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The Journalists' Guide to Analytics

Analytics, or the analysis of a website’s traffic, is important for every journalist to understand. Analytics tools can identify how many people visited a website, page, or article, how they found the site, and how popular the content on a site is.

For this post I am using Google Analytics, the free tool provided by Google, to illustrate the common features of analytics tools. Analytics services range from this list of free or inexpensive analytics tools to full-fledged software like Omniture. Most of them share common features like those described below:

 
Page views

One of the most common reasons site administrators use analytics is to determine the number of page views for a site or individual web page. A page view is the number of times a web page was accessed. For example, if a web page was viewed 45 times, that page has 45 page views.

Journalists can use analytics to determine the number of page views on a particular article, story package, or even the number of page views for an entire site. Many analytics tools allow you to drill down the number of page views and the other factors described below by day, week, month, or even year. You can also use analytics to see which pages or articles were popular and which, because of low page views, were not.

 
Unique visitors

The number of unique visitors is different from the number of page views and represents the number of visitors who accessed a particular web page. For example, if a page was viewed 45 times by 25 different internet users, those 25 people represent the number of unique visitors. Unique visitors are determined by IP addresses, a number unique to a particular computer or network.

Some analytics tools also calculate the number of individual web pages the average visitor accessed. In the example above, the average page views per unique visitor would be 1.8 (45 page views divided by 25 visitors).

 
Time on site

Analytics tools can also calculate the amount of time the average visitor spent on a particular page. The average time on site for a news site is usually about 1 to 2 minutes — meaning the average person spent 1 to 2 minutes looking at the site before they clicked away — but this number can vary wildly depending on the type of site. If that number seems low, remember most web readers are scanning rather than reading online articles and may not devote much time to reading or viewing a story.

 
Bounce rate

Another important number in analytics is the bounce rate. The bounce rate is the number of visitors who left the site after viewing a single web page or article. A high bounce rate (calculated in percentage) means a high number of visitors left the website after reading the article(s) they accessed. A low bounce rate means a high percentage of visitors accessed some other page or pages on the same site before they clicked away.

 
Sources

While knowing the number of visitors that accessed your site or article is important, it’s also important to know how they arrived at your site. Many analytics tools list the sources of a site’s traffic — the websites that referred visitors to your site or web page.

For example, in the screenshot below, Google, Twitter, and the social network StumbleUpon make up a large percentage of 10,000 Words’ source traffic. The percentages represent the number of visitors who clicked on a link on each of those sites and arrived at the 10,000 Words homepage or an individual article.

Information on your sources is useful because you can use the information to target or build a rapport with sites that drive you a lot of traffic. For example, if I know that Twitter sends my site a lot of traffic, I can target my social media efforts to focus on Twitter. Conversely, if I know that the site receives a relatively low number of visitors from Facebook, I can explore that and adjust my networking strategy, if necessary.

Sources are also a great way to identify sites or blogs with the same subject matter as your site. For example, journalism blogs Nieman Lab, Teaching Online Journalism and Sicrono send a lot of traffic to 10,000 Words so I should pay attention (and learn from) the content those sites are producing.

 
Keywords
Using analytics to discover what keywords your visitors are using in search engines to arrive at your site can be a bit tricky. Some of the obvious ones are usually listed at the top (For 10,000 Words it’s words or phrases like “journalism,” “technology,” etc.) but the further you explore the more wacky and unexpected they become. For example, web visitors searching for “news site suck” and “burton its always snowing somewhere font” were also referred to 10,000 Words articles.

For journalists, keywords are useful for knowing what words or phrases people are using to arrive to your site. You can also use this information to tailor your content. For example, if, by looking at analytics, you determine that many of your site’s visitors are searching for the word “dogs,” you can perhaps offer more articles on dogs.

 
While analytics are an important tool to understand how people are arriving at your site and what they are viewing, it is important to not get too wrapped up in the numbers. One article may be more popular than another because it was heavily circulated on social networks. One month may have had more traffic than another because of a single, popular article.

Most major news operations already have analytics tools in place for their sites. In some newsrooms, reporters do not have access to analytics and the numbers and stats are limited to editors or upper-level management.

If you are a site owner or developer, one of the first things you should install in your site is an analytics tracking tool. Analytics are not only useful for knowing who is visiting your site, but also provides site traffic numbers to potential advertisers. Either way it is important to be aware of analytics and the power the numbers have to drive a site.

 
Also on 10,000 Words:

10 Ways to track what people are saying about you on Twitter
Where the magic happens: Interactive and virtual newsroom tours
The Beginner’s Guide to RSS

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