What is website visitor tracking, and how to track users effectively

Companies use website visitor tracking to understand in detail how visitors interact with their site. Teams use visitors’ information to adjust the website content and structure to eliminate needless steps and nudge more visitors to purchase, sign up, and return. Learn how to improve your website with visitor tracking.

Woman analyzing data

Why website visitor tracking is crucial

Web visitor tracking gives teams a detailed understanding of their users’ needs, behaviors, and frustrations so the team can create a more satisfying and useful website experience. A news site, for example, can see which articles visitors enjoy and promote popular posts. An e-commerce site can learn which pages in their checkout process frustrate customers and eliminate unnecessary fields, and a SaaS team can learn whether search ads or social media ads produce higher quality leads.

Nearly every company with a website can use its visitor data to make more informed product, marketing, and customer support decisions, and to nudge its users to find more value.

Common goals for website user tracking include:

  • Encouraging more purchases or signups
  • Attracting more visitors
  • Earning more ad clicks
  • Producing more leads
  • Eliminating barriers to buying

Teams with analytics can track users in aggregate with reports known as user flows, which show the stream of page views users typically follow. Flows suggest whether visitors are having a pleasant or unpleasant experience. If many visitors arrive at the website’s FAQ or self-help section, for instance, it could indicate that they find the site confusing. If an increasing number of users bounce, it could indicate that whatever landing page users bounce from isn’t serving them as well as expected.

Teams can also use an aggregate view of visitor behaviors to evaluate the health of the website. Microsoft famously audited its website and found that three million of its 10 million web pages had never been viewed. Pages without a purpose are a waste of resources to create and maintain, and by understanding where visitors go and what they want, teams can produce more useful content and guide users to it.

With the right tools, teams can also track individuals or small groups of users to treat each segment of their user population differently. An ad-supported media site, for instance, could serve more calls-to-action to purchase a monthly subscription to visitors with ad-blockers. An enterprise software’s marketing team could score and rank each visitor by their likelihood to buy and set triggers to notify their marketing or sales team of highly qualified leads.

Companies often combine website analytics data with qualitative data from user research and user testing to better understand the emotional component of users’ journeys. If a personal finance app’s website team knows that most users only visit for a particular reporting feature that isn’t available on mobile, and typically arrive feeling frustrated, they have a clear sense of what visitors want to achieve and how they expect the site to serve them.

How does your website compare?

Download Mixpanel’s Product Benchmarks Report.

Get report
An illustration of the touch points that create a user experience.

How to track website visitors

There are two ways to track users on websites: Build an analytics tool or purchase one. Most companies choose the latter option, as building a tool to analyze a website is cumbersome and more expensive to create and maintain than purchasing a pre-built product.

There are many website analytics vendors, commonly divided between those that are free and those that are paid. As a rule of thumb, paid software offers more features and have more intuitive interfaces because the teams behind them have a clearer incentive to deliver a satisfying service. Paid tools also provide more flexibility for companies to grow. As the team’s needs evolve, only paid tools allow them to track users at the individual-level, whereas most free tools can only provide an aggregate view.

When choosing an analytics tool, teams should evaluate the technologies it uses to track users. Each technology has quirks that affect the quality of the data the tool produces. Browser cookies, for example, are widely used but flawed and somewhat controversial. The European data protection act GDPR makes it illegal to use cookies to track users without their permission, and Apple, maker of Safari, the fourth most used web browser globally, recently announced that it would no longer support cookies. Any tool that’s overly reliant upon cookies may underestimate the actual number of website visits, especially from Safari users.

Common website tracking technologies include:

  • Custom URLs: The tool appends a string of characters to the end of the page URL.
  • Browser cookies: The tool loads a simple string of text onto a users’ browser so it can recognize them over repeat visits.
  • Pixel tags: Similar to cookies, pixel tags load a 1×1 pixel image onto the users’ browser when the page loads, which allows the tool to identify individuals.
  • IP addresses: Tools can associate IP addresses with internet providers and sometimes, regions and zip codes.

Rarely, in practice, do two analytics platforms or technologies completely agree on visitor counts or behaviors. The best tools employ multiple technologies and assign users a universal ID that combines data from multiple technologies to provide a more complete view.

Before teams implement a user analytics tool, they must create a tracking plan, where they record a list of events and user behaviors they consider useful and worth tracking. Not all visitor information is useful, and having too much noise—visits, clicks, or screen time—can crowd out more valuable signals such as purchases, strings of page visits, and conversions. The act of creating a tracking plan also forces teams to create a syntax for naming their events so they’re easily understood when the data displays in the analytics platform interface.

Examples of website visitor tracking

Once a tool is implemented, teams can begin exploring their data, understanding user flows, testing hypotheses, and improving their website. For example:

A SaaS team drives more leads by improving its site experience

A SaaS website team can deploy website analytics to help marketing and sales drive more leads and convert more accounts. User analytics provides data on errors and identifies a website’s most popular content, so the team can diagnose pages that aren’t displaying correctly and place their most valuable content on the site’s primary navigation bar. The team can also test new versions of the site with a website A/B testing tool.

Learn more about tracking people

Hidden Valley Ranch increases visitor engagement 3x

Consumer packaged goods brand Hidden Valley Ranch sells mostly through supermarkets, but when its e-commerce business began to take off, it implemented Mixpanel user analytics to measure and increase its visitors’ retention and engagement. The team ran A/B tests on both known and anonymous web visitors and found that personalizing sections of the website increased visitor engagement by 3x.

Read the Hidden Valley Ranch case study

Fortune 100 media brand earns more ad revenue

A large media brand deployed Mixpanel user analytics to help it adapt to consumers’ changing content consumption habits, and to increase its revenue without running ads that negatively impact viewership rates. The team used Mixpanel to understand the relationship between content and ads, and pointpoint the rate at which more ads would cause users to disengage. The team discovered that by personalizing content to viewers, they increased view time and return rates, and were able to run more ads and drive more revenue.

Read the Fortune 100 Media Brand case study

E-commerce brand Vente-Privee drives three billion in revenue

French e-commerce brand Vente-Privee used website analytics to segment its most valuable shoppers and adjust its website to nudge more of them to purchase. With analytics, the team was able to view cross-device shopping patterns for the first time and noticed that high-value shoppers often browsed on mobile but returned later to buy on desktop. The team re-coded its shopping cart tool to better support cross-device purchases which helped grow its sales to over three billion dollars.

Read the Vente-Privee case study

Web tracking regulation

Tracking website visitors can raise privacy concerns and, in some markets such as Europe, is highly regulated. The European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) makes it illegal to track web visitors without their express consent, and companies that don’t comply can face fines. Users also have a right to access their data and to request that it be deleted. Before tracking website visitors, teams should always ensure they and their tracking tools comply with regulations like GDPR.

Website user tracking gives teams insight into what users do and empowers them to make changes that improve the site’s performance. Every company with a website can use its visitor data—SaaS teams can drive more leads, e-commerce brands increase sales, and media brands to drive more ad revenue—if they invest in the tools to track it. 

Try Mixpanel today

Ready to learn more about your website visitors?