Many university websites, including ours, suffer from a split personality disorder. As emails seem to indicate, most site visitors perceive the institutional website as a single entity with ultimate power residing with the infamous Webmaster. One might expect that as our institutions have oversight from administrators and administrative bodies, so must our institutional website. This perception is further enforced by tools, such as content management systems, that give the institutional website a common visual appearance and, in many cases, a common navigational structure. However, the reality can often be quite different. At our institution the institutional website consists of literally hundreds of websites maintained exclusively by the individual units. Furthermore, the units have the freedom to design and populate their websites as they see fit. While this level of freedom allows the units to differentiate their offerings and permit exciting innovations in content and design, it does not come without costs. One cost at UVM is the inability to fully leverage web metrics. I think that it’s time to take a new approach to how we look at site traffic.
Where our web metrics policy has failed us
A few years back when we first implemented Google Analytics on our website we tracked all websites using our central CMS to one account. Knowing that the units would also want to measure their own traffic we added some code which allowed website owners to add an additional GA account that would track only their pages, but as time went on, we found that tracking to multiple accounts created data problems and we soon abandoned this model in favor of a single GA set by each site owner. [BTW, if anyone has figured out how to track two GA accounts on a single page, let me know the secret.] Since then campus website developers have been happily but individually tracking their sites, but here’s the glitch… When anyone wants to step back and look at how visitors use the institutional site as a whole (bounce rate, time spent, percent exit, page depth, etc.), the complete picture is absent because our site metrics picture is one of hundreds independently operating websites and GA accounts. Aggregate web metrics data from the institutional website eludes us using this model and this separation of data particularly impedes our ability to optimize paths to each unit’s content from both the top-tier of the site and across the units.
A new holistic approach
So what is the solution? I recommend that we reign much of the site back under a single GA account. This will be a voluntary effort, but I hope that many will see the added usefulness of this new approach. New features in Google Analytics v5 now makes this much more desirable and attainable. When units choose to come back under the master GA account umbrella, they will be given access not only to their data, but they will have access to added insights as to how their content is accesses from other areas of the institutional site. A highly trained GA administrator can not only help them with their metrics questions and recognize and repair many problems in data collection, but also help them gain insights that can lead to actionable items to improve website performance based on their sites connection to the UVM website as a whole. But above all, we’ll be able to get a clearer picture of how to improve the top pages of the institutional site and much deeper insight into how visitors navigate uvm.edu.
If you manage a UVM website and would like to join this unified metrics effort contact the web team.