There are quite a few commercial offerings and a Google search on "tools to help you understand visitor behaviour" will give you plenty of links. However the free offerings from Google and Yahoo can't really be beaten, especially if you are someone getting started.
All tools require that you put some code on your site. This is usually done on what is called the master page: it is the page that gives your site its overall look and feel. It is also sometime referred to as the site template. By adding the Google code in this one special place, it appears on all your pages even new ones you have not created yet. Once this is done then Google (or Yahoo) will start accumulating data and give you reports. For various reasons you should not take the exact number of visitors as an absolute measurement. However, if these tools say your site has increased its hits by 20% then that is a very good guide. If these tools give 80% of your hits in the UK, and you have a .co.uk domain then that is also what you might expect. In terms of actual hits the "real" values may be different by 10%, 20% (this is the subject of some debate). The figures you get will be consistent from week to week and month to month. Thus commissioning a SEO company should produce a visible change in hits and rankings. SEO companies will provide their own stylised reports. It is only natural that these reports will show their efforts in a favourable light. As a rule if an SEO company claims an increase in certain visitor numbers: there should be proportionate change in Google Analytics.
There is also a ranking tool which overcomes some tricks that Google use to give you a better search experience on your PC. When you search on a term and then click on a page, Google will mark this page higher for you next time you search. This is normally helpful behaviour. People will often want to return to a page they found (and selected) earlier. However when you are checking how your pages are ranked it will give a false impression. First time visitors will not see the ranking you are seeing on your PC. This tool circumvents this effect and gives an accurate read out of each page's ranking.
The following screen shots give just some of the range of reports freely available for every page of your web site. The image immediately below is the overview page. More detailed information can be seen by clicking on the links on the actual pages. These are actual shots from our site: we have removed some information which we would prefer our competitors not to see.
The geographical distribution of your visitors is available.
Whilst the picture is pretty, there is much more to chew upon with the table information:
If you click on the city name, you will get a breakdown of visitors from that town. Please keep in mind that in the US a city can be almost any size from 300 people up.
You can see so called hot spots. Which links are actually clicked, so if you have two or more links to the same information, which one is more effective. If you have a dynamic menu, then you will need to hover over the links to get the menu to drop down and see the exact item selected by the user.
The exact words which people use to find your site.
This is not the same as how often words feature on your site. This information is available in Google ad words:
Once you have specified the site (which can be a competitor's site) you will get a list:
There is also Google Web master tools which gives you the key words that Google notes for contribution to your web site:
You can find who links to your site, and the context of their links.
In fact Google web master tools provide an entire range of reports that help you keep your site clean and friendly for the search engine robots that work endlessly to find new content on the web.
Of course it would be helpful to know how your site compares with others (your competitors!) This is known as benchmarking. Google analytics helps us with this: http://www.google.com/support/analytics/bin/topic.py?topic=13909
You can drill down to the sector you site serves:
Then we can see how our site compares with others in our industry (the graphs have been changed and they are there for illustrative purposes only):
Some, but not all, reports are even available that give you visits per hour across the day.
Well we put 3 similar phrases into Google searching for repairs to computer equipment near Reading. In many ways we meant the same thing each time. The exception being using the word Laptop versus Computer or PC, since laptop repairs may be more specialised.
Three largely different sets of results. The question is which would provide the best return?
Let us take Laptop repairs Reading:
Donix computer solutions is the second ranked link and also included in the list immediately below. The reason we highlight Donix is because we have used them and they provide a good service. Now computer repairs Reading
Donix is nowhere in the map, still first on the non geographic list though.
Finally PC repairs
Donix is nowhere on the map and not on the list below (so we did not include the list in this screen shot)
So which is best? Well that depends on two things:
So it pays to know your business.
There is quite a lot to SEO, but the above are the basics. Maybe its best to take a short cut and just go for pay per click? Alternately, let us say that you have gone through your site.
So let us sum up where you are:
You have filled in the Headers, descriptions and created worthwhile content that people actually enjoy reading or watching.
You keep you site active. You should add to it on a weekly basis.
You have invested in a content management system. This will give you a consistent look and feel across your site giving it a more professional feel. We use Umbraco and it can be configured to stop you creating a new page without all the SEO goodies filled in. Umbraco is a bit techie but it suits our needs. There are some very good video tutorials to help you.
You are doing things to create inbound links.
You would like to give your site a helping hand by investing in some pay per click. Straight forward? Well there is a thing called Ad word quality. It basically determines where your Ad appears for the amount you pay. Google explains it here. It turns out that many of the things you did to improve your SEO also reduced the cost of PPC. So which ever route you choose, SEO is important.
Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide: ok this is now probaly the best place to start (google: "Google Search Engine Optimization Starter Guide" if this link does not download a pdf file.)