Twitter is finally about to fix a longstanding problem for news organizations and other Web businesses that use Twitter to drive traffic to their sites — knowing exactly how much Twitter matters to their websites.
Until now, there was no way to measure that. Web analytics counted Twitter.com visitors, but didn’t account for the the many people using third-party Twitter apps. Bit.ly tracks referrals from any of its shortened links, but not from other URL shortening services.
Because the Twitter ecosystem is so fragmented with different apps and URL shorteners, Twitter itself is the only one that could possibly fix this problem. And now it is, by changing the way it handles shared links and building a tool to disclose data to website owners.
The fundamental change is that Twitter is “wrapping” each shared link with a new unique shortlink on its t.co domain. This is already in widespread use, and by Oct. 10 every link on Twitter will be encoded as a t.co URL.
The t.co links essentially function as a turnstile — everyone entering has to pass through one, and as they do, they’re counted among the total number of visitors.
The immediate implication is that you can look at the t.co referrals in your own website analytics and have a better picture of the total impact Twitter has on your site traffic. But that’s still imperfect. For example, while TweetDeck users are now logged as a t.co referral, visitors from the browser-based Hootsuite client still show up as referrals from hootsuite.com.
The only way to get a pure count is to get the t.co data for your site directly from Twitter. And that’s exactly what Twitter’s new Web Analytics tool will do.
That service will show how much your website’s content is being shared on Twitter, by whom, and how many people are clicking on each link. It sounds nice and easy, and from what I’ve seen it will be.
Starting this week, a ”small pilot group of partners” get access to Twitter Web Analytics, and Twitter says it will open the service to all website owners “within the next few weeks.”
Businesses that have advertised on Twitter in the promoted tweets or trends programs have already had access to an advanced analytics tool. It shows not only the effectiveness of their ad campaign, but also measures how their regular tweets perform by generating mentions, follows or total audience reach. And it has a “followers dashboard” that displays your followers over time and breaks them down by their interests, geography, gender and engagement level.
It’s not clear if all of those features will become part of the new Web Analytics tool, but at least it will be free for everyone and have some useful basic data.
After a couple years of talking about how Twitter has become a big force in spreading news and links, we’ll finally be able to judge just how powerful that force is. That’s very important for news organizations and other businesses, which need reliable data to guide social media strategies and to measure the effectiveness of their tactics.
As Web Analytics debuts, journalists should begin having newsroom conversations about which metrics are of strategic importance, how you will track them over time and how to use the feedback to improve. Without such a plan, even the most detailed data won’t matter much.