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Complete Beginner’s Guide to Analytics

Because each website appeals to its audience differently, the prudent user experience designer takes a measured approach when communicating, especially when they do so on behalf of their client. No matter what the vision and no matter how it’s executed, a design can always communicate more effectively.

Online and off, we gauge the effectiveness of design—of communication—by its affect; in other words: what action(s) do people take after they give us their attention? Properly utilized, Web Analytics and Measurement helps us answer this fundamental question.

In the early days of the Internet, webmasters used hits (remember counters?) to gauge their website’s success. The logic went like this: if people liked what was written on a site, they would request that content more often. This made sense because, at the time, the web was largely state-driven. People navigated the Web one page at a time.

Today, however, that’s far from true.

As a consequence, analysts have turned their attention towards the constant in the Internet + User equation: the User. Instead of simply tracking hits, analysts track user behavior. Emphasis has appropriately gone from answering the question “what is the web server doing?” to “what is the user doing?” (Joshua Porter details this trend in his post User Engagement Metrics.)

Both the metrics and methods required to illustrate what our users do are nuanced. In this article we’ll take a closer look at how these methods inform our design process.

Back to topWhat is Web Analytics?

It’s nearly impossible to understand why someone does something online. How, then, can we possibly hope to evaluate trends across (potentially) thousands of viewers? As it turns out, it’s not so difficult.

Even with only a modicum of traffic, web servers generate a tremendous amount of data. Web Analytics tools were created to collate and refine this data. Typically manifested as web-based applications, Web Analytics tools (such as the popular Google Analytics) take data and, through a variety of computations, generate insightful charts and reports.

Unlike research methods—which are typically qualitative in nature—web analytics methods are decidedly quantitative. So instead of dealing with warm, fuzzy descriptions of problems (practically written by our users) web analysts look at reports based on cold, hard data about them. Where’s the love?

Louis Rosenfeld explains the conundrum:

…analytics tell us what is happening, not why. After detecting data patterns, we might guess what’s going on with reasonable accuracy. But we can’t know for sure unless we conduct qualitative analysis, such as actual user testing, where we can ask people why they do what they do.

Louis Rosenfeld

As a consequence, Avinash Kaushik motions to combine the two heretofore disparate disciplines with his definition of “Web Analytics 2.0:”

“[Web Analytics 2.0 is] the analysis of qualitative and quantitative data from your website and the competition, to drive a continual improvement of the online experience that your customers, and potential customers have, which translates into your desired outcomes (online and offline).”

Avinash Kaushik, Web Analytics 2.0

Marko Hurst calls this behavioral metrics. He explores this amalgamation in his recent presentation, User Experience by the Numbers.

Back to topWhat is Web Measurement?

If Analytics provides the data, Web Measurement is the process by which that data is utilized. Because analysis is rooted in mathematics, it’s typically accomplished following a logical, deductive process. We start by defining outcomes, then we proceed to measure, monitor, and act on our analysis. Let’s briefly cover each:


We begin measurement by establishing a desired outcome, or goal. In other words, what do we want to accomplish?

For example, say you want to improve your company’s next email blast. Their mailing list contains 150,000 members; what action do they want recipients to take? Fortunately for us, this email contains a coupon—perfect.

Outcomes are best when they are both specific and quantifiable. Let’s set a hypothetical goal of six percent. That is, six percent of our 150,000 members should convert (9,000). Next, let’s set a deadline: if we send this email out on Friday, let’s give users 1 week to determine whether or not they found our offer valuable to them.


We begin measurement by determining what’s quintessential to our desired outcome. In other words, a metric is anything we can track, but we’re looking for what we should track. For email, we’ll want to take a look at delivery rate, open rate, bounce/invalid rate, click-through rate, etc. Based on our desired outcome, though, we’ll put supreme emphasis on conversions. Thus, conversion (using our coupon) becomes our Key Performance Indicator (KPI).


Monitoring keeps you aware of and lets you know three things at all times:

  1. Where you are at—1,000 successes after 3 days.
  2. Where do you want to be?—9,000 in 7 days. At the current rate you’d need 27 days to achieve your goal.
  3. How you will get there?—Your current path and actions are not going to cut it, so you’ll need to change something to still have a chance to achieve the desired outcome of 9,000 conversions in the next four days. This is your output or delivery item for this phase. It tells what item or items can and should be acted upon to still achieve your goal.

Remember—the greatest gift monitoring can give you is time to make adjustments and manage expectations before it’s too late, in this case after the seven days.


Action helps us refine measurement endeavors based on the data we’ve received thus far. In the case of our hypothetical email blast, we could:

  • inform stakeholders of this campaign’s outlook.
  • send a blast to a new set of subscribers (in case we’re not approaching our goal).
  • send a blast to the same set of subscribers (minus those that have already converted) as a reminder.
  • change the title of the email or the call-to-action in the email—the equivalent to an A/B Test.

Back to topWeb Analytics luminaries

Gary Angel

Gary co-founded Semphonic and is president and chief technology officer. He helps companies like WebMD, Intuit, American Express and Charles Schwab maximize their web channel marketing through intelligent use of Enterprise Web Analytics

Read Gary’s Blog

Ilya Grigorik

Ilya Grigorik is the CTO of PostRank, a company providing social engagement analytics. A tinkerer at heart, Ilya is a hopeless, proverbial early-adopter of all things digital. He is both a blogger and a developer.

Read Ilya’s Blog

Marko Hurst

Marko Hurst is a consultant, author, and speaker in fields of Web Analytics, Search, and User Experience. His clients include various U.S. Government agencies and some of the largest Automotive, Financial Services, Media, Technology, Mobile, & CPG companies in the world. He authored the book Search Analytics: Conversations with Your Customers.

Read Marko’s Blog

Hurol Inan

Hurol Inan is Managing Director of Bienalto Consulting, a consulting firm specialised in Online Analytics, Direct Response Campaigns, and Information Architecture. He authored the book Search Analytics: A Guide to Analyzing and Optimizing Website Search Engines.

Learn more about Hurol

Avinash Kaushik

Avinash Kaushik is the co-Founder of Market Motive Inc and the Analytics Evangelist for Google. Through his blog, Occam’s Razor, and his best selling books, Avinash has become recognized as an authoritative voice on how marketers, executive teams, and industry leaders can leverage data to fundamentally reinvent their digital existence.
Read Avinash’s Blog

Joost de Valk

Joost de Valk is an SEO consultant and web developer living in Wijchen, near Nijmegen, the Netherlands. He is responsible for the Google Analytics plugin for WordPress, as well as a highly–regarded blog on optimizing the performance of WordPress blogs.
Read Joost’s Blog

On Twitter







Back to topTools of the trade

Many different tools enable Web analysts to do their jobs. Here’s a selection of some of the most popular:

Google Analytics

Google Analytics is the self–described enterprise-class web analytics solution. What does this mean to you? Google Analytics gives you insight into your website’s traffic and marketing effectiveness through user session metrics, including bounce rate, keyword frequency, etc.

Google Website Optimizer

From their product page:

Which phrase will earn more clicks: “Add to Cart” or “Buy Now”? Should you use a photo of your product or a photo of someone using it? Or no photo at all?
Website Optimizer will find out. It shows the alternatives at random to your website visitors, then measures which versions lead to the conversions you want. And it’s all free.


Mint is an extensible, self-hosted web site analytics program. Its interface is an exercise in simplicity. Visits, referrers, popular pages, and searches can all be taken in at a glance on Mint’s flexible dashboard.

KISS Insights

KISS Insights is a tool that allows designers to place a small survey bar across the bottom of their websites. Curious visitors can take a peek and are then presented with a simple survey in which they can evaluate the experience design of your website.


ClickTale captures every mouse move, click, scroll, and keystroke that a visitor makes inside a webpage, and then sends this information back to the ClickTale servers in a highly compressed package. In addition, ClickTale takes a snapshot of the webpage as it was experienced by the visitor, and combines it with the recording to recreate the original browsing session.

PostRank Analytics

Engagement events are individual activities performed using specific social networks, sites, or applications. One tweet is an engagement event, for example as is posting one comment, or voting one digg. PostRank tracks these events and gives analysts the tools to extrapolate meaningful insights from this data. is a simple tool for gauging a website’s traffic versus that of its competitors. Compete also allows members to track that data over time to make calculated decisions based on their competitor’s strategy.

Quantcast Planner

Quantcast Planner lets you search, rank, and sort millions of Web properties in real-time according to the criteria that matter to you, including audience age, gender, ethnicity, income, education, and geographic location as well as constraints such as property size, content category, and ad acceptance. They claim that once you identify your audience, you can “buy” that audience.

Icerocket is a simple off–site analytics tool that gives interested parties a glimpse into the latest chatter going on around their website.

Back to topWeb Analytics Books

If you’re itching for more UX tools, checkout our articles: Top 29 Free UX Tools and Extensions and Information Gathering: a Roundup of UX Applications.

Back to topAdditional Resources

Editor’s Note

Many thanks to Marko Hurst and Louis Rosenfeld for their contributions to this article.

About the Author

Andrew Maier

Andrew Maier is a lifelong student of the design community who believes that creation and learning are synonymous. His current interests include security, law, cities, and autonomy. He lives in Washington, D.C., in Dupont Circle.


  • Carl – Web Courses Bangkok Reply

    I love how addictive the stats can get, but you must know how to interpret them as you said.

    Thanks for the article and it will be mentioned in our new Web Analytics Course here Web Courses Bangkok.

  • Nitish Reply

    I would also include Eric Peterson, the person who, I think, wrote the first book on Web Analytics and who set up the free Analysis Exchange program for students, organisations and mentors to learn and work together – a golden opportunity for beginners in the field. I had applied for the mentorship program at IXDA, but never got a response.

  • Derek Pennycuff Reply

    Twitter link for @igrigorik is missing the i. Sadly @grigorik exists and has already been added to 2 web analytics themed lists. 0_o

    Otherwise, great content as usual. UX Booth is becoming one of my favorite places on the web.

  • Rayhan Chowdhury Reply

    Thanks for such an informative post on Web Analytics. I have to focus more on this for my own applications…

  • Kristina Bjoran Reply

    Thanks, Derek, for letting us know about that Twitter faux-pas! Tis fixed now.

    • keif Reply

      Actually, it looks like hurol_inan is the last twitter “follow” link. You dropped avinash and yoast.

  • Jacob Creech Reply

    Thanks for the article. Analytics is so useful, but quite misunderstood I think. Nice to see some good explanations of how to use all of that information, and set goals to track it.


  • Jens Reply

    Thank you for sharing this information. Very good article.
    In particular I like the list of Web Analytic Tools. Two Thumbs up!

  • Kiril Bunin Reply

    This is really far away from the “complete guide”, even for beginners.Basically, just definitions of commonly known terms. Guess, most of the beginners are looking for advices, how to’s and solutions, not the practically useless copypasting of somebody’s thoughts

  • someone Reply

    CAn only agree to Kiril.
    You missed at least to mention piwik in your toosl of the trade list. For any reason?

  • Jordan Walker Reply

    Very good summary of analytic measurement, I find the best data is directly from the server log files.

  • Sean Reply

    If you are looking for a analytics package you can host yourself that uses server logs instead of javascript cookies, I would highly recommend Google Urchin.

    It is the software that Google bought and then turned in to Google Analytics. However, it also has the ability to process server logs. We have been using it for a couple of years now with great success.

  • John Hyde Reply

    Great coverage, Andrew.

    I would emphasise the ACT bit.

    Get the numbers then DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT.

    In analytics boot camp every one of us signed a pledge: no analysis without action.

  • Rascalnikov Reply

    That’s just about the worst introduction to web analytics I’ve ever read. The article was poorly written and hard to follow while the coverage of the subject matter was extremely limited in scope and really didn’t make much sense at all.

    From the bottom up:
    4Q is not a web analytics tool, it’s a customer feedback tool.

    Compete and Quantast are audience measurement services, not web analytics tools. There’s a BIG difference.

    Where’s Omniture and Coremetrics? If these aren’t on your list then you know clearly know nothing about what you’re writing.

    “Search Analytics” hasn’t been published yet so it should’ve even be listed.

    Excluding Eric Peterson and Jim Sterne from the list is like leaving Jakob Nielsen off of a prominent usability experts list.

    And you have it backwards. Web Measurement is not the process–Web Analytics is the process. There are web analytics tools but they don’t do the analysis for you. Analysts to the analytics. The tools themselves just give you reports.

    I could go on but it’s just not worth it. Please find someone to write about analytics who actually knows what they’re talking about.

    I know my response is a bit rude but this was just offense junk to anyone who actually practices web analytics.

    • Steve Reply

      Unfortunately I have to agree. While I understand the need to generate page views on an ad-supported site, please give us something useful when we get here. This is NOT something I can hand to a beginner and expect them to gain a meaningful understanding of web analytics.

  • Geno Prussakov Reply

    Good summary of principles, luminaries, and tools, Andrew. Gonna retweet this one.

  • BebopDesigner Reply

    What a brilliant summary. Almost a bible. Thanks for putting this together.

  • Aim Creative Reply

    Excellent article. Yes, numbers and graphs are great, but where the rubber meets the road is *using* this data for something. This can be a challenge, although modern tools such as Google Analytics make it easier for the webmaster.

  • Ani Lopez Reply

    Joost de Valk an Analytics luminary? you must be kidding right?

  • Dave Oliver Reply

    I thought this was a great article, Analytics is becoming more and more prominent with exciting times ahead..

  • Reply

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