8 Recommendations For Choosing A Tool: on-site versus off-site analytics

This is a edit of an article I originally wrote for journalism.co.uk to discuss what digital data
is accurate (and what is not) from a publisher’s point of view.

Part ONE:

  • Most of the web is junk, but web analytics can help
  • The two types of web analytics
  • The accuracy debate: On-site versus off-site metrics

Part TWO: On-site and off-site analytics tools – how they work

Part THREE (this page): 

8 recommendations for choosing a tool

8 recommendations for choosing a toolAs you can see form Part TWO, the differences in methodology and techniques for on-site and off-site analytics are significant and this leads to very different results – even for the same metric. For example, basic numbers such as the number of visitors a website receives, or the total number of pageviews etc. can vary dramatically when comparing these from the two different methods (differences of over 100% are common). The problem of non-matching numbers is a constant and exasperating headache for site owners, media buyers and marketers alike. So which method produces the more accurate data?

The truth is, all web analytics solutions have their limitations as shown in the table:

Advantages Disadvantages
On-site analytics
  • Real visitors and their interests measured
  • Tracks campaigns, engagements, sales, repeat sales etc.
  • Available for any web site – large and small traffic sizes
  • Inexpensive (Google Analytics is free to use!)
  • Limited demographic information
    (Google Analytics can use DoubleClick data)
  • Cannot track competitors, or related sites
  • Visitors can block, loose or delete cookies i.e. prevent tracking, though considered low (of the order 1-3%)
Off-site analytics
  • Demographic information readily available
  • Can track competitors and related sites
    e.g. visitors first went to competitor A, then your site, then onto competitor B
  • No website required – can track trends irrespective of your web presence
  • A lot of Inferred data – i.e. sample sizes are scaled up (see next bullets)
  • Suitable only for high traffic sites e.g. typically more than 1 million visits per month as low traffic sites by definition have small sample sizes and limit accuracy
  • Extrapolation errors – analogous to polling
  • Very US-centric data
  • Expensive

How accuracy can be improved

In Part ONE of this series I discuss the accuracy debate – or rather the misconception of it…

It is important to realise that different data collection methodologies bring different metrics to the table. It is these differences that are their strength as they help you build a bigger picture of the website in question. Think of it as building a jigsaw – one piece alone can be very misleading, multiple pieces together provide a clearer picture.

The solution to maintaining your sanity is to combine on-site and off-site web analytics data in a way that compliment each other, rather than providing conflicting data points. A unified tool/approach for combining both types of data is still some years away, but it is the direction the industry is heading. For now, if you have to focus on just one type of analytics, choose an on-site tool. There is so much to gain form understanding your actual visitors and customers.

Here are my recommendations for choosing a tool:

  1. Use on-site metrics if you wish to know how many people visit your website, where they come from, which campaigns perform best, engagement and conversion performance (sales, lead generation). This information is so valuable to your organisation it should always supersede off-site data
  2. Use on-site metrics if you wish to know the value of your visitors and the value of your content.
  3. Use on-site metrics to measure funnel processes (e.g. cart checkout), abandonment rates, and navigational flow.
  4. Use on-site metrics if you wish to know where your visitors are being referred from – which search engine, social conversation, ad, email or banner campaign etc.
  5. Use off-site metrics when considering the launch or relaunch of a website. For example, what terminology and semantics are being used by potential customers on the search engines – e.g. blue widgets or blue gadgets?
  6. Use off-site metrics to understand your visitor demographics as proportions of the total. Does this match your customer base?
  7. Use off-site metrics to understand what websites your visitors go to just prior to yours and just after they visit your site.
  8. When using off-site panel data, bear in mind that the data is more reflective of a US home audience. If your target is international or a business audience, use ISP data instead.

Do you have to battle with reconciling numbers from different tools, or never ending accuracy questions from senior management?

Looking for a keynote speaker, or wish to hire Brian…?

If you are an organisation wishing to hire me and my team, please view the Contact page. I am based in Sweden and advise organisations in Europe as well as North America.

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