Google Analytics (GA) is a free online service designed to help marketers and webmasters better understand their sites’ visitors — where they come from, what they do on the sites, which pages they linger on, content that causes them to leave, and much more.
But GA “can be a daunting challenge for many users, because of its massive amount of data,” says Garrett Mehrguth, CEO of Directive Consulting. “It becomes one of those things where you can spend hours in it, but after doing it a couple of times and not getting any great takeaways, you usually stop completely.”
The greatest challenge for new or inexperienced users isn’t finding data in GA; it’s extracting meaningful, actionable insights, according to Derek Gleason, an SEO analyst with Workshop Digital. “Those actionable insights aren’t superficial metrics like total traffic but are for more segmented and targeted audiences, like organic users who navigate to a subset of service pages,” he says. “Of course, a first-time user won’t know where to look, which is why the best opportunity for success is before you log in — finding out which metrics will mean the most to your business.”
Here’s a quick getting started guide to GA’s main features, its most useful views and valuable tools.
Google Analytics Dashboards
Dashboards provide simple snapshots of your site’s analytics, and they’re a good place for new GA users to get started with the service.
After you spend a little time familiarizing yourself with GA, the next step is to create a custom dashboard. (The option can be found by tapping the Reporting tab, then Dashboards > New Dashboard.) You can build a “Blank Canvas” dashboard, a “Starter Dashboard,” or import a user-generated dashboard from Google’s gallery. For example, Google’s GA team created a dashboard template called, “New Google Analytics User Starter Bundle,” and it includes a variety of dashboards, custom reports, and segments to kick-start your analytics gathering.
“Once a GA user has a basic understanding of the audience segments they want to see on a regular basis, it’s worth the time to create a custom dashboard that will display these metrics on one screen,” says Gleason. “Rather than navigating through a series of GA screens, which can be especially challenging for a new user to remember, you can have one screen that shows, for example, the distribution of visitors by gender, top landing pages, and mobile conversion rate. These dashboard reports can be emailed to you automatically, saving you the time from logging into GA, or you can forward the updates to your boss.”
Google Analytics Shortcuts
Shortcuts give you quick access to your most frequently viewed GA reports. After you set up GA they way you want it, shortcuts make it “easy to get to the information you care about the most,” says Nick Loui, CMO of Vixlet.
To create a new shortcut, start on the Reporting tab, go to the view you want to save as a shortcut, (such as Real-Time > Traffic Sources) and then tap the “Create Shortcut” link on the top right. Next, you can enter a name for the shortcut and click OK to save it.
Google Analytics Intelligence Events
Intelligence Events provide at-a-glance views of a variety of website metric “events,” including increases and decreases in bounce rate, sessions, page views, and average session durations. You can use automatic, or default, alerts or create custom notifications.
Custom alerts automatically notify you, via email or text message, when pre-specified metrics increase or decrease. For example, you can set a GA alert to ping you when page views increase by more than 100 compared to the previous day.
Alerts are a great way to quickly monitor traffic spikes, especially after you issue a press release or publish something that goes viral, according to Natalie Zfat, a social media professional.
To create custom alerts from the Reporting tab, go to Intelligence Events and navigate to Overview, Daily, Weekly, or Monthly Events. Beneath the bar graph, in the Custom Alerts field, click Create a Custom Alert. Next, you name the alert and select the desired alert conditions, then click Save Alert.
Google Analytics Real-Time metrics
The Real-Time feature displays the number of users active on your site at a given time, along with the site’s page views per minute or per second, traffic sources (or how users found your site), and more.
Real-Time is “a fun tool” because it lets you “watch what’s happening in real-time on your site,” says Chris Hood, CTO of Jewel Toned. “This tool, probably more than anything in GA, will give people the warm-fuzzies that their site is being looked at.”
To access Real-Time metrics, go to Reporting > Real-Time, and then select Overview, Locations, Traffic Sources, or Other Report.
Google Analytics Audience tool
Audience provides a wealth of demographic information on your site visitors.The demographics includeage, gender, location, language, technology (browser and OS, as well as the network and ISP, such as Time Warner), and more. This demographic data can “help you tailor your content to your audience’s interests,” according to Caitlin Boroden, a digital marketing strategist with DragonSearch.
You can get started by visiting the Reporting > Audience > Overview view for at-a-glance perspectives by the hour, day, week, or month. The tool provides an easy snapshot of your visitors and what they do on your site, says Nenad Cuk, an SEO specialist with Davinci Virtual.
Google Analytics Acquisition
GA’s Acquisition feature gives you insights into where your site “acquires” traffic. It is “essential because it allows you to look at all your channels at once and properly adjust advertising spend and efforts according to which channels are driving the most conversions, such as leads, sales, and calls,” says Directive Consulting’s Mehrguth. “I recommend looking at this and adjusting efforts on an ongoing basis.”
Acquisition reports “are the most valuable, as they detail which source or medium is helping you generate the most traffic,” says Jerry Lee, founder of StoryLeather.com. For example, you can see conversion rates from your pay-per-click (PPC) ads to determine how much in sales you generate from PPC. “This allows you to focus on where you need to spend your ad dollars,” he adds.
Additionally, Acquisition may help you see that the majority of your traffic is coming from social media, but the traffic has high bounce and low conversion rates, according to Kendra Ross, a marketing director with Wriber. In comparison, you may see lower traffic numbers but higher conversions coming from the referrals, or sites that link or “refer” to yours. It’s another way to help you focus your marketing efforts, Ross says.
To get started with Acquisition reports, go to Reporting > Acquisition and select Overview, Active Users, Cohort Analysis (a beta feature that lets you analyze data related to site visitors that have something in common, such as demographics, geographic location, and such), or Users Flow.
Google Analytics Behavior
The Behavior tool helps you understand what visitors do on your site. For example, clicking Reporting > Behavior > Behavior Flow can help to understand the paths your site visitors take from the pages they land on to the next pages they visit. And Behavior Flow helps identify content that keeps visitors engaged or causes them to leave.
GA Landing Pages (Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages) can identify the pages your site visitors land on most often and show how the traffic on each of those pages “behaves,” according to Cuk.
For example, you may notice a particular blog post is your top landing page, and that the post has a low bounce rate and high average session time. That means the topic of your post resonates with visitors, and you should consider doing more posts like it.
Google Analytics Conversions
Conversions are the lifeblood of GA, according to multiple sources interviewed for this story. “A conversion happens when someone clicks your ad and then takes an action that you’ve defined as valuable to your business, such as an online purchase or a call to your business from a mobile phone,” according to Google.
GA’s Conversions feature lets you track goals you assign to website visitors, says Clint Henderson, founder of Wired SEO. Typical goals include e-commerce sales, newsletter signups, and contact form submissions.
Tracking conversions is extremely important when trying to measure the success of your website as a whole, according to Henderson. “You can see where your goal conversions are coming from, which will help you make important business and marketing decisions.” For example, by tracking goals, “you may discover that you have a much lower conversion rate on mobile devices compared to PCs,” he says. “This might lead you to take a look at the mobile version of your site and discover ways to improve mobile conversions.”
To get started with Conversions, go to Reporting > Conversions, then select Goals, Ecommerce, Multi-Channel Funnels, or Attribution.
Help with Google Analytics is always available — for free
New GA users might benefit from the Google Analytics Academy, a series of free online courses designed to educate people and test their GA knowledge. The Google Analytics Help Center (click the Settings cog icon when logged into GA to find it) is another helpful resource for beginners and experienced users alike, says Beth Bridges, vice president of digital identity at J-I.T. Outsource.
Begin with the end in mind
It’s important for new GA users to set out with a specific goal, or “begin with the end in mind,” as renowned author Stephen R. Covey put it in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. “Document what you want to learn about your website so that analytics can help answer those questions,” says Ryan Ruud, CEO and founder of Lake One Digital. “When you have a clear understanding of what you’re trying to accomplish, GA will be a lot easier, and much more fun.”
James A. Martin is a seasoned tech journalist and blogger based in San Francisco and winner of the 2014 ASBPE National Gold award for his CIO.com blog. He writes CIO.com's Living the Tech Life blog and is also a content marketing consultant.