Events in Web Analytics: A Case for Tracking Everything

By Colin Temple June 23, 2011


Image Credit: jared via Flickr

Everything that happens on a website is an event.

We’re in a strange place with this ‘events’ business in web analytics right now. Event tracking is still relatively new and many are only now really discovering them. The events paradigm allows you to track activities that were previously outside the realm of measurement by firing off a JavaScript codes that say, “hey, something happened!”.

This leads us into a bit of misunderstanding. Traditionally, web analytics involved looking at page views. Some page views were boring. Other page views were conversions. Some other page views were somewhere in between, part of a conversion funnel. Web analytics tools became much more relevant when they started tracking ecommerce conversions, so you could see how much money was being made. So far, so good.

Events showed up, in part, to respond to the technological development of the web. Suddenly, important stages of that funnel were no longer page views. With methods like AJAX, some sites suddenly had their entire shopping cart process happen on one page, with each step loading within the page. Page views don’t tell you what happened there, so event tracking came to the rescue in order to track these new “events” alongside your traffic and transactions.

What event tracking highlights is not that there was good tracking and then new technologies broke it. What it shows instead is that the older way of doing things was broken. It tracked only one kind of event: page views. Sometimes, it tracked two: page views and transactions. Good. Not good enough.

Page views are events. Transactions are events. Clicks are events. Chat interactions are events. Searches are events. Customer reviews are events. You get the idea: everything that happens on a website is an event. It’s not that these new event things are an addition to what’s there, it’s that the old way of tracking interaction on a website is incomplete. It forced you into one or two types of event, and ignored the rest.

What Google Analytics, Yahoo! Web Analytics, Adobe SiteCatalyst and other tools are now doing, which needs to be done, is allowing you to determine, as an organization, what kinds of events are happening on your website and which ones are relevant to a conversion.

Everything that happens on a website can be tracked.

At Napkyn, we don’t really do implementations, almost as a rule. Our focus is on helping our clients expand the value of their sites. If we sold developer time, we’d be focused too much on building implementation frameworks and running up project hours, which isn’t valuable. But we do review our clients’ implementations and make our recommendations about what else should be tracked — what data we need to tell them how to grow their online business.

When we make these recommendations to clients, more often than not, the answer is something like, “wow, you can really track that?” Sometimes that sparks a further list of, “what about this, and this, and this?! Can you track these?” The answer to those questions, 95% of the time, is “yes, we can track that.”

Strictly speaking, any user interaction on a website can be tracked. This includes anything that’s clicked on, moused over, spoken with. I say, “strictly speaking”, because the things we can’t track are the little bits that aren’t on the website itself. Obviously, things like whether the planes are on schedule at O’Hare and whether or not it’s raining in Fiji are off-limits for a web analytics tool, unless you happen to be the O’Hare airport or a news outlet in Fiji. Less obviously, things that are contained within iframes (small windows within a site that load in content from another site) as well as some externally-hosted JavaScript applications can’t be tracked by the page they’re on.   This includes some versions of Facebook Like buttons and other social media sharing icons.

Everything that happens on a website should be tracked.

That claim goes beyond my analyst’s desire to have the whole picture, to sift through every bit of data I can to get killer insights. This isn’t a quest to know everything about everyone who browses a website. This is about knowing how valuable each ingredient is. You don’t want useless clutter, but you don’t want to throw out anything good. So, we need data to determine the value of every interactive piece of a website.

So, everything on your site should be worth tracking. The reasoning is simple: If there’s something on your site that’s not worth tracking, it’s not worth having on your site.

Of course, you have to prioritize what tracking you’ll add first. If you’re missing it, the first things you should track are your macro conversions – the ultimate goals of your website: Sales. Lead forms. Donations. This will depend on what your site is about, but you get the idea. This is crucial, and web analytics is next to useless without it.

Next up, track your micro conversions — conversion-related events that drive towards a conversion. An add-to-cart button is a micro conversion. We can argue about semantics, but I count things like newsletter sign-ups as micro conversions. They’re not the goal of the site, but they get you something valuable: permission to market to someone later.

Engagement events are third on my list. Some others, like Avinash Kaushik, count these as micro conversions. This is all semantics, of course, but I like to, at a higher level, differentiate between events that are and are not driving someone towards being a customer. Signing up for marketing emails does that. Adding a product to a cart does that. Clicking a Facebook “Like” button does not. These events may still be valuable and certainly show that the visitor is engaged in your website, but they don’t directly help that visitor become a customer. Other examples include filling out a feedback form or commenting on your blog.

Anything outside of that is noise. External links on your blog? Noise. Social media links that take people away from a product page and towards Facebook, Twitter, etc.? Noise. (Yes: That someone “liked” a product page without leaving it is valuable. That someone left your conversion-focused site to look at your Facebook page is noise.) Should you track noise? Sure! After all, if you can prove that a feature is useless or even hurting conversions, then you have a case to rid yourself of it. On the other hand, you may be surprised by what the data tells you — after all, if intuition were perfect, we analysts wouldn’t have jobs.

You won’t look at all of this at once, and this isn’t data for executives. Executives are already drowning in metrics — this is data that should be at the ready for analysts when hard questions come up. And when the time comes around to make iterative changes or a full redesign, it’s extremely valuable to be able to see what role each component of your website plays in the overall visitor experience, and most importantly, converting traffic into business.

When such a time comes, you’ll be thankful that your web analyst has the data at hand to answer those questions. And if you can get your head out of the traditional page-views–centric approach, you’ll stop worrying about what you can track and start thinking about where your next revenue lift should come from.

Until next time,

Colin

2 Responses to “Events in Web Analytics: A Case for Tracking Everything”

  1. Lukasz Says:

    Wouldn’t it make sense to use a tool that records all events automatically? :)

  2. Colin Temple Says:

    Sure, it does. I often write and/or recommend certain scripts to automatically capture events. I much prefer to do this programatically than to add individual onclick codes scattered throughout a site, for example.

    The important bit is having a clear convention for organizing events, and having a clear definition for what counts as an event. You need to be able to tell your different levels of conversion and engagement apart efficiently in the end result.

    I’m all for automating the process, so long as the results make analysis easier.

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