You've set up Google Analytics on your website or blog. You've checked out your overall pageviews and bounce rate. Maybe you've glanced at your mobile traffic.
And this is where it usually ends. It's easy to get overwhelmed by all the information—or even know exactly what to look for.
Though it can take some time to learn, Google Analytics is a rich information resource that can help you set and track business goals, create content that will speak to your target audiences and make more informed decisions about your Web presence.
Here are six tips, strategies and best practices from Google Analytics experts to help you get more from Google's free website analytics tools.
1. Know How Your Website Reflects What's Important to Your Organization
Many people log into Google Analytics to see "the cool things they can find out," says Jim Gianoglio, digital analytics engineer for LunaMetrics, a digital marketing and analytics consultancy and Google Analytics certified partner. "But they don't have specific questions in mind they want Google Analytics to answer. Then they experience this deluge of information. They don't know where to start, and they get overwhelmed."
Start by knowing your organization's top goals and objectives and how its website reflects them, Gianoglio says. From there, develop questions for Google Analytics related to your goals and objectives.
For example, if you're an online publisher, your goal may be to increase pageviews because that will expose visitors to ads. That's where the money comes from. Your questions for Google Analytics should evolve from there: Where are your pageviews coming from? What are the top landing pages? Which pages are performing poorly? And so on.
2. Focus on Actionable Data
Pageviews and unique visits can validate what you're doing right (or wrong). That's important, says Jayson DeMers, founder and CEO of AudienceBloom, an SEO, social media and guest blogging service—but for most organizations, that information isn't usually actionable. "If you're spending your time looking at non-actionable data, you're wasting your time," DeMers says.
Instead, DeMers often focuses his time on three specific Google Analytics reports:
- Referrals and All Traffic (found in Traffic Sources > Overview > Sources)
- Organic Search (Traffic Sources > Overview > Search)
- A referring page and destination URL custom report (more on that in tip No. 3)
"These metrics can tell you which referrers and traffic sources are driving the most conversions, along with which specific external assets or efforts are resulting in the highest ROI," DeMers explains. For example, "If one of your guest posts or infographics is resulting in the lion's share of traffic and conversions, then you'll have a perfect example of which sort of content is really working to achieve your goals. This will allow you to refine and optimize your marketing strategy going forward."
3. Create Custom Google Analytics Reports
Most Google Analytics users typically don't understand or bother creating custom reports, DeMers says. But such reports can be extremely valuable.
"My favorite custom report shows full referring URLs for every referral visit, along with the destination URL on my website," DeMers explains. "If a reader reads one of my Forbes articles and clicks a link within the article that takes them to a specific page on my website, Google Analytics allows me to see the URL of the Forbes article along with the page on my website that the user landed on.
This is "actionable intelligence," Demers continues, "because it shows you which specific external assets and media are generating the most traffic and to which specific pages. Furthermore, when compared to conversion data, it's possible to see which external publishers drive the most conversions, allowing you to refine and optimize your future outreach efforts."
DeMers outlines the following steps to create his referral and destination URL custom report:
- Click the Customization tab at the top of Google Analytics.
- Click New Custom Report.
- Give the report a name in the Title field.
- Under Report Content, select Flat Table for the type of report.
- For Dimensions, click "+add dimension." (A dimension describes visits, visitors, pages, products and events.) Under Content, click to select Full Referrer.
- Click the "+add dimension" button again. Under Content, select Destination Page.
- Under Metrics, click the "=add metric" button. For Visitors, click to add unique visitors.
- Click Save, then click the Add to Dashboard button. When you visit your dashboard, you'll see the report as a widget.
Experiment with creating other custom reports. You can always delete or modify them, and you can share them via Excel, Google Spreadsheets or PDF.
4. Gain Better Insights Through Advanced Segments
Advanced Segments are another frequently overlooked Google Analytics tool, says Gianoglio. "You can get real insights and big benefits from segmenting your data."
Advanced Segments let you isolate and analyze specific traffic types. You can obtain a deeper understanding of your mobile traffic, for example, which can help you build a more effective mobile site, Gianoglio says.
He cites a university that, applying Advanced Segments to its mobile traffic data, discovered that pages offering directions to the campus, campus bus schedule and daily library hours were the most popular among mobile users. The university then modified its mobile website to make that content more easily accessible and viewable on small screens.
You can create Advanced Segments from almost any GA report. "It doesn't matter where you create them," Gianoglio says. "They'll stick with you regardless of which report you're looking at." For example, create an Advanced Segment in the Audience Overview report (by clicking on the Audience tab, then Overview) and apply it, then go to the All Pages report (Content > Overview > Site Content > All Pages), the Advanced Segment will still be applied. You can turn it off and on as needed.
Gianoglio suggests going to the All Pages report and applying a mobile Advanced Segment. This will tell you which pages on your site mobile visitors are viewing the most (and least).
- In the left-hand navigation, go to Content > Site Content > All Pages.
- Toward the top of the GA window, click the "Advanced Segments" button.
- Under "Default Segments," click to select one (or any) of the following options: Mobile Traffic, Tablet Traffic, Mobile and Tablet Traffic, Tablet and Desktop Traffic.
5. Find Out, Right Away, If Your Site Traffic Spikes or Drops
Most Google Analytics users don't bother to use or know about Intelligence Events, which are automatic, customized alerts sent to your email address or mobile phone, Gianoglio says. These alerts, he says, can tell you when something unexpected happens on your site, whether it's a sudden spike in traffic from a specific site or a sudden drop in overall traffic.
To create a custom alert, click Intelligence Events in the left-hand navigation. Click Overview, then Custom Alerts, Manage custom alerts, and finally Create new alert. From there, you can select the website (if you manage more than one), the time period the alert will cover and the Alert Conditions you want. Then set the conditions you want to be alerted for. For instance, you might set up an alert that sends you an email or text message when visits to your site decrease by more than 10 percent compared to the same day in the previous week.
6. Develop More Effective Content
Content marketing is an important focus in online marketing these days. (For cogent examples, check out CIO.com's Content Marketing Hall of Fame.) Information gleaned from Google Analytics can help Web publishers develop content that will appeal to their target markets, DeMers says.
To better understand the success of your content, Gianoglio recommends the following Google Analytics reports:
- All Pages (Content > Site Content > All Pages), which will show you at a glance the popularity of your pages based on pageviews, unique pageviews, average time on page, and more.
- Landing Pages (Content > Site Content > Landing Pages), which are the first pages that visitors see when arriving to your site. While there's often some overlap with All Pages, Landing Pages lets you know which content actually draws visitors.
- Content Drilldown (Content > Site Content > Content Drilldown), which shows you the subdirectories of your site that received the most traffic. This can be helpful if, for instance, you have a blog within a subdirectory of your site's domain. "A news publisher with sections for sports, entertainment, health and other topics can see which types of content get the most pageviews," Gianoglio explains.
Keywords are another good metric for content developers to pay attention to, Gianoglio says. For example, if your Google Analytics is connected to your site's Google Webmaster Tools site, GA will display the search queries visitors use on your site (under Traffic Sources > Search Engine Optimization > Queries).
Another option: Go to Traffic Sources > Sources > Search > Organic to see the keywords that bring visitors to your site. Also look at the Social tab (Traffic Sources > Social) to see your content that others are sharing on Facebook, Google+, Pinterest and other networks.
Premium or Free Google Analytics?
A premium version of Google Analytics is available through certified resellers such as LunaMetrics. The premium service is for sites with 500,000 or more monthly visits, Gianoglio says. It offers the capability to extrapolate nonstandard, unsampled data sets on the fly.
In general, premium users pay approximately $150,000 per year for the service. For many users, especially small and midsized businesses, the free Google Analytics provides more than enough information. The trick is to know what you're looking for and how to map the intelligence of GA to your business goals, Gianoglio says.
James A. Martin is an SEO and social media consultant and writes the CIO.com Martin on Mobile Apps blog. Follow him on Twitter @james_a_martin and on Google+. Follow everything from CIO.com on Twitter @CIOonline, Facebook, Google + and LinkedIn.