Analytics track the behavior of people using your website. For most businesses, this is critical information, as it helps them understand and tailor their service to their users needs. We’ll compare some of the best tools for the job.

What Are Analytics Good For?

Your business has a goal, and whether that goal is convincing a user to buy your product, download your app, or just look at your content for a while, your website helps you achieve this goal. Analytics help point you in the right direction, and good analytics are the backbone of many online companies.

Analytics aren’t magic though—you’ll still need to interpret them properly, otherwise it’s all just numbers and charts without any direction. Your analytics should present you with insights about how users interact with your business that you can use to make better business decisions. Sometimes, this is as simple as changing up the design of your webpage to funnel more users towards your goal.

For example, you might notice that users who scrolled further down the page had a higher rate of leaving the site. This is probably due to a lack of interest, and your site’s design drives their interest. If you had a “Sign Up” button in the center of your landing page, it may catch the attention of a lot of people, but for those who are more skeptical, they’ll be scrolling farther down below the fold. By the time they’re down there, they’ve likely forgotten about the sign up form, so to reduce this bounce rate you may want to try including another sign up button below your main content.

Analytics allow you to do A/B testing, which is like the scientific method for websites. You present user A with the default (control) version of your website, you present user B with a variant of your website that you changed (hypothesis), and you measure how they interact with it. Repeat that a thousand times or so, and you’ve conducted your own experiment. You might find that version B achieves its goal far more often than version A, and you can replace version A with the better page. Keep doing this and you’ll arrive at a very optimized website.

On the other hand, if you’re not a marketing person, and don’t care a ton about optimization, something as simple as pageview and session tracking can help you understand how your site is faring in the ocean of the Internet, and at the very least is a useful tool to look at.

Google Analytics—Pageview and Session Tracking

Google Analytics.

Google Analytics is entirely free to use, and does quite a bit. Fundamentally, it tracks pageviews and information about the users viewing your pages. It sorts these into sessions, which represent a user’s experience interacting with your site.

The “Behavior Flow” page shows this experience nicely. On the left, users land on your site on a specific page, and then either drop off (bounce) or click on a different page, repeated until they eventually leave. Bounces aren’t entirely bad though, as users may have just gotten the info they needed and left your site content.

A Google Analytics Behavior Flow page.

Because it only collects data on the initial page load, Google Analytics won’t show you much information about what users do on your website once they’re browsing, unless they navigate to a different page. (This includes different sections of single page web apps, so long as the route in the URL bar changes.)

The point of the behavior flow is about conversion, how many users complete the goal of your website. If your goal is to get people to sign up for an account, you can track how many new sessions lead to sign-ups. Though one user can often have multiple sessions on different days, so this metric isn’t entirely accurate, but it’s a good start.

While most of the traffic stats are anonymized, their admin panel does have a few tools to track real users, like the Audience tab, which includes information about the demographics of your users. It also includes the “Lifetime Value” page, which shows a useful metric—Goal Completions Per User, and other lifetime metrics like Revenue Per User.

A Google Analytics Lifetime Value page.

This tracks users over a course of 90 days and over multiple sessions, which can answer a question like “Out of the last 90 days, what percentage of people using my site signed up for an account?”, solving the problem of multiple sessions per user.

Because Google Analytics is free, it doesn’t hurt to add it to your website, in addition to anything else on this list, even if it doesn’t entirely match your use case. More data is always better.

In general, most of the other tools on this list will also do what Google Analytics does, but will offer something else on top that may be worth your money.

Mixpanel—A Focus On Users

Mixpanel shifts the focus from your site’s raw performance towards the effect that it has on your users, especially over longer periods of time. This kind of reporting is much more useful to SaaS and app companies, as most of your revenue will come from premium users rather than direct pageviews.

For example, if your service offers a free trial before requiring payment, Mixpanel can track individual users through the course of completing the trial. You can view how many people signed up for the free trial, how many completed the free trial, and how many ended up paying for a premium account.

Mixpanel tracking effects.

You could then group these users based on their actions, and send them targeted messages. For example, you could remind people who finished the free trial but didn’t sign up that there is a special “10% off for the first three months” deal just for them, and possibly convert more interested users into premium subscribers.

Mixpanel offers a free tier for business with under 5 million data points (how many events are fired, which depends on how much you track) and under 1000 users. Beyond that, you’ll need to pay $999 per year for each 10 million data points and 50k users your business has.

Crazy Egg–Interaction Heatmaps and A/B Testing

Crazy Egg does one thing very well—make your website better. Which happens to be their slogan, but it’s true.

Their most alluring feature are their heatmaps, which show aggregate user activity on your site. If you want to know which design elements are attracting users the most, a heatmap can point you directly toward it, without having to dig through user sessions and behaviour flows.

A Crazy Egg heatmap.

Crazy Egg also records how people use your site, and can generate videos of an individual user’s session. Most analytics tools focus on overall statistics, but understanding personal experiences with your website can give you more insight than a lot of charts will.

These activity views are made even better with A/B testing, which lets you test multiple variants of a site against a control to see which one achieves its goal most often.

A Crazy Egg activity view.

Crazy Egg comes in pretty cheap, with their basic plan starting at just $24 a month for 30,000 pageviews tracked, up to $249 a month for 500,000 pageviews tracked.

Heap—A Whole Lot of Data

Heap believes analytics is a “problem rooted in data, not visualization,” so they try to capture nearly every action a user performs on your website. This is all done automatically, so you won’t have to manually track events or even worry about what you should be tracking, as Heap will track it all.

Because there’s nothing to configure about the data collection, you’ll need to configure your events retroactively, which Heap calls “Virtual Events”. These help sort the raw data into meaningful interactions with your app. For example, you could create a virtual event to sort all sessions during which a user clicked on a particular element of your page, or all sessions where a form was submitted.

A Heap Virtual Event.

While it does have some great features, the amount of data Heap captures can be hard to sift through without a lot of configuration on your part, so it’s definitely the most technical on this list.

Heap offers a free tier that tracks 5k sessions per month, with an unlimited number of events per session. After that, plans start at $499 per month for 20k sessions.

Profile Photo for Anthony Heddings Anthony Heddings
Anthony Heddings is the resident cloud engineer for LifeSavvy Media, a technical writer, programmer, and an expert at Amazon's AWS platform. He's written hundreds of articles for How-To Geek and CloudSavvy IT that have been read millions of times.
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