sure as f*** isn’t a free program you can download that will replace your head gasket for you.

Replace “Check Engine Light” with “Google Analytics” and “Car” with “your website” and it explains the problem quite well. Except for help content, what you might need to check (the audience) is not even in your website.

Use the right tool for the job

For help content, the right tool is often meaningful customer feedback, which derives from understanding why readers come to your content or why you want them to come to your content. Google Analytics doesn’t provide that for informational sites. It isn’t designed to.

Just to be clear, I’m not saying that Google Analytics data are not helpful (at least not all of the data, anyway). It’s just a tool–one designed for revenue-generating sites. Which makes sense from Google’s perspective. If your site’s making money, Google is making money. I don’t have a problem with that. My advice is to use the tool only where it fits and where it’s appropriate.

Most important of all: know what you want to know about your site before you turn to Google Analytics. Google Analytics has a lot of noise when it comes to providing usable data about informational sites (very attractive noise, but noise, nonetheless). When you ask the questions you care about, you’ll find that Google Analytics doesn’t provide many answers. When you realize this, Don’t change your questions! Change your tools. The Twilio example I describe in my last post is an excellent example of this.

In the meantime, I need to customize my Google Analytics dashboard so it doesn’t make me so sad; or, maybe I should improve my blog’s content? If only I knew which would help more…

You might ask, at this point, why don’t I collect feedback from my blog? Good question. I might soon. For now, the cost (time) of collecting and analyzing the feedback is not available (who hasn’t heard and/or used that excuse, before?). You can, of course, send me comments on Twitter. I’m actually working on the feedback problem for another site at the moment. I’ll let you know what I come up with. Stay tuned…

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