Google Analytics now allows you to anonymously opt in to share your website’s tracking data so you can benchmark its results against similar-sized sites in either the same or alternative industry categories. All this is great news for website marketers keen to see how they fare against others in the same business category. There are a few fish hooks to be aware of, but generally it’s an option I suggest everyone takes up. Here’s a summary of what’s on offer.

Firstly, here is where you find it in your Google Analytics account. You can opt into the system and find your new benchmarking reports as an option within your Visitors menu. When you access this section for the first time you are prompted to start sharing your data. By opting in, your website data will be made available to Google anonymously and with the removal of all identifiable information. It will then share the data with its benchmarking service as well as with other Google products you may use.

If you click on ‘More Data Sharing Options’ you are shown the second data-sharing option. This allows you to share your raw data (not anonymous) just with Google, to help them improve the use of other Google products you may use such as Ad Sense and AdWords. I am not sure why you would want to show Google your raw analytics data – especially if you are using them for advertising – so I would suggest it is best to steer clear of this one for now. The first default option is the one we need.

Once you have opted in, Google states that it should take about two weeks to collect your data and display some meaningful results. But, that said, I have seen reports display immediately for a few smaller sites I have set up. Your first reports should include your last month’s data. If you decide to opt out, your data sharing is stopped immediately. Once you decide to join, the Google bot will trawl your site to determine a) the size of your site; and b) the business category you fit within. The number of visitors you attract will determine which size range your site sits within. And, while you can pick different categories to compare yourself with, you can’t see how your stats differ from those of larger or smaller sites, only those of equal size to your own.

The category options are quite extensive and allow for some reasonably accurate comparisons. For instance, if you own a website that sells lighting products then you are in luck – see the figure below.

To have enough data to make a category comparable, it requires over 100 Google Accounts of the same type. Each account can contain multiple websites, so the final number of websites in each category will be in excess of this. Sites whose data are at the extreme end of the statistical range – either very good or extremely poor – are extracted from the comparing category so as not to skew the results.

So what can you compare against? Well, for now, you have five metrics to work on: visits, page views, pages per visit, bounce rate, average time on site and new visits. It’s not a complete list of comparison points but it’s enough to let you know how you fare. Here are a few pointers on how you can use just two of these five stats to compare different parts of your website marketing.

Firstly, let’s talk about the new visit count. This is shown as a percentage of the total visits – see below

With a figure nearly 25% above the category aggregate, this site looks like a strong performer but beneath this result could be cause for concern. For this website, repeat visitors are obviously going to be less than the aggregate and from what past experience has told us about the category this client is in, it is these repeat clients that make up the bulk of the sales. Now, it may be that a strong marketing campaign is the cause for this rise and things will settle down in the weeks to come. Therefore, on its own the statistic is not something you can act on straight away, but when such a large difference from the benchmark occurs, there is reason to dig further into your results to see the true cause.

However, things are quite different when working with the bounce rate metric. With this you can usually take your results and start working immediately on your pages to make improvements. (This is why this great metric is included in all KPI reports we produce.) Here is a quick recap on what makes a visitor ‘bounce’. It’s not good news – they come, they don’t like what they see and they leave – all usually within 3 seconds.

Poor home page design, confusing navigation, inadequate search engine optimisation and even a poorly executed Google AdWords set-up can all be uncovered through monitoring your bounce rate. Using your benchmarking results, you can see how the whole category compares when it comes to enticing its visitors to stay and linger longer than the few seconds that makes up a bounce. For example, in the figure below you can see that the bounce rate for this site is 40% lower than others in the same category. It uses a rather unique way to help people navigate through its content and, based on this result, it seems to be working well.

So, it is quite easy to see the benefit in comparing your statistics against those within your own industry category, but what about from category to category? Why would it be handy for, say, the manager of a women’s retail shop to compare her websites stats with, say, a travel business?

Well, if she was looking to run some joint promotional opportunities then this may be worthwhile. For instance, she could see that in January, while her visitor traffic tends to fall off as people are just starting back at work, the travel website data are on the rise with people booking their next holiday. And, conversely, during the start of summer when her traffic climbs with the new season launch, the travel site traffic is falling as people think less about a trip overseas and more about being with friends at Christmas. In this case, both businesses could do well by working together with some cross online promotions to even out their respective site traffic.

This brings me neatly to some of the misgivings that I have about the benchmarking system. Firstly, the previous example works perfectly well if the sites being compared are within the same hemisphere. There’s nothing I can find that ensures this is the case. I understand that the data need to include offshore websites to create an accurate aggregate value, especially for some of the niche business categories but it would be nice to know if these sites are in the same part of the globe to make season-based comparisons work.

Secondly, I can’t for the life of me find out what category my website has been placed in after I have opted into the benchmarking system. I have a strong feeling that the Google brains responsible for categorising the site will get it right but it would be nice to see in which category my information is being anonymously placed.

These are just two gripes and minor ones at that. You would struggle to find an easier way to anonymously opt in to a benchmarking solution as powerful as this. Wouldn’t it be great if you could compare your financial results in the same way? Once again, the team has added another must use feature to Google Analytics and still the price remains the same – FREE – loving that!