Don’t Kill the Messenger if you Don’t Like the Message

December 23, 2009

I just wrote an email reply to someone who sent me an analytics question from the “ask any question” box on the left side-bar of my site (you should see it here).  It’s common to get questions like “why doesn’t Google Analytics show any data” and the like, as well as the inquiry for more interesting problems or requests for consulting.  The e-mail reply I just wrote was one in a dialog around the question asked by this user and it struck me this morning as something I’d like to post because it drives home a good point.  Read on for the whole story.  The short moral: don’t kill the messenger if you don’t like the message!

What happens when you don’t like the message?

The original question I received from the user was basically “the number of visits hasn’t changed for three days.  Is something wrong?”  My answer: while somewhat odd, it’s probably not a problem – perhaps you just happened to receive the same number of visits each day.  Then there was a second question:

I have been tracking the number of visitors for my website and the number of visitors shown by Analytics has gone down everyday since the 16 of December.  Should I just consider this a not-so-good program or is there an answer?  Thanks for your help.

I’m not meaning to make fun of the question – it’s rather logical in fact.  However it shows a line of thinking that is, unfortunately, probably all-too-common as well.  That line of thinking is: “I don’t like what Google Analytics is telling me – Google Analytics must be wrong!”  It’s the age-old “kill the messenger if you don’t like the message” story all over again.

Who’s to blame: Google Analytics or something else?

Just because your traffic goes down doesn’t mean the program reporting the traffic isn’t any good.  Unless you’ve improperly implemented Google Analytics in a fashion that would falsely inflate traffic and then you have been making daily changes to correct those problems there is no reason traffic would be reported lower unless your traffic is, in fact, decreasing.  If you’re comparing Google Analytics to another tool be sure you’re not comparing to a “log-based” tool – one that looks at server logs which include non-human visitors like search engine crawlers and other bots.  I usually see about 60% of traffic in a log-based report come from non-human activity.  Google Analytics is generally immune to this problem because it uses both JavaScript tags and cookies.  Most bots will not execute JavaScript, and those that do generally don’t accept cookies at the same time (except some “super-bots” like Kintiskton that I wrote about some time ago) .

Asking the right questions

As with many web analytics issues, what matters most is asking the right question, not simply any question.  The questions you should be asking related to this are:

  • Why would your traffic go down?
  • What’s happening seasonally?
  • What traffic sources are bringing traffic and is one source or medium really dropping?

For example, if you received lots of traffic form organic search engines but you’ve made changes that have hurt your exposure in search results, or Google’s new personalization algorithm has resulted in your site being less favorable for Google searchers and thus your site is shown in results less frequently, perhaps the decline is due to a decline from Google search traffic rather than anything else.

The point is this: don’t kill the messenger because you don’t like the message – i.e. don’t presume GA is wrong because it reports declining traffic – GA is just telling you what’s happening.  Listen to what it says and take action on it!