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Analytics: A to Z for Indie Authors

A to Z for Indie Authors is a collection of posts containing tips, resources, inspiration and cautionary tales alike for indie authors old and new. Click here to see all posts.

Analytics are one of those things that the technically uninclined are bound to get their hackles up over. What options should I use? What does it measure? How does it gather the data? How do I make sense of it? And, perhaps most importantly, what do I do with it?

I am by no means a computer or data scientist, capable of creating advanced yet attractive graphical representations of said data. I wouldn’t even say that I even tangentially understand what’s going on underneath the hood, for the most part. But the beauty of that is: for my purposes, and most likely yours, expertise in analytics is not needed. Not when there are so many free tools all over the internet for you to make use of.

There, are of course, paid options for analytics. But for the purposes of this series, I’m going to focusing on free options wherever possible, with a primary focus on blogs run on the WordPress platform.

Google

Google is probably the undisputed powerhouse of the internet. Their analytics program is easily comparable to many paid options, measuring deep and broad into your traffic, sources and can even track your bounce and conversion rates. Google Analytics is a must for any WordPress blog, and an indispensable help for Indie Authors in general.

But where to begin? Well, first, you’re going to need analytics on your blog. While there are a great many plug-ins for WordPress that will do the job, I use Google Analytics by MonsterInsights. It’s very user-friendly, making it a snap even for the technologically-uninclined to understand. Simply install the plug-in, register your site with Google Analytics, and the plug-in makes the rest a snap.

But how to make sense of the data?

The Google Analytics dashboard isn’t the most user-friendly thing I’ve used, and it can be a little intimidating for those who can’t tell the difference between conversions and bounces, but I’m going to attempt to break it down a little bit for you.

For myself, I only use three major metrics to find out what I need from Google. Found on the left sidebar once you’ve logged into your site from Analytics, they are AudienceAcquisitions and Behavior.

Audience is fairly self-explanatory. It helps you break down visitors to your site by various demographics. (It’s also important to remind users that certain functions must be enabled in order to collect data.) Details such as the age, gender and location of your visitors can be useful in future marketing attempts, but Google takes it a step further by analyzing your visitors interests, based on their own search histories. Speaking from the perspective of a serial author, this information can be incredibly useful. Are the people who are taking the time to read your stories sports fans? Maybe they’re into collectibles and memorabilia. It might not seem like such an important factor, but you’d be surprised at the groupings your readers can take.

A few years ago, I noticed two particular trends with my users that other forms of analytics could never have told me. First, that an exceedingly high number of male readers spent much of their time online looking up and reading about movies, video games and comics, and there was a large chunk of female readers who spent a lot of time reading about arts, crafts and fashion. While there is no doubt some overlap between these interests, it already painted a very clear picture of the gender gap of my readers. Additionally, you can break down reader interests not just by gender, but by age grouping, geography, and even more arbitrary features such as their chosen operating system and browser software, should you find some relevance there.

Acquisitions is similarly self-explanatory. This section explains how your readers found you. While you could certainly rely solely on an option such as Wordpress Jetpack to give you on-the-spot, quick information about where your traffic is coming from, and I would suggest doing just that, there comes a time when you really want to analyze your traffic. While Jetpack will be happy to tell you that you got x number of hits from the Google search engine, Google Analytics will even tell you the search term they used to find you, making it remarkably easy to judge whether or not they landed on your page by complete fluke, but also giving you insights on untapped areas of interest.

Every once in a while, I’ll get an email from someone expressing their gratitude for Children of the Halo. I always make a point to ask how they came to discover it, especially in the days before I jumped aboard the analytics train. One reader, in particular, told me he found it by total accident, all because a character in one of the chapters had mentioned the name of his favorite band, which he had been searching for. As a result, the user forgot their initial search, pointed his browser to the first chapter, and the entire book. Furthermore, Google will inform you of the bounce rate of those who come in. If someone, say, searches for information on how to create a steel alloy from iron and carbon, and stumbles across a chapter where a blacksmith in your story does much the same, and ends up becoming a reader, that’s important information to know.

What to do with it, on the other hand, is mostly interpretive.

Finally, we come to Behavior. Now, behavior is very important because, if you’re a serial author like myself, it can tell you just how many readers you’ve had. While hit numbers of pages can be useful for a ballpark figure, the way Google analyzes the behavior of your users can tell you, more-or-less definitively, just how many people read through each of your chapters to click on the next. While we often like to jump and clap every time we see a large hit count on the first chapter of a serial, those numbers can be very misleading, and the reality is likely to be much more conservative. At the time of this writing, for instance, the prologue of Children of the Halo received 311 hits during the month of December, 2016. The last chapter posted in December, on the other hand, received only 17 hits. Does this mean I only have seventeen readers? Not exactly, because some of those 17 hits could have been a landing on the site that resulted in a bounce off-site, and some readers haven’t quite caught up due to the posting schedule and could be several days to a week behind.

But Google shares that information with us by analyzing the flow of pages that users tend to follow, listed under the Behavior tab. Judging from Google, I can safely estimate that I have between 30-35 regular readers. Not bad for my first month back.

In short: If you’re not already using Google Analytics, you’re doing it wrong. It’s an absolute must-have for any Indie Author, regardless of genre or writing ability.

WordPress

I made a passing mention of it earlier, but for WordPress users, another indispensable tool for analytics is: Jetpack by WordPress. While it won’t give you as much detailed information as Google’s option, Jetpack’s site analytics is great for an altogether other reason: Time.

While Google can sometimes take up to 24 hours to record information, and their real-time analytics can be finicky, Jetpack gives you the hard number in real-time. Curious as to how many hits you’ve gotten today? Jetpack will tell you without even having to navigate to its dedicated page on your WordPress back-end, simply by looking along the top of the page. (So long as you’re logged into your site, Jetpack displays a helpful graph along the top of your page, no matter where on the site you are.)

By clicking on it, you’re able to get a slew of other data in a much cleaner, more user-friendly manner than Google. What it lacks in detail, it more than makes up for in ease of use, and in some cases is just as useful as Google in telling you where most of your hits are coming from. More hits coming from search engines? Well, Google’s the one you talk to. But if you’re getting the vast majority of hits from a static page somewhere, then Jetpack’s your best option, at least until you need more details.

Installation is so simple a chimpanzee could do it, and as a bonus Jetpack comes stock-full of all sorts of useful widgets and plug-ins for your site, from Twitter and Facebook widgets to passive plug-ins that most people wouldn’t notice, but add great functionality to your site from malicious attack protection to the ability to automatically publicize your content the moment you click the publish button.

Jetpack is a must-have for more reasons than just analytics.

Other Sources

Twitter measures all sorts of useful metrics.

There are, of course, other options for analytics that don’t link directly to your site. For instance, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube all have detailed analytics from managing your account, page or channel that can offer you useful information as to how your tweets, posts and videos are bein interacted with. Twitter in particular gives incredibly detailed, near-Google-level facts about how your tweets are doing and how people are interacting with them, making it useful to run A/B Split Testing for your marketing, among other things.

Furthermore, I’ve even gone so far as to create a number of spreadsheets based on simple, loose data such as book sales. These can be useful as well, giving you some unexpected insights on what works, and what doesn’t. For instance, on my 2016 sales spreadsheet, I noticed a marked uptic around summertime– just after schools had let out for the summer. Additionally, I ran an ad back in March, and I noticed that during the period the ad was running, my sales increased by nearly 175% before falling back down again– something I hadn’t noticed while running the add, but did notice now that the year has ended.

Regardless, analytics are probably one of the most valuable tools to the Indie Author. While traditional authors can focus on their writing while their publisher takes care of everything else, us indies often have to play the role of writer, editor, publicist, marketer and accountant.

Be sure to stay tuned for the next part of A to Z for Indie Authors for more.

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