Reviews: Who visits your website? Find out with Google Analytics

Title: Who visits your website? Find out with Google Analytics
Contact Information for Product/Service
Reviewer’s Name and Contact Info (email):

Sarah Bankston
School of Information & Library Science
UNC Chapel Hill

Date of Review
: January 15, 2012

Google Analytics, a web analytics tool produced by Google, is optimized for e-commerce sites, but it can be leveraged for use within libraries. Using a process called page tagging, Google Analytics tracks visitor activity on websites. Despite some limitations, Google Analytics can be used most effectively to strengthen library websites and identify user trends for follow-up assessment.

Released in 2005 as a free product, Google Analytics employs JavaScript to write and track first-party cookies. Google presents the data gathered to website owners via reports in Google Analytics. Anyone with a Google account and access to a website’s code can get started. Once an account is created, Google provides users with a piece of JavaScript tracking code to insert in their website’s code.  For best performance, the JavaScript snippet will need to be inserted on all pages of the website before the closing </head> tag.  It generally takes about 24 hours after adding the JavaScript for data to start appearing in your Google Analytics reports.

Google Analytics presents reports on the data gathered in 5 main categories: Audience, Advertising, Traffic Sources, Content, and Conversions. The Advertising category is linked to AdWords and, while heavily used in e-commerce, is not very useful for libraries. In addition to these reports, there is a customizable dashboard in Google Analytics where users can display their most frequently used reports.

To generate reports, the user sets the desired date range or, in the case of comparison, two date ranges. The reports in Google Analytics offer a variety of visualization options, including charts and map overlays. The data can be exported in CSV, TSV, and CSV for Excel formats. In the old version of Google Analytics, users could export to PDF and schedule reports to be emailed; though Google says these two features are forthcoming, they are not yet available in the new version.

The most common use of Google Analytics is to analyze visitor behavior to make informed decisions when editing a library’s website. Articles can be found in the literature that detail how particular libraries have utilized Google Analytics to redesign or update their websites.  At least one library has made use of the ability to insert JavaScript into screencasting programs in order to track use of library tutorials. In-page Analytics, a feature in Google Analytics that allows users to see the percentage of clicks each link on a page receives, can be useful in determining how visitors are interacting with a page. Goals can be set up with an accompanying funnel to track how visitors proceed through a set group of pages to get to a particular goal page.

Although the possibilities of Google Analytics are exciting, there are some important considerations. First, although the data in the reports is anonymous, it is necessary to have a privacy policy in place that lets visitors know your website uses cookies to track visitor traffic. In addition to being good practice, this is required by the Google Analytics Terms of Service. Second, since the information is gathered through the use of first-party cookies, the data can be skewed somewhat if users delete their cookies. For example, someone who visits the site, deletes her cookies and then visits again will be counted as two unique visitors (rather than two visits by one unique visitor). Also, it is possible to block Google Analytics, so the data won’t capture visitors who have chosen to do so. Finally, it is important to keep in mind that what is represented in the reports is the general trend of website activity, but this activity is presented without context. You can see that visitors tend to behave a certain way, but you don’t know why they are doing so.  Knowing this, Google Analytics can be a valuable tool for ascertaining trends in order to inform other assessment activity within the library.

Google Analytics offers users an amazing amount of data about their website visitors. Primarily geared toward e-commerce, some of the functionality of Google Analytics isn’t relevant to libraries. More importantly, the data is given without context, allowing users to see how website visitors are behaving but not why. In light of this, Google Analytics is most powerful as a tool for gathering information to complement and inform other library assessment efforts.

Statistics and Analytics: Ways to Record Library Interactions

How do we know if our library community is using the programs or services that our library offers? How do we know if our time is well spent in staffing these services? What products are put there that can help us record and use all of this information to help improve or develop new resources or services to engage our library patrons? RUSA MARS’ Products & Services committee has put together reviews of different options for libraries to track all sorts of stats.

If there are questions about a specific product/service, please contact the reviewer directly. If there are suggestions for other products to review, please contact the Chair of the Products & Services committee, Ngoc-Yen Tran at nttran[at]

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