Thursday, June 10, 2010

5 Web Analytics Misconceptions

There are several misconceptions in web analytics (created by some author/bloggers/experts) though many others have tried to clarify them from time to time but they keep reappearing. I recently had a conversation with someone who was so much in love with one of the misunderstood metrics, listed below, that it prompted me to write this blog post. So without much delay, here are the most common five misconceptions that I come across all the time:
  1. More Page Views are good – Unless you are an ad supported site that sell advertising via CPM (cost per thousand impressions) more page views might mean that the visitors are lost on your site and can’t find what they are looking for. More pages views/visit could indicate issue with your site navigation. For effective analysis, set your baseline and then watch for significant deviations (up or down) from the baseline.
  2. All that bounces is bad – I have written 2 detailed posts showing why all that bounces is not really bad. Bounce rate is one metrics that people overly obsess with. Keep in mind all bounces are not bad. The things that cause high bounce rate are:
    1. Links to external sites that you want visitors to click
    2. Ads on your site take visitors out of your site
    3. Returning visits might bounce because they might come to your site to read your daily/ weekly/monthly update
    4. Visits that are for a specific reason e.g. find your phone number
  3. Focus on reducing the bounce rate and everything will be ok- Well that’s the advice many people give without even looking at the other data points and analyzing if reducing the bounce rate will really help you achieve your goal or not. Reducing the bounce rate might not be the most effective way to increase ROI. You should create a monetization model and determine the impact that reducing the bounce rate will have before you start creating different version of a high bounce page to A/B test to reduce your bounce rate. I have seen cases where you won’t get positive ROI even when you reduce the bounce rate to 0%.
  4. Time on site (or page) shows how much time people are spending on the site – As I wrote in my blog post titled Understanding the "Time Spent on the Site" Metrics there are many issues with measuring the actual time spent on the site or a page. One of the main reasons is that the last page that a user views/reads on your site is not counted in this calculation. So if you have a non-ecommerce sites then the chances are that the visitors spend most of their time reading the last page but that page won’t not counted in this metrics and hence your time on page and time on site metrics will be way off. As long as you know that you need to watch the trend instead of using this metrics as a absolute measure of time spent on site then go ahead and use this metrics.
  5. Referring Sites report shows all the traffic sources including campaigns – Well… not really. There are a lot of reasons for the referring source to be lost from the time the visitor clicks on the link to the time they arrive on your site, two big reasons are
    • Server redirects – This happens a lot with ad serving. Suppose you buy an ad though a 3rd party company who then uses an ad network to place your ads on a publishers site e.g. yahoo, each party does some processing and redirect of its own. In doing all these redirects the referring information is lost or shows one of the sites that does the redirect. For example, you might see showing up in the referring sites which means you were serving ad via Atlas even though the ad might have been served on Many URL shortening services used on twitter also show up as referring domain instead of twitter.
    • 3rd Party Apps – This is a big issue with Twitter URLs. A lot of twitter users use 3rd party apps and any clicks to your URL posted on twitter from these 3rd party apps will show up as direct traffic.

    If you are running a campaign or posting links in social media, blogs, forums etc, make sure to tag them with campaign identifiers so that you can use campaign reports instead of relying on referring sites report.

Thoughts? Comments?

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  1. Hi Anil,

    I can't agree more with you. I think you can switch "more visits/visitors are good" with "more page views are good" too. I am amazed to see that many business stakeholders are obsessed by this metrics. I usually explain that quality matters over quantity.

    Regarding "time spent on the site", it is also still considered a lot by many as an important metric, and longer the better. Not later than this week, I had to explain again why "time spent on site" is a "ambiguous" measure. In a similar way as for page views, long visit time can mean people lost and not finding while someone quickly finding what he want will spend little time. Add on top user browsing behavior like "multi-tabbing" that makes it even more irrelevant.

    Good post but I am afraid there will be a long time before we will not need to explain these over and over...


  2. Great post Anil

    I regularly remind people that web analytics are in fact estimates not precise measures.

    One other major reason that campaign data is pretty unreliable: At SeeWhy we’ve found that there is always a significant proportion of people who do not click the link in direct mail.

    For example, when working for one client on a shopping cart recovery program, the email is triggered by an abandonment, and contains a link back to their shopping cart. It’s a simple way for visitors to go back to the cart directly to complete their purchase, but our clients case approximately one third of those that went on to convert did not click the link, but went back to the site via a direct entry. A further one fifth phone the call center to place their order.

    The timing strongly suggests that the email campaign was the nudge to place the order, but attribution is a tricky business.

    A special promo code is perhaps the best way in this case, but the majority of shopping cart recovery campaigns do not use promotions.

    So any campaign statistics showing up in the analytics tools measure only a fraction of the sales that should be attributed to the campaign.

  3. Thanks a lot for removing misconceptions from my mind regarding google analytics.

  4. Lovely discussion to follow...

    pageviews or visits can easily be increased by SEO enhancements or SEA buying but if 80% of these visits don't do what they need to do then maybe you should've invested in direct traffic marketing

    I still believe in bounce rate when used properly, a high bounce rate is bad on your homepage but less on your product pages (but then depends on what content you have on the homepage and what actions you wish for on the product pages)

    Time on site is tricky with multi-tabbed browsers but I believe that 90% of the users close their browser or site pretty quickly so you can make a good estimate of this metric

    Business owners and managers should not be asking about these metrics but they should ask key business key questions that web analytics managers will answer with the correct metric?


  5. And about referrer traffic...with the correct query parameters you can always find your traffic back.

    We experienced an issue that referrer information was erased when users clicked on advertisers website urls so we reported tons of clicks on the url while the advertiser showed no referrer traffic from our site.

    After using utm-parameters for Google Analytics which solved the problem partially, we discovered that our site was dropping our own referrer somehow, we fixed it and now all traffic is always visible (or at least 90%, there will probably still be some referrer issues)

  6. Good points. I work for an ad-supported site and don't think page views are a good success metric either. Far too easy to game. It ultimately comes down to what can be sold. Advertisers don't want cheap page views (at least the smart ones don't). They want quality unique visitors viewing their messages over a period of repeated visits.


I would like to hear your comments and questions.