In this post, the first in a series, we discuss how you can use Google Analytics and Jetpack to determine how people are using your Commons site, make it more user friendly, and encourage folks to interact with your site in ways that facilitate your site’s purpose (see Part II here). At a glance, these tools give you access to an intimidating amount of data. In this introduction we’ll discuss why you might care at all about your site’s analytics.
Why the Social Media Fellows use data to analyze sites on the Commons
As social mediums, it’s our job to help programs create and support vibrant online communities and much of our work focuses on the largest social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, and of course the Commons. But, we’re also always experimenting with new platforms, too, looking for innovative ways to share content engage new communities (some examples include Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+). As a result, one of the most important jobs we have is figuring out how to measure engagement. How do you know if people are seeing your content and sharing or commenting? What kind of discussions are you facilitating and how do you encourage more?
At the end of each semester, each fellow produces a report for their program answering these kinds of questions and making suggestions for improvements. Most of the time, when we’re focused on our programs’ Commons sites, we use Google Analytics or Jetpack to determine user behavior, measuring how often people are accessing the site, where they’re coming from, and what they’re doing on the site. These types of statistics can be useful in determining a sites reach and problems people are running into when using a site or accessing specific types of information.
You might not need to worry about statistics
In reality, you probably don’t need to worry about user statistics if you are using the Commons for a personal or professional profile or for an informational site.
Companies usually use analytics because they’re interested in brand engagement or because they’re trying to sell users something. Coca-cola, for instance, wants to encourage traffic to their website because they want you go out and buy Coca-cola products. The New York Times wants to know that people are reading their content, but they primarily want to drive subscriptions and advertising revenue. The more people who visit their site, the better. It’s unlikely that you’re interested in driving significant traffic to your faculty website, though. Simply having a website with information available might be all you need.
That doesn’t mean analytics can’t be interesting
Even if you’re just using the Commons for a personal or professional website, there are still some interesting observations to make using analytics.
For instance, if you present at a conference, you might interested in seeing if there is a subsequent “bump” in the number of visits to your page, indicating that people were intrigued by your work and want to know more. If you are going on a campus visit, you might be able to tell from the analytics that more people are visiting your site, indicating that faculty and students at the institution are checking you out. If you see this kind of activity with regularity, it might suggest to you changes you can make to your site to better serve visitors. So if you see folks checking your profile before a conference, you might choose to blog about your upcoming talk or afterward make your paper available.
Which analytic tool you should use
When you visit most websites, unique codes capture information from your browser and transmit it to the administrators of the site. This code, often called a “cookie,” contains information such as what links you click on, what browser you’re using, where you’re accessing the site from and even what type of device you are using. Both Google Analytics and Jetpack are tools which allow you to capture this information and aggregate it so that you can view it over custom time periods from a few hours to years.
Both of these tools are proprietary but free, meaning you can use them at no cost but you are also allowing the companies which have developed them to also use your user data. This is a trade-off that you must consider. As mentioned above, almost every site you access on the internet is already tracking this data, and in most cases your users are already transmitting some of this information to companies such as Google or your internet service provider via your browser. So in most cases, there is no privacy compromise in using these tools.
Jetpack is developed by WordPress.com, a for-profit installation of WordPress and to use it, you must sign up at WordPress.com. You do not need to have a wordpress.com site to use the plug-in on the Commons, though. Jetpack is extraordinarily easy to use. The data charts are easy to read and can be viewed right from your Commons site dashboard. It can also be used with any theme available on the Commons. While the data Jetpack aggregates is more limited than Google Analytics, in most cases it will offer you more information than you probably need.
Google Analytics is developed by Google and gives you access to an almost intimidating amount of data. It’s can also be a bit more tricky to use with your site. When you sign up for Analytics you’ll be given a code to place somewhere on your site. That code has to appear on each page, so you may need to past the code into a header, footer, or an HTML widget. Some themes offer a place to enter a Google Analytics code in the settings and some plugins allow you to enter the code as well. The easiest way to use Analytics with your site is to use the WP Google Analytics plugin available on the Commons.