‘We’re a Church; Not a Business’: The Proper Role of Google Analytics in Church Life

Though I could list several hundred statements I hear people express about church life, “We’re a church, not a business,” has to rank among the most-often heard. There are a number of situations in which I will disagree with this idea (budgeting, legal matters, managing staff, etc.), but when it comes to e-newsletter and website analytics, I’m fully on-board.

This week, I wish to look first at website metrics. Google Analytics, by far the most popular of the website metric tools, is geared toward American business, not American nonprofits and churches. This doesn’t undermine the value of the tool for churches, but it does mean that churches must approach the tool with an awareness of how it can benefit them.

Pathways, not Numbers: Analytics is a valuable tool for tracking visitor numbers and growth. But, churches—especially smaller communities (less that 200 on Sunday)—should worry less about numbers and more about the pathways that people take through their site. Why? Consider architects. Most will tell you that while they work hard to understand how people will move inside buildings they are going to design, and they design with their research in mind, not until the building is constructed and people begin to move through it do they know how traffic will flow. The same is true for websites. And analytics will show you how people track through your site. This knowledge will tell you a great deal about how well, or how poorly, your site is working.

Recency, not Bounce: In the world of Analytics, “bounce” is a four-letter word. Bounce records a person who visits one page and then leaves your site. In business, that’s bad news. In churches, bounce does not necessarily mean failure. Because your users are more likely to be familiar with your site, they’re more likely to bookmark the pages they favor, visit those, and leave. Meaning your bounce rate may run higher. A more important statistic to pay attention to is recency, which keeps track of repeat traffic. High numbers of people who are there for the first time, as well as high numbers of people who come repeatedly can signal trouble for your website.

New vs. Returning: This may be the most important statistic for you to watch. This charts the percentage of new visitors (first-time visitors) vs. repeat visitors. Many churches who feel their website is stagnate are surprised to find out that a large number of visitors are “new.” How to account for this? It could be many things: People sending links to their friends (and Analytics will track this), or people looking for churches who visit your site looking for a home and who leave. There are other possibilities. It’s important to discover the answer.

When it comes to Google Analytics, be aware that it’s a business tool, first. But this does not mean it’s not useful for churches. You just need to look at it through a glass clearly.