For a small business, it's all about cost effectiveness. Every investment is measured against its return, because, on a small budget, there's less wiggle room.
So for a business looking to track its online presence better, what's more cost-effective than free?
In this series, we're looking at how audience measurement has changed, and how small businesses can take advantage of it. we'll examine some free tools and how they work.
In the land of free audience-tracking tools, Google Analytics is the king. It's surprisingly robust for a free product, and its user interface is easy to use and goes deep. Many tech consultants recommend it for a small business with a tight budget.
"It's essential for all small businesses to be using some kind of analytics platform, whether it's Google Analytics or something else," says Andrew Swartz , who works in global communications and public affairs for Google Canada.
Key to any kind of marketing campaign or Web design is knowing whether it's working. Fine-tuned analytic software can tell you exactly how visitors are using your site, and which steps along the way you might be losing them.
"You need to understand what's going on with your site; otherwise, it's a black hole and you don't know what you're investing in," Mr. Swartz says.
Another Google tool to look at is Insights for Search. If you type in a keyword, it will tell you in which areas and at what times people are most likely to look for that keyword, and related searches. Mr. Swartz suggests this could be used as a market research tool, identifying key geographical regions that have a lot of interest in a certain topic – and when they're popular.
Getting started with Google Analytics
1. Sign up for an account.
2. Embed Google's tracking code on to your Web pages. This bit of code acts as a page's reception desk, tracking who's going in and out. If your site was built by a designer, you may need his or her help for this step. If you set up the site yourself with free tools, such as WordPress, they may have plugins that help you.
3. Wait. Google needs time to collect data to create a baseline of how users experience your site, so it can properly measure any changes you make. Depending on how much traffic your website gets, this could take a couple of weeks.
4. While you wait for Google to collect data, you can learn how to use its tools. One good resource is the blog of author Avinash Kaushik, who works at Google.
Remember, it's best to avoid absolute numbers like page views and unique visitors – at least at first.
Concentrate more on measurements that give you an idea of how visitors use your site. Bounce rate, which tells you how when visitors leave the site, and time spent on a page are better measures. One of Mr. Kaushik's more interesting highlights for e-commerce sites is the "checkout abandonment rate" – the rate at which customers will start the purchase process and give up. This could point to poor design or unnecessarily long checkout procedures.
Audience measurement is a growing industry, with many small companies popping up to provide niche services. Some of these companies even have "try before you buy" deals that let you use their services until you hit a certain amount of traffic. For small businesses that have sites with low traffic, this can be a great way to get premium service for free. Freemium offerings include:
Mixpanel. Used by blogging site Posterous and Q&A compendium Quora, it specializes in real-time tracking, and is free for very low-traffic sites.
Geckoboard provides very detailed stats, aimed at developers and the more tech-savvy. It's free for a 30-day trial.
Piwik is an open-source Web analytics software that aims to be to Google Analytics what Firefox is to Internet Explorer. It definitely requires a working knowledge of Web design.
These tools may not cost money, but you will need to spend some time learning how they work and how to use them effectively – some more than others.
Plus, in the case of Google, the company provides you with powerful tools – then tracks how you use them, to customize the ads it shows you, as well as encouraging you to spend money through Google AdWords.
Nothing is truly free.
Next week: Premium and niche analytics tools
Join The Globe's Small Business LinkedIn group to network with other entrepreneurs and to discuss topical issues.
Our free weekly small-business newsletter is now available. Every Friday a team of editors selects the top picks from our blog posts, features, multimedia and columnists, and delivers them to your inbox. If you have registered for The Globe's website, you can sign up here. Click on the Small Business Briefing checkbox and hit 'save changes.' If you need to register for the site, click here.