Content Research: Click Tracking, Heatmaps, and Recordings

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(or How to Tell Why They’re Not Clicking)

Last time, we talked about the idea of researching how your users use your content. And we created a rough research plan with a few questions that we wanted to answer.

I mentioned that we decided click tracking would be a good way to find the answers to our questions. So let’s look at this research method as it applies to content research. First up, the basics.

What is click tracking? What does it give you?

Footprints in the snow on steps.
Photo :rabiem22

Click tracking software records the movements and clicks of users’ mice (or fingers) as they navigate through your site.

Depending on the click tracking software you choose, you may get a range of reports:

  • aggregate reports of clicks overlaid onto individual pages of your site
  • the same for mouse hovers
  • the same for scrolling patterns
  • anonymous recordings of individual sessions users have made on your site

Some services offer click counters as well as hotspot image maps. Others offer extra features like user surveys and polls.

We found the click tracking reports invaluable in uncovering usage trends for important pages of our site. But I also love watching the recordings. These give you a true sense of how individuals consume content.

How does it work?

A lot like Google Analytics: you insert a JavaScript code snippet on each page of your site, and the analytics service starts collecting the data.

Click tracking wins

Click tracking on the Facebook UI
Photo: K2_UX

One of the questions we were trying to answer with our research was whether users even saw the tag cloud on the right-hand side of our site’s pages. Another was about whether they used our lists of FAQs, which were presented as a feature area on landing pages.

Click tracking swiftly revealed that yes, users used both these tools — the click reports told us that in an instant.

Accordingly, we shelved our plans for removing the FAQ area and instead revisited each page where FAQs were present to make sure the right ones were displaying in the right places.

But that wasn’t all. The screen recordings showed that not only were users clicking on tag clouds, they were using them to get ideas for search topics and refinements. They were, effectively, learning from the tags associated with the content.

The click tracking also revealed a lot about how text and images work independently and together on our articles and landing pages. We’re now designing for these usage trends. It’s also informed us about the way users perceive screenshots of a flat-design app within support pages that also take a flat design style (spoiler: not well).

For us, the click tracking service just keeps delivering.

Click tracking limitations

As you can see, it’s pretty easy for click tracking to go to your head. But there are a few limitations with click tracking too.

Firstly, heatmap analysis alone only tells you so much. If your click tracking tool doesn’t come with recordings (Google Analytics, I’m looking at you) you’re missing out on some great information that will help you make more sense of the heatmaps themselves.

Secondly, you can only watch so many recordings. Don’t go for a clicktracking package that gives you a gazillion recordings, because there’s no way you’ll be able to watch even a fraction of them.

Click tracking tips and tricks

Here are a few things we learned the hard way that might help you use click tracking effectively to better understand your content straight out of the gate.

  • Ideally, choose a package that lets you target specific pages on your site for click track overlays. This will help you avoid overwhelm and focus your efforts to improve your content.
  • Don’t be swayed by a single recording. It’s easy to watch a user struggle with something and become convinced on the spot that it should change. But you have many, many users on your site every day. Try to look for trends in other data to back up what you’ve seen in that recording so that you can act on dependable information.
  • Be prepared to take the time to look at what your click tracking gives you — including recordings. Otherwise, you might as well not bother with it. Putting a little time aside each week to watch a sample of recordings is a good way to stay focused and get value out of your click tracking investment.

We started off targeting landing pages, but soon had click tracking on long-form content, forms, and more.

Click tracking services to try

At the most basic level, Google Analytics offers aggregate click tracking reports for individual pages. As I mentioned, clicks are a small part of the equation.

I’ve had experience with Mouseflow, which offered click, hover, and scroll reports as well as individual recordings. Now I’m using the Hotjar beta, which provides all this in a very user-friendly interface, along with the ability to add polls to individual pages, and tie surveys to them as well.

Hotjar's heatmaps interface in action
Hotjar’s heatmaps interface in action

Where Mouseflow and analytics provided general reports, Hotjar lets you choose which pages are targeted. This helps me keep the information overload to a minimum and focus on certain things at certain times.

True, I could do the same with packages that tracked clicks to every page on the site, but the sheer fact that I’ve had to choose pages to target has forced me to think about what I want to see, and be much more specific about analysis. If you don’t find yourself with unlimited time, you might find that handy too.

Other services worth reviewing include the industry standards: Clicktale and Crazy Egg (no recordings).

What’s next?

Click tracking is just one of the ways you can dig deeper into how users are actually using the content on your site.

Once we had click tracking on our site, we found we still had questions — the kinds of questions that could only be answered with qualitative data. We’ll talk about that next time.

Meanwhile, have you had any experience using click tracking tools either on your site in general, or on your content in particular? Tell us some of what you learned in the comments.

Georgina LaidlawGeorgina Laidlaw
View Author

Georgina has more than fifteen years' experience writing and editing for web, print and voice. With a background in marketing and a passion for words, the time Georgina spent with companies like Sausage Software and cemented her lasting interest in the media, persuasion, and communications culture.

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