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Higher Education Marketing founder Phil Taza has worked in the Canadian education market for nearly a decade, specializing in Google Analytics, Education Lead Generation, Search Engine Optimization (SEO) for Schools, and Pay Per Click Marketing, among many other education marketing tactics and tools. Phil recently took some time out to share his thoughts on Web and Google Analytics.

Here’s what he had to say:

How important would you say Web Analytics are today?

There’s a push from schools to have measurable marketing results, which can be used to determine their Return on Investment (ROI). For a typical college, marketing can be in the hundreds of thousands, if not millions, a year, so, especially now, with the downturn in the economy and the last recession, Web Analytics is a very powerful tool and mechanism that can identify each individual source of traffic that comes to the website. With proper configuration and set up, we’ll be able to know the actual end result of that traffic. So Web Analytics is very important today.

Can a school effectively market themselves without it?

Well, you can always take a tank to hunt a rabbit, but I think it’s overkill. There’s always been the analogy of the sniper or the shotgun. If you want to be a sniper in marketing, and want to be precise and know exactly what’s happening, you need Web Analytics. And Google Analytics is a great tool…

If you don’t use Web Analytics, you’re really going at this with your gut and intuition, and in today’s day and age it’s not productive.

What is Google Analytics? What does it offer that offer that other Web Analytics tools do not?

There are different types of Web Analytics tools, some measure log files, others measure packet snippets, and others measure click stream data, like Google Analytics does.

There are two main technological approaches to collecting the data. The first method, logfile analysis, reads the logfiles in which the web server records all its transactions. The second method, page tagging, uses JavaScript on each page to notify a third-party server when a web browser renders a page. Both collect data that can be processed to produce web traffic reports.

Technical things aside, though, the main benefit of using Google Analytics is user adoption: it’s the most commonly used and it’s also free, whereas other enterprise Web Analytics tools are costly. For example, in the retail sector a lot of businesses use Coremetrics or Omniture, and it’s a very steep bill.

Google Analytics is software as a service model, so you don’t have to install, maintain or host anything on your server; Google does it all. So I would say that’s very beneficial.

How would you go about setting Google Analytics up for a school? What would be the first steps?

When I come in, I want to see how that the Google Analytics code is implemented, but I also want to have a broader picture of the type of website that is being measured. For smaller schools, that only have one simple site, the implementation and setup process requires making sure that the proper codes are on all the pages, that website goals are defined and configured – and often a goal is a lead form or a request for more information form being filled out – and a few filters to make sure that all the internal traffic is taken out of the reports.

But for larger schools (like universities or colleges) that have a library, an international department, a continuing education department, community training, etc, it can be trickier. These schools often have multiple subdomains to their website, and what I’ve found is that schools will sometimes implement a different version of the Google Analytics code for each subdomain. This can really create a mess, since the metrics, as the user navigates from the home page to all these different subdomains, are always being accrued as a bounce or a new visitor, when it’s really just the same visitor and the same session going through the site.

So typically, we look at the site holistically, mapping out all the subdomains and the domains to the school. We then implement one universal Google Analytics code base, which supports visits across multiple domains and subdomains. So, to go back to the original question, the first steps would be to align the website goals with the strategic objectives of the college, assess the web universe for that school, determine how complex the installation of the website is, and then provide the proper Google Analytics code for one account.

What are some of the challenges involved in configuring Google Analytics?

IT is always a challenge. If IT is involved in the website, which it often is, then the timelines are longer. Another challenge is making sure the top stakeholders are buying into Web Analytics and that they’re pushing for this.

Also, the stakeholders we communicate with are often in charge of marketing, but that doesn’t mean they’re in charge of the entire website, and there are often other departments that want to control their own site. They think there’s a benefit to having their own Google Analytics account, but actually, it deters the process for them and the whole school.

Another challenge is identifying the proper Key Performance Indicators which are relevant to each tier of stakeholders…

Are there some common mistakes that schools often make when working with Google Analytics?

Well the one we just identified, with multiple accounts, is a common mistake. Another one that’s not really a mistake, but something that’s neglected is forgetting to configure website goals. What do you want Google Analytics to tell you? And more importantly, what objectives do you want visitors to your site to accomplish? Those questions aren’t thought of, and that’s a problem, since the whole configuration of GA should be aligned with your overall strategy.

Another mistake is not filtering out internal traffic. Think of it, if you’re a university, you have hundreds of employees and terminals that may access the website on a day-to-day basis, accruing page views, visits and traffic. Well, that’s not who we want to measure, we want to measure the outsiders.

Also, a lot of schools do email marketing campaigns, which drive people to the website. Problem is, they don’t properly implement those emails, they don’t tag them so that Google Analytics can see them coming back. So those are some of the mistakes.

Once you’ve assembled all the necessary data, how would you go about improving a website’s performance?

Once we know what the goals are, we can start getting the conversion data from those goals, so, how many visits does it take to get one completed goal? Then we work to increase that metric. Typically, we have to drill down into each keyword, segment of traffic, or referral traffic and try to optimize each of them. It could be that some of marketing initiatives are not yielding good results, so we could eliminate some, or increase others.

We have to look at every variable and try to isolate each one. The best methodology is to do tests. We can do Split A/B or Multivariate testing, and we would use Website Optimizer to do those tests.

Once an improvement is noted, is the job done?

It’s a continual process because the recruitment process is ongoing. Schools are always recruiting students year after year, month after month, and as we know, the Web changes so fast. Today something may be working, but tomorrow it may not. Facebook, for example, is a big thing now, and school’s all have Facebook pages, but are they monitoring it? We can help integrate Facebook Analytics with Google Analytics.

So no, it’s an ongoing process, and as part of our service, we do ongoing monitoring of the Key Performance Indicators, making sure that reports and metrics are adapted to stakeholder requirements, their desires, their business objectives.

What do you see happening in the Web marketing world in the next few years? Is there anything you think that schools should start looking into?

Well, we can look ahead, but I think we should first look at now. A lot of the basics, like SEO – making sure that the website pages are indexed, that the meta tags are populated, that the titles include key words – are often not done properly. So, I would suggest that before schools go out and try to be on the next new thing, focus on the basics, set up their goals, get their analytics tool, and make sure your pages are indexed.

If I had to venture out on a limb and talk about the future, though, I would say SMS and Mobile devices are going to be very important. Reaching Mobile devices, and tailoring to that audience and that screen resolution, should be something that schools focus on.