Web Analytics Building a Better End-User Experience.
Website analytics is how all web designers help grow and optimize the internet for the user at the other end of their computer. This is the collection of data from an end-user while using resources on the internet. The information gathered is used to help the web designer optimize website usage and design from a user-centric view. However, analytics are intended to be used productively and anonymously. Unfortunately, some large companies sell analytical data to other companies, which has given Web Analytics a bad reputation with the broader public. There are a few ways to gather information about how users utilize websites. One of those ways is with cookies or by tracking users by using the webserver logs.
Know your audience
Everyone utilizes the internet in widely different ways, so the website’s design must be usable by the entire user base. Designing a great website means knowing your audience. Phone users and desktop users have different needs and capabilities. For example, mobile users need larger buttons, whereas desktop or laptop users could fit more data in a smaller area.
Receiving simple fields such as the browser or the operating system the user is using can drastically help decide what the website designer should prioritize, either mobile-first or desktop first development. As we are moving towards a mobile majority on the internet, the entire landscape of web design will change towards a mobile-friendly environment. According to Oberlo.com, the mobile majority of web traffic happened in November of 2016, and it is only increasing every year since. A good website is designed by the end-users using web analytics.
Web analytics can be used very productively, although current events and large companies have changed how the public feels about web analytics. Many large companies such as Amazon, Google, and Facebook have been found to have been selling user data to other companies. Much of the user data that was sold was anonymous user data. However, some of the data has been used to track users across the internet and provide specifically tailored content or advertisements. For example, a father noticed an ad from Target for his daughter. The ad was specifically tailored to someone who had just found out they were pregnant. Targets analytics had noticed trends in the daughter’s shopping patterns that led them to assume that she was pregnant.
Although this was not an incident of tailored advertisements on the internet, every internet user has a story: “I was thinking about this, and suddenly it started showing up in advertisements.” The public perception of web analytics has even caused the European Union to create new laws that prohibit or highly limit the ability of websites to track user data for any purpose. Although an individual website administrator may not be planning to use their data for nefarious or illegal purposes, the data could be stolen by hackers and sold without the user’s or the administrator’s consent.
How Data is Gathered
There are many ways that website analytics can be captured, many of which can be done without the user ever knowing. A few companies offer web analytics services that use more sophisticated internet-wide techniques to capture and gather data for the individual web designer and the rest of their clients.
The first and most common type of analytic data is the data your web browser sends to the website even without you knowing. The data that is sent is straightforward. Most of the time, it’s information about what type of browser and operating system you are using. Although this data is extensive, it can be used to tell what type of users (either mobile or desktop) are using your website.
The second most common type of data used for analytic purposes is cookies. Cookies are small files that your browser stores and sends to the websites for various purposes. Cookies can be used in web analytics to track a single user everywhere directly they go on your website. Some of the most common cookies track browsers during a session (gif).
Cookies can also even be used to track users outside of your website. Malicious cookies could gather information about your web browsing and return that data as soon as you return to the origin website. These cookies are less common because most modern web browser developers know that type of misuse. For example, Google Chrome creates a new browser session for each tab.
Lastly, IP address tracking is the most inaccurate but impossible for an end-user to hide. When a user connects to a web server, they must send an HTTP request, including a return IP address for the request. Most web servers save the IP addresses that they send files to in their regular log files. If an administrator wanted to analyze a user’s session, they could watch a specific IP address’s requests. This method is highly inaccurate, primarily if many users use the same IP address when connecting to the internet (large universities).
Google and Others
Although there are many ways for an individual website to track user data for analytics, many companies opt to pay a company such as Google to handle their analytics. Google’s solution uses a sophisticated blend of methods to provide developers with the most accurate information. Other companies also offer similar services to Google’s analytics, but since Google owns over 95% of the internet search traffic, they can provide services that include search engine traffic.
The next step for any web developer is an intuitive interface that any user can use without any prior experience or training. Your website must revolve around the user and the user experience. This can be done by utilizing the tools and data to analyze how each user uses the website. Some methods and design philosophies support a user-oriented design. A few examples of web design principles can be found below.
Everything has a purpose, and so should your website. Websites that also cover one subject or revolve around one topic or idea also serve a purpose. Straightforward websites tend to have higher retention and a better user experience.
F-Shaped Reading Pattern
Numerous eye-tracking and data from internet traffic have shown that humans tend to read in an F-shaped pattern. The F-shaped reading pattern philosophy utilizes a mix of images and headers to grab users to a specific section or subsection in a topic. Think about this word document that you are reading. This subsection catches your eye with the infographic (Source) on the left and pulls you into reading the body on the right. The inverse can also be done by utilizing catchy section headers.
Having tons of site animations, high-resolution photos, and hundreds of scripts running on a website may make the website very visually appealing. Slow loading times, especially those with a slower internet connection, will turn potential visitors away. One way to lower the amount of data downloaded along with the website is not to resize images. When images are embedded into a website, they are downloaded at full resolution, and then the browser uses code to resize the image.
The goal of all web design is to create a user experience that guides a user without needing instruction or prompting. A good website such as Google makes its website simple and easy to comprehend, which has directly led to the success of its search engine. On the other hand, Bing has a much more complicated user experience, leading to more user frustration and a dwindling user base. Trust in web analytics has led to many companies adopting open privacy policies that allow users to have minimal control over how their data is used and sold.
If a new web analytics method comes along, it must make all users feel they are in control of their data. Unfortunately, many users distrust anything that starts to sound like tracking or internet data. Most users would rather not have their data sold, so enacting laws that ban data sales may be needed to build trust with users. If you create the best website globally, it will fail if an end-user doesn’t understand it.