You need analytics, but which tool?

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A recent headline proclaiming Google Analytics as "simple, powerful and won't cost you" is correct ... partly. And only for certain Web sites. Though the tool has the horsepower to back up the quoted statement, this "woman behind the curtain" will tell you that the level of complexity and functionality of your site is the determining factor to how simple, powerful and cost-free the tool would be for you.

Is your Web site a signpost? Is content king at your domain? Buying, selling and e-commerce not for you? If you find yourself nodding, then Google Analytics might be for you. If not, well, we'll get to that in a moment.

Let's first look at what Google Analytics does well. It's easy to install, and it provides basic, reliable trends information on visitor traffic. If you are measuring total visitor traffic, behavior patterns, geographic clustering, where visitors come from (e.g., from external links), where they're going on your site and how long they stay, Google Analytics works well. To measure these trends accurately with Google Analytics, it's best to gather historical data on campaigns of some length.

The service also offers technical detail on the type of browser, connection speeds and language that visitors to your site use. This might tell you that the vast majority of visitors use the MS Explorer browser rather than Mozilla's Firefox or other alternatives. From this you might determine that, to improve your site's ease of use, it would be wise to ask your IT department how to tailor the components of the site to perform optimally with that browser. Perhaps there is an unexpected volume of traffic from a foreign country, spotlighting a new market for you.

However, if your online livelihood depends on an e-commerce function other than Google Checkout or if your online repertoire includes tracking multiple Web site URLs in different languages or through various microsites, you will require a more sophisticated measurement package. These packages have a cost, but they will be worth it.

In my experience, Google Analytics doesn't track "buttons," such as those used for "Buy Now," or drop downs used by buyers to increase the number of a particular item in their shopping cart. Complex Web sites with multiple URLs (let's say 25 variations geographically dispersed) that measure many individual metrics will want integrated reporting. Imagine having to check individual reports of visitor behavior and manually compare them for each of the 25.

Higher levels of analytics services also come with customer support to answer questions not only on how to use the package, but how to leverage the information gathered. Though Google has information sites and online forums for its Analytics users, the information likely will not get back to you in a useful timeframe. Through Google's Conversion University blog, you might wait up to a month for a response. Try explaining this to your bosses when they ask you to evaluate your online spend.

Does every URL need an analytics program? If your Web site is simply a signpost, you might not care to invest in an analytics package. If you have a single, content-rich site and mainly want trends data, then Google Analytics probably will do the trick. Multiple sites with multiple purposes need integrated reporting and higher-level analytics data, such as tracking users' buying habits or their average dollar spend for each click. These sites necessitate a more sophisticated package with an expert "on call" to help make sense of all the data.

The good news is analytics packages don't get in each other's way, so feel free to use a combination best for your needs. Determine what your Web site is intended to do and what you need to measure before making your move.

Julie Mason is general manager for Kellysearch.com, Waltham, MA. Reach her at julie.mason@reedbusiness.com.

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