Most every DIY website owner has heard that you should install Google Analytics (if you haven’t, you should) – but what does Google Analytics do?
Sure, you might understand that it counts the number of visitors to your website. It does do that. But that’s like saying your iPhone exists to make phone calls…it’s vastly underselling it.
There is no way that this post can be anywhere close to comprehensive, but here’s a beginning answer to the question – what can I do with Google Analytics? And why is it so important?
The short version is that it not only tells you how many visitors your site has but it also tells you who those visitors; where they came from; what they are doing on your site; and why it matters to your goals – plus it gives you real-time data to watch visitors interact with your site. It allows you to truly understand your website.
Many people are curious about how it all works. Google Analytics tracks your website visitor’s browsers via cookies. It tracks where they are coming from via information that servers relay to each other as we all navigate the internet.
It all gets immensely complicated, but suffice it to say that Google Analytics is very accurate, and truly is Enterprise-class software that you get to use for free. Being able to track the who, where, what, why, and how of website visitors used to be the domain of very expensive for-huge-corporations-only software – but it’s now in anyone’s hands.
Side note. Why does Google give Analytics away when similar software charges $100s to $1000s/mo for the same info? Answer= Advertising. No, Google doesn’t influence your website in any way with Analytics. Analytics benefits Google because it shows website owners just how powerful their websites are…and shows how much revenue advertising generates.
Google Analytics gives real numbers about how your advertising is performing…allowing you to justify more ad spend – something no billboard advertiser can do. But! Here’s the good news – you don’t have to pay Google a dime in advertising or fees to use Google Analytics. You can just thank Google’s enlightened self-interest for this amazing product.
But back to what does Google Analytics do? Once it is set up, it takes visitor information and organizes it into 5 different reports – based around the who, where, what & why of your visitors. And we’ll use those to frame how you can use it (and tips on what to focus on) – and answer exactly what can I do with Google Analytics?
Understanding Your Audience
The audience report organizes information about your visitors – how many you’ve had, how many have never visited before, where they are from, what language they speak, and what technology they are using, and how they move through your site. In other words, this report tells the who of your visitors.
Most of this data is of medium-term use. You can use technology data to make decisions about making your site more mobile friendly. You can use the Visitor Flow report to make decisions about navigation (if you see people dropping off a page or moving back and forth between the same pages…that can indicate a problem).
Again, this report is useful – but you only really need to check it every once in a while, when you need to make specific or strategic decisions about your website.
This report is where it’s at – it’s telling you the where of your visitors. Basically, traffic sources will tell you not only how many visitors you have – but also where they are coming from. This information allows you to make real short, medium, and long-term decisions about building your website traffic.
The mediums that Analytics uses are (none), which is basically anyone who comes directly to your site; organic, which is all traffic from the organic (non-paid) results in search engines; and referral, which is traffic that comes from other websites.
Other mediums will pop up for any specific campaigns (such as email, ad, rss, etc).
But each medium also sources – so Google, Bing, and Yahoo are common sources for the medium of organic traffic. The source data from referral traffic can be especially informative.
Many platforms (such as MailChimp for email, and AdWords for search advertising) will automatically tag any campaigns that you might run (such as email, ads, etc that you want to track more closely than referral/source).
If you ever run a specific campaign (a banner ad, email, etc that doesn’t do built in tagging) – be sure to use the Google URL builder, which will allow you to tag the links to your site so that you will know exactly where/how the visitors are arriving.
The other reports that are especially useful in Traffic Sources are Advertising and Search Engine Optimization. If you have linked your AdWords account with Analytics (here’s how), then Google Analytics will give you very specific data on your ads.
For the Search Engine Optimization report – you just have to link your Webmaster Tools account (which is also a must for websites) with you Google Analytics account. It offers a pretty straightforward linking process if you are logged into both when checking out the report for the first time. It’ll give you additional insight into your organic traffic.
This report tells you what your visitors are doing on your site. You can get data about pages are doing well, how different pages interact with each other, and exactly what people do on each page.
The most useful tabs in Content that I consistently use are the Landing Pages & Exit Pages report under Site Content. You can use Landing Pages to see what pages generate the most traffic for you – and if people are finding those pages useful (by looking at time on site and bounce rate – which is the percentage of people who leave without looking at other pages on your site).
And similarly, you can use Exit pages to see what pages might need to be revised of checked out – since those will be the pages where people drop off your site.
The Content section is also the section that can get the most complicated – with Events & Content Drilldown. For now – I’d highlight just 2 other useful reports that you can use without being an Analytics ninja.
You should look at Behavior Flow to see how people move through your site – it will show you exactly what sections you should improve (rather than leaving it to guesswork). Also, the In-Page Analytics will tell you what visitors click on in individual pages.
Not sure whether to add or remove social buttons? Can’t decide whether you edit your menu? This report will show you exactly what and where people click on each page. Very useful.
The conversions report focuses on what’s more important than traffic, engagement, or page interaction – your actual goals. When you are first setting up your Google Analytics, it’s important to go to Admin and define goals – it can be a contact form, time on site, anything that you think is valuable for your business (here’s how)…and see below.
And of course, if you are running a business that sells stuff online, then you should have ecommerce tracking setup. Once setup, Google Analytics will track your sales, revenue, SKUs, and anything else you define.
You can use this data to see how your visitors move through your site to eventually purchase. You can see what types of traffic are most profitable (this is where Google’s self-interest comes in – they want you to see exactly how much money their ads can drive).
But back to the Conversions report. Once you have goals/ecommerce set up – the Conversions Report shows you the number of conversions and how they happened.
Multi-channel & attribution is a bit advanced – but these reports can let you see how your visitors interact with your site through different mediums. For example, you probably know from your own experience that you rarely buy from a site the first time you visit.
You might find the site through organic search, leave, then come back through an ad, leave, then come back through an ad or yet another medium. It gets quite complicated but suffice it to say that if you are curious, you can really dig into what your visitors are doing – and use this data to make decisions about design, content, and marketing.
The last report that Google Analytics produces is the Real-Time report. Yes. Real-time.
If you are still wondering what does Google Analytics do – this report is what shows off it’s more sexy capabilities. There’s nothing quite as cool as a website owner as watching real people from real places interacting with your site in real time.
The report gives you the same data as all the other reports – but in real-time. It’s most useful for tracking fast-moving campaigns (ie, your social media posts or email newsletter). But it’s also simply fun.
Next Steps & Other Resources
So – you can probably tell that Google Analytics can do much, much more than just count your visits. In a way, it almost gives too much data. It’s easy to get overwhelmed and distracted, or fall into the trap of forever measuring without actually doing.
If you’ve never really worked with Google Analytics – take some time to play around with it. Click through all the menus to see what’s happening. You won’t break anything (all the options are in Admin – not reporting).
Make a checklist of things you want to check every week/month/quarter. Be sure your goals are set up. If you have an ecommerce site, spend extra time setting up ecommerce tracking.
I also frequently mention excellent Analytics resources in my weekly newsletter – you can sign up for it here.