The simple answer is that web analytics measure, record, analyse and report website activity so as to understand and optimise site usage. But, a more complete answer addresses why web analytics are valuable. In our view, they allow website operators to objectively identify how a site can better fulfil its strategic objectives, which is achieved by studying and and analysing visitor activity and other relevant external data.
At first sight, Google Analytics is all that is needed to capture that "relevant data". However, a deeper understanding results from capturing data about on-page code errors, conflicts between tags, slow page loading or which versions of a page visitors prefer. And, combining multiple measures offers a more nuanced view of how a site is performing.
Most post-secondary education websites are the result of substantial investments in site design, content creation and messaging. And, those elements are all intended to reflect the values and ethos of the institution behind the site. It is in their day-to-day interactions with a site that visitors evaluate the organisation the site represents. Gathering accurate and timely data about those on-site experiences and then acting upon them supports an ongoing return on the initial investment.
To comprehensively monitor site 'performance' needs more than Google Analytics and one might expect to see services such as Pingdom, to monitor site uptime, and New Relic or Bugsnag, to report crashes or other on-site failures. Moreover, as a primary method for communicating with a community of users we might also expect to see multivariate testing services such as Optimizely in place to measure reactions to different combinations of layout and messaging.
In this article we report on what might be considered the minimum viable monitoring option: has Google Analytics or an equivalent service been implemented. And, to make reporting unambiguous, we are also reporting only on home page installations. We identified a number of sites where Google Analytics code was missing from other pages on the site, which reduces data collection completeness.
The vast majority of Canadian post-secondary education websites have Google Analytics installed. A small number have installed DoubleClick, but not Google Analytics - which may have been inadvertent? A handful of sites have implemented Piwik or WordPress Stats as alternatives to Google Analytics. A further cluster of sites have not implemented any on-site monitoring capability.
Graph 1: Basic Web Analytics Services Installed on Canadian Post-Secondary Education Websites
We reviewed web analytics, site monitoring and other page-based services used by 206 websites operated by post-secondary education institutions operating in Canada. Over 90% of the insitutions had Google Analytics or an equivalent service installed. A small sub-group of institutions had no site monitoring services installed, making it difficult to measure or assess the effectiveness of their website for their intended audiences.