As a Digital Strategist, every day I look at nonprofit website data on GA4 and Google Search Console, and every day, I observe similar problems across nonprofit websites.
The nonprofits I work with are diverse, varying in size, scope, and issue area. Still, they share some interesting website trends. For the most part, the recurring themes I see the most represent similar problems in reporting and engaging. Problems that I want to share with you so you can assess whether or not these website trends are affecting your organization, too.
No matter how much we optimize, strategize, and maintain our websites, nonprofit analytics will always present opportunities to improve. I focus on these opportunities every time I’m reviewing the analytics on a website for the first time. I have to confess: It’s a bit exciting when I see the same trends occur in different nonprofit website data sets. What can I say, I like patterns! But I also get excited because I’ve encountered these issues enough times to know exactly how to diagnose them and resolve them.
As a Digital Strategist, these are the top five most common website problems I see across nonprofit websites:
- High amounts of direct traffic
- Many new users, but low user retention
- Poor mobile website performance
- High page load speeds
- High bounce rates
Let’s explore those metrics and what they what might mean for your organization.
5 Common Website Problems We Found by Analyzing Nonprofit Analytics
1. High amounts of direct traffic
To fully understand our website’s visits, we need to know where the visitors are coming from. Are people coming to our website from Google’s organic search? Or are they coming from our Linkedin page? Well, a conundrum we often see when we look under the hood of Google Analytics is that a website’s highest traffic acquisition channel is “direct”.
“Direct” traffic is basically Google’s way of saying, “sorry, we don’t know where this traffic came from!” Google knows that this traffic is not from organic search and can’t properly track a referral source, so the traffic is clumped in with other confusing data points into a bit of an “everything and the kitchen sink” category. Traffic labeled as “direct” could be the result of:
- Someone typing your URL right into the search bar
- Someone utilizing a bookmark
- GA configuration problems failing to track an organic search or a referring website
More often than not, when I’m assessing our clients’ website data, I see very high rates of direct traffic. And this is important because it means that despite your SEO or digital marketing efforts, your understanding of who is interacting with your website and from where is obscured. Sometimes, high amounts of direct traffic make sense for nonprofits—like ones with speaking engagements or conferences because in these environments, you might give out your URL to large groups of people. But for nonprofits who don’t do this, high amounts of direct traffic can be very confusing.
We always recommend checking your GA4 tagging and configurations, as well as consistently documenting events that you anticipate will cause a direct traffic spike. If you have already seen a spike and are now trying to make sense of it, one easy way to do this is to take a look at the specific web pages users from direct traffic are viewing. From here you can consider what may have sent them here.
2. Many new users, but low user retention
Constantly attracting new users is a key goal for many nonprofits who use their websites to fund their work and share their research. But time and time again, I see nonprofit websites who have first time users making up 70%+ of website sessions and pageviews. Of course, new users are extremely valuable too, perhaps more valuable than returning users when it comes to building your brand recognition and engaging with new audiences. But at its core, having very few returning web users means that your website is not engaging people enough for them to come back. And this is a super common problem with big consequences if you’re seeking to build long lasting relationships with your audience.
No matter how many resources and how much time we allot to search engine optimization, if people leave our website never to come back after getting there, our work has been futile. If you see that your website has very few returning users we often suggest moderated usability testing: an approach where a UX researcher facilitates a number of sessions with live participants, asking and watching them complete tasks on your website in real time. This research process allows us to gain a better understanding of how people are engaging with your website and what pain points may be stopping users from coming back.
A mix of moderated usability testing interviewing live participants, and passive usability testing using a software tool like Crazyegg is a strong plan to get to the bottom of what may be happening. But usability testing will not always give you a complete answer for why so few people are returning to your website. It is just one very useful tool. You need to consider your audiences and their habits, the usefulness and relevance of your website’s content, and your digital marketing approach to bring people back after their first interaction with your website.
3. Poor mobile website performance
Another very common trend I see is simpler: poor mobile website performance and usability scores. While for many or maybe even most nonprofits, desktop traffic makes up the vast majority of website visits, we still have to consider our website’s mobile performance for multiple reasons.
Firstly, a strong mobile website is important for our brand consistency. Simply put, we want the quality of interaction with our organization to be the same regardless of what piece of technology a user accesses our website with. We already exist in a culture of mistrust and skepticism, so consistency is key.
Another case for strong mobile performance is the fact that Google has declared their use of mobile-first indexing. What mobile-first indexing means is that Google crawls your website’s mobile version to determine your page indexing and rankings. While your organization may be focusing on optimizing your desktop user experience, even if the vast majority of your users access your website on desktop, prioritizing desktop can hurt your SEO rankings.
We recommend taking a look at your PageSpeedInsights report for mobile, as well as your Google Search Console Mobile Core Web Vitals report. These reports provide scores as well as diagnoses and suggestions for improvements to make to your pages. These improvements will pay off in both user experience and SEO.
4. High page load speeds
High page load speeds are another problem I see across many websites regularly, especially more content heavy nonprofit websites, like those of research institutes. No matter how strong the content on your web pages is, if it is not loading correctly or in a timely manner, very few users will see or engage with it.
Page load can be both a technical and a design problem that may require collaborative solving. Here again, we recommend taking a look at PageSpeedInsights and your Core Web Vitals to identify if page load is presenting a problem for your website. If necessary, you can also consider how to design your pages in a leaner fashion, reducing unnecessary content that is helping to slow down your load.
5. High bounce rates
When we look at our website sessions, it’s tempting to just take the numbers you see on GA4 at face value. But we need to consider whether these pageviews actually represent instances of meaningful engagement or not. This is where bounce rates and engagement rates (the inverse of bounce rates) come in.
Website “bounces” as reported by GA4, are when users leave your website after less than 10 seconds without triggering any events and without viewing multiple pages or screens.
When reporting session traffic levels to our clients I like to report two numbers: the original sessions number as reported from GA4, and an engaged sessions number (which is original sessions number multiplied by the engagement rate). This is incredibly important because if for instance over the past year your website garnered 100,000 sessions, you might assume that you had an extremely strong year without further analysis. But if during this time your reported bounce rate is 75%, then only 25,000 of those website sessions actually represent valuable traffic on your site.
Bounce rates between 50% and 80% are what I see most frequently in analyzing many nonprofit websites. And more often than not, this information is really surprising (and alarming) to clients. But the thing about bounce rates is they help to paint a picture of people’s interactions with your website that also help to explain other metrics, like those mentioned above. For instance:
- Bounce rates help to explain why your website has so many more new users than returning users. If people bounce off your website immediately after entering it, there is close to no likelihood they will return to the site.
- Bounce rates also explain why you may see that all of the most trafficked pages on your website are those performing well in organic search. If users are bouncing right off the page they enter upon, they are not exploring any other pages on your site.
- And bounce rates really go hand in hand with usability and performance issues like poor mobile performance or high page load speed. If you enter a web page and it does not load within a few seconds, are you staying?
There’s no quick answer to improve bounce rates, but there certainly are different avenues to explore what is causing your website’s high bounce rates. Moderated usability testing is one option, and examining your website’s load speed are both good steps.
When it comes to a page’s design, we recommend thinking about how you can make your pages immediately interesting and actionable above the average fold (the average place across devices where the initial page view ends). You need to grab people’s attention before they have to scroll further down the page.
Some final thoughts
The struggles we’ve explored are just a few indications that your organization can make improvements on your website that will significantly increase its performance, but they are of course not the only metrics to consider. If your organization is not seeing any of these problems at this time, great, but keep a close eye on other metrics and maybe take a deeper dive into some of your key web pages to focus optimization efforts there. If your organization is seeing one or more of these problems, know you’re in good company. These are trends for a reason. Consider some of our recommendations for what to do next and keep a close eye on these metrics as you begin to make changes. I like to think of our websites as a live document of our brand. They’re never done and they can always use improvement.
If you’re interested in exploring more ways to improve your noprofit website, you can also always reach out.