David Court introduces Google’s free web-traffic analysis tool, which lets you track how
visitors use your site – and helps you find and fix the pages that aren’t working so well.
W hether you’re running a personal homepage or a corporate website, Google Analytics is a powerful tool for monitoring the number of visitors to your site. It doesn’t matter if your site gets one hundred or one million impressions per month – Google will record what every single visitor gets up to, helping you to understand and improve their experience. Indeed, we use Google Analytics on the PC & Tech Authority website, to gain a real-time overview of how the site is performing, and to examine how individual pages and sections of the site are doing.
If you’re new to online analytics then the Google Analytics interface can seem daunting at first. But as we reveal below, you need to learn only a few simple techniques to start working out what is or isn’t working on your website. This incredibly valuable data can then guide you in developing the site to attract new visitors, encourage them to spend more time browsing and have them leave happier.
Why choose Google Analytics?
There are many different web analytics providers out there. Some, such as Adobe’s SiteCatalyst, charge a steep fee for the service. Others offer only basic software for free, in the hope you’ll upgrade to a paid-for service at a later date. Google Analytics is a free service – at least, until you reach around 10 million hits per month. Frankly, if you have those figures, the US$150,000 annual fee for the premium service shouldn’t be a problem. For the rest of us, setup can be achieved in a matter of minutes (see our guide to integrating Google Analytics into your site).
The only real downside to Google Analytics is that it isn’t the most intuitive service out there. Once you familiarise yourself with the front-end, however, you’ll have access to an ocean of data that, when used properly, can effectively set out your web strategy for the next six months.
Even though Google Analytics is free, there’s virtually no limit to how much legacy data you can store, so you can analyse how your site has grown and evolved over time. Here at PC & Tech Authority, we have analytics data going back to 24 June 2008 – with a few clicks, we can confirm that the top article on the site that day was “Murdoch fumes as Facebook overtakes MySpace”, with 4,173 views. (Needless to say, our online presence has grown since then.)
While historical statistics can be revealing, analytics can also provide valuable insights through real-time data. Here, Chartbeat is a good alternative to Google Analytics, offering easier access to in-depth data and a friendlier interface too. A basic subscription to Chartbeat costs US$299 a month – but if you think it might be right for your needs, you can find out more and sign up for a free trial at chartbeat.com.
What can Google Analytics tell me?
Google Analytics reports information in four key areas: your audience (how many people visited your site), acquisition (how they got to your site), behaviour (what they did while they were on your site) and real-time activity (what’s happening on your site right now). You’ll find all this information can be accessed in the navigation bar on the left of the web page.
Let’s start by looking at audience data. This is where you can find out how many users visited your site; the proportion of these that were new or returning; how many individual pages were seen by each visitor; and the average time they spent on your site.
There are also some metrics here that aren’t so self-explanatory. Your site’s “bounce rate” represents the proportion of visitors who land on your site and then leave again without clicking on anything. As a general rule, a bounce rate below 50% is good – there’s a lot of casual browsing on the web – but a figure above 80% suggests that something about your site, or an individual page, is driving people away, and that ought to be addressed.
The total number of sessions measures individual periods of activity on a site. Essentially, a session is recorded when a user leaves your site and doesn’t return within 30 minutes (you can adjust the timing by going to Admin | Property | Tracking Into | Session Settings), or is simply inactive on your site for that period. The easiest way to understand this is to picture a visitor spending 29 minutes clicking around your site. During this time they follow multiple links, navigate to several different pages, and then leave. Google Analytics counts this as one session. If the user had gone away for 30 minutes or longer at any point, and then returned and continued interacting with your site, this would then be registered as two sessions.
Session data helps you understand how many pages users view on a visit to your site, which can be useful in deciding – for example – how often to serve full-page promotions to a visitor. Serving a fresh promotion or advert to a user every five pages might annoy them if they skip pages in quick succession; doing so on a per-session basis is likely to give you more clicks and be less annoying.
You can drill down even further into your audience. Within two more clicks you can find out where in the world visitors are accessing your site from, who their broadband provider is, and what OS or device they’re using, as well as the distribution of age and sex. This sort of information can be particularly valuable when it comes to tailoring your content or advertising to suit the right demographic.
Acquisition data refers to the origin of your audience. This doesn’t mean where in the world they’re located (that’s under Audience, as mentioned above), but rather what online source actually directed them to your website.
If you’ve paid for an SEO (search-engine optimisation) company or social-media guru to overhaul your site, this is a section on which to focus closely. This tab tracks which websites your users were visiting before they followed a link to your site, and filters this information into four types of acquisition: organic search, direct traffic, referral traffic and social.
Organic search basically means through search engines. If someone has landed on your site from Google, Bing, Yahoo, or even Lycos (it does still exist!) then it will be recorded here. Direct traffic is when a user arrives on your site with no previous browsing activity – in other words, when they type in your web address by hand, so you can expect your homepage to get the bulk of this direct traffic. It’s advisable to take this figure as a guide rather than fact, however, since it’s thought that Google Analytics counts any source it can’t properly trace as direct traffic.
Referral traffic represents links from other web pages. This can be misleading, since big aggregating sites such as Google News and Reddit are shown here, so the line between search results and referrals can be a bit blurred. The last acquisition type is social. Here, you can see how much traffic comes via social networks, as well as discovering which of your pages are most popular on each platform – that is, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and so on.
Knowing where your traffic is coming from can help you make decisions on how to market your website. For example, if you see that a huge proportion of your traffic comes via Facebook, you might want to investigate why that is, and see if whatever is driving your success can work for other types of traffic too.
Google Analytics’ behaviour data lets you see which pages on your site are attracting lots of visitors, and which are less popular. You can track the exact number of views and users each page has received, and if your site has an internal structure then the taxonomy view – also known as the site map – lets you see how each individual section of your site is performing.
Under the heading Site Content, you’ll see four options. You can choose to view either page URLs or titles; if you want to see a list of your top articles, click on the All Pages tab. Here you can see view counts for individual pages, plus details of unique views, the average time spent on each page, entrances, bounce rates and exit percentage. If you’re looking for traffic information from a specific page, an easy way to find it is to paste its address (minus your domain name) into the search box.
The content drilldown tab lets you see how entire sections of your site are faring. On pcandtechauthority.com.au, for example, we can see how many users are visiting our reviews section, versus the number heading to our in-depth section. Such data can help you make decisions about where to focus your efforts and resources – for example, you might choose to invest in shoring up a section that isn’t as popular as it should be, or focus your energy on the parts of your site that receive the most attention.
For the more advanced user, the next two sections will be important. These are the Landing and Exit pages tabs. Landing pages are simply the pages to which users are arriving to your site, while exit pages are the last ones people visit before leaving your site. Any pages that stand out in either section deserve close attention, since these may be driving up your overall bounce rate.
One final section worth paying attention to is the Site Speed tab. We recommend you sort the results on this page by average page-load time, and try manually loading the slowest pages in a separate web browser. Visitors will lose patience if a page doesn’t appear almost instantly, so if you feel the page takes too long to load, consider reducing its complexity or reducing the size of images.
Google Analytics’ real-time data can give you a “right now” count of active visitors to your site – and you can also investigate further into who’s doing what. On the overview page you can see stats regarding top live referrals, active pages, social traffic, top locations and top keyword searches – although Google has started hiding a large percentage of this data to discourage click-chasers from gaming the system.
It’s easy to make too much of live statistics. If you’re in charge of a website, you shouldn’t make any decisions based solely on a single snapshot of visitor activity. However, real-time data gives you a valuable glimpse at what content is the most popular at certain points. Unexpected patterns of activity can also expose bugs: many commercial sites keep a live analytics view running on a dedicated terminal at all times. We’ve certainly found that this approach can bring server-based errors or broken links to our attention before many automated services.
The great thing about Google Analytics is that all the information about what your site is and isn’t doing is gathered automatically. You don’t need to lift a finger to build up an invaluable store of data that can guide you to making informed changes to your site. And, of course, if the changes you make don’t have the desired effect, you’ll be able to see it rapidly via Google Analytics’ real-time reports, so you can revert back before serious damage is done.
On the plus side, if your data-led changes do work – and there’s no reason they shouldn’t – Google Analytics will confirm it through presenting ego-boosting graphs… which you can then use to continue making your site even better.