‘You can’t manage what you can’t measure’, as the old adage goes, and it’s certainly true when it comes to running a successful website. Are you hitting your business goals? Do you know how many visitors you’re getting per month – and how many of those are translating into actual sales? How much of your hard-earned traffic is going to waste?
To understand what’s really going on with your website, you need to have a good web analytics platform in place. There are plenty of analytics tools out there, but Google Analytics has become the go-to solution for a lot of web marketers, as it’s free to use, relatively simple to set up, and it has plenty of flexibility for implementing additional tracking methods.
But what valuable nuggets of information can you actually get out of Analytics? Here’s a quick run down of the basic features of the platform – and how they can help your web business succeed.
(Please note: as is always the case with Google’s products, Analytics is constantly being refined and readjusted. We’ve tried to cover the core elements of the software, but keep in mind that some of the features in this article might be renamed, relocated or removed altogether in the future.)
Learn about your audience
Who are the people who visit your site? Do they match up with the kind of audience you’re targeting? Google Analytics can tell you.
If you click the Demographics tab on the left hand menu, you can view a range of demographic data on your site visitors, including their age groups, genders, geographic locations, browsers, devices and more.
You can then use this information to plan your next steps and better serve your customers. Let’s say you have a large chunk of your web traffic visiting from the US – perhaps it’s worth setting up a locally hosted version of your site across the pond to reduce loading times for your US customers?
There’s a psychological benefit, too. Being able to see your audience in detail helps to make them feel like the living, breathing humans they are, rather than simply traffic numbers.
Spot compatibility issues with browsers and devices
Let’s go back to the device and browser choices of your users, as these can help to flag up any technical optimisation issues you might have with your site.
Analytics lists the different browsers and devices your site visitors are using, along with their individual user numbers, and performance stats such as conversion rate, bounce rate and average time on page (which we’ll talk about more in a minute).
Look out for any abnormally low performance stats – it’s not a substitute for real browser/device testing, but it can indicate that your site is broken for some of your users.
And when it comes to testing for real, you’ll know which browsers and devices are more popular (and should therefore be prioritised in your testing).
Look out for site speed too – you’ll find this under the Behaviour tab (which we’ll come to shortly). This section provides important information on your site’s loading speed (including how long it takes your server to respond to requests), and allows you to view stats for individual segments of your site traffic – which should help you diagnose the issues behind a slow site.
Find out where your users are coming from
How are people actually finding your site in the first place? How well are your efforts to draw in new customers actually working? This is where the Acquisitions tab comes into play.
Here, you can see the different channels through which your users came to land on your site – and how many of them subsequently converted into customers.
For those who came to your site from Google’s search engine, Analytics will show you a list of the keywords they’re using. Sadly this feature has become less important to web marketers in recent years, as Google themselves have begun encrypting more and more keyword data – hence why the most popular ‘keyword’ on your list will be shown as ‘(not provided)’.
Be sure to link your AdWords and social media to your Analytics account if you want to directly measure your individual campaigns. You might like to take advantage of call tracking too, as this will let you link a particular call to that user’s session and see how they got to your site (though this will require a bigger investment in both time and money).
Analytics also shows you which users came to your site via a referral from another site, which is handy when it comes to link building. You can uncover new backlinks, assess their quality, and either pursue the link sources for future partnerships or for link removal/disavowment as necessary.
Understand user behaviour patterns
So by now, you should have built up a good sense of who your audience is – but how are they interacting with your site? How many of them are returning customers and how many of them are discovering you for the first time?
User behaviour tracking is where Analytics really comes into its own, as it provides some very useful feedback on how your site (or a particular campaign you’re running) is performing. It can also help you predict the future behaviour of your users, which means you can adjust your site to better suit their needs.
Under the Behaviour tab, you can see how many page views you’re getting (and how many of those are unique views, rather than returning visitors). You can also discover which pages are getting the most views, how long users are spending on each page, which ones your site users are entering from, and which ones they’re leaving your site from.
As with pretty much all sections of the Analytics platform, you can split and/or filter your stats by various different metrics, helping you uncover issues for particular segments of your traffic (even if you didn’t know you had them!).
You’ll no doubt want to understand how well your site is converting visitors into customers. Click the Conversions tab and you can see just that, with Analytics allowing you to set your own goals (for example, a customer reaching the order confirmation page, signing up for emails, registering an account or clicking a link) and conversion funnels (the sequence of pages leading to a conversion).
Analytics will then report on the number of site sessions that reached your goals, and you can even view the flow of users through your conversion funnels (including how many people dropped out at each stage of the funnel). If you’re having cart abandonment problems, this can reveal which stage of the buying process is putting potential customers off.
Record historical data
Best of all, Analytics records data historically (and lets you back it up), so you can measure the progress of your site in the long run. Most sections of the platform even provide a line graph which can be set to display the last hour, day, week, month or even a custom time period.
Look for any sudden peaks in these graphs. What happened on those days that brought you success? Can you repeat it? Likewise, keep an eye out for any sudden drops – find out what they’re indicating (whether it’s server issues, falling SEO rankings, a change in your site structure negatively impacting conversions, or something else entirely) and look at what steps you can take to avoid similar drops in the future.
You can also overlay graph lines from two or more variables to compare them, providing a much more visually intuitive way of comparing and contrasting different metrics of your data over time.
Don’t get overwhelmed!
When you first open up Analytics, the amount of data at your fingertips can be quite overwhelming. Before you start delving into the facts and figures, make sure you have a plan in place for measuring them and creating action points from them.
Define your business goals, figure out the performance indicators which will tell you how well you’re progressing towards those goals, and decide how you’ll segment your data (so your analysis and subsequent action plans aren’t too broad to make a positive impact).
You can then work on customising your Analytics integration, so it can record and report on the data you’ll need. Once everything’s in place, you’re ready to start using Analytics as the catalyst for the success of your website.