Custom variables are frosting on your web analytics cake

There is a lot to be said about implementing web analytics on a site, and using that data to improve customer experience and a company’s bottom line.  Guys like Avinash Kaushik, Eric Peterson and Jim Sterne all advocate that baseline implementations provide a boat-load of traffic data that will never be looked at in a million years, with segments out the ying-yang.  However, I’m going to argue that although free tools do offer a whack of great reports out of the box, the real power of web analytics solutions comes from custom variables.  Your web analytics tags are the cake, and custom variables are the oh-so-delicious frosting on top.  Regardless of your tool of choice, here are some of the best custom variables to implement on your site for segmentation bliss.

My top custom variables you should implement:

  • Registered versus non-Registered
    This answers the question about what content motivates two entirely different sets of visitors.  Most websites these days will have various mechanisms that enable visitors to register in some way.  On a retail website this would be registering to purchase or formulate a gift registry, on service sites this might include a free user account, and on blogs the registration mechanism might be used for commenting or subscribing to posts via email.
  • Logged-in versus not-logged in
    Used in conjunction with registered/non-registered, this can be used to filter out much of the mundane repetitive pathing that occurs with repeat customers/local visitors.  Subtle user behavior can often be lost in a flurry of routine page views and visits resulting from people that know your site, brand, products, and services inside and out.
  • Custom site sections and sub sections
    Sometimes the layout of your site doesn’t jive with directory structure or page naming conventions, by coming up with your own silos, you’re saying “yeah, our site organization kinda sucks, but what if it were organized this way.”
  • Content ID
    Particularly useful on sites with a lot of content that’s organized using a content management system.  Rather than referring to each page by it’s page name, or by it’s permalink or URL, it might be easier to categorize pages by the ID it’s assigned in your CMS.  Different strokes for different folks.  This is why discovery questions with internal stakeholders can be so important, what do your people prefer?
  • Content type
    Answers the age old questions of which pages contain specialty content get the most love, for example pages with articles, photos, audio, video, flash, etc.
  • User key
    Sometimes you need an identifier that resolves in two separate systems: your web analytics solution and your business system.  If you’re going to key your users, I’d recommend a somewhat  stronger privacy policy, and only tagging visitors after they are logged into secure areas of your site.
  • Demographics
    Gender and age group can really help you form valuable insights into visitor patterns, but collecting representative samples can be tough on low traffic sites.  Again, use this with a bit of caution and respect for visitor privacy.  Ensure that the mechanism whereby you collect this information is documented and people know they are opting-in some tidbits of personal information.

Of course, implementing custom variables will vary by web analytics tool and website, so chasing the holy grail of data overload might not be feasible.  But if the sky’s the limit, try to brainstorm as many different custom variables you can that answer your valuable business questions.

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