Expert Advice: Google Analytics Tutorial
Monday September 27th, 2010
This article was originally written by Bryan Mills, and published on September 27, 2010. It has been updated to reflect changes in Google Analytics.
What Is It?
Google Analytics is a free service that provides website owners with all sorts of data about their website traffic (there is also a paid version for websites with more than 10 million visitors/month). It tracks everything from raw page views to unique visitors, traffic sources, search engine usage and more. Analytics is a valuable tool for any website owner. It can not only help determine how much traffic your site is getting, but also provide analysis to reveal where that traffic is coming from, what trends are affecting your traffic and how effective different marketing efforts have been.
How Does It Work?
After you sign up for Google Analytics, Google will provide you with a unique bit of code, which contains an identifier that links to your site. When someone visits your website, that little bit of code will be used by Analytics to track their activity on your site, including where they came from, how long they stay, and where they go afterwards. Analytics collects lots of statistics, but the most important ones are:
- If a visitor is new or returning
- Where the visitor came from (called a “referrer”)
- Which URLs they visit inside your site
- How long they stay on a page
- The visitor’s general geographic region
- The visitor’s browser version, operating system, screen resolution, etc.
All this data is compiled for you daily on the Analytics report page.
How Do I Sign Up?
Visit the Google Analytics Homepage. If you have a Google account (for Gmail, or another Google service), you can log in using that. If not, it only takes a few seconds to sign up for a Google account. Once you have that in place, you’ll be able to get going with Analytics.
You’ll need to create a new site profile for your domain name. Just enter the domain name of your website and click “Finish.” Once you log into your Google account, this screen will appear:
Click “Sign up.” Once you have done that, this screen will appear and you just need to fill in your company’s information.
Fill in your information and select the “Get Tracking ID” button.
Setting Up Your Website
Once you’ve entered your domain name information, Google will provide you with your tracking ID: a snippet of HTML code that needs to be added to your page in order to for the tracking to work.
If you have a custom website, and depending on your experience level with hand-coding HTML, you may be comfortable doing this next part yourself. Otherwise, you may want to pass it on to your web designer or technical guru.
For each page you want to track, you must insert the provided code into the header. For some people, just tracking the home page is enough, but others may want to include additional pages – you must include the header code on those pages as well. This will appear between the header tags, which look like <head> and </head>.
If you use a template for your website, or are otherwise unable to access your website’s raw HTML, you may need assistance in adding this code. For example, Squarespace has a specific analytics part of their control panel, as does aPhotoFolio — you’ll need to include the analytics tracking code there. Other templates may differ in their implementation, but you can normally find out how to implement Google Analytics by contacting the template’s support department. In general, putting the code in one place in these templates will provide tracking information for your whole site.
WordPress users in particular cannot paste their analytics code into the section called “header” and have it work properly unless your site also has a specific plugin allow you to access Google Analytics. If the plugin does not work, you likely have your site run by WordPress but hosted elsewhere. Contact either the web host or the person who set up your website to have them insert the code for you. It’s a fairly common occurrence, so it won’t be an unusual request.
Make sure you use the code Google provides, as it contains your unique Analytics ID.
If you’re using a Flash-based website, you might only have one or two actual HTML documents that need this code. Or if you’re using a CMS or dynamic website, you may only need to paste it once in the footer template.
If you’re having trouble setting up this snippet, check out Google’s help page for setting up the Analytics tracking code.
Once the code is in your site, Google Analytics should start working immediately. It will need some time to log visitors, but you will be able to access the statistics.
Using the Report Page
The Google Analytics report is a complex and powerful tool, so we’ll only go over some of the basics. While the default bird’s-eye view that Analytics provides is useful, there’s an immense amount of detail below the surface that you can explore. That’s beyond what we’ll discuss here, but feel free to explore some of the other menus in the left-hand pane. You can’t do anything to hurt your website, so feel free to poke around.
Once your tracking ID is working properly and you’ve had some traffic to your website, you’ll be able to see your report. To get to your Analytics page, navigate to google.com/analytics/ and click the button labeled “Access Google Analytics” in the upper-right corner. If asked, log in to your Google account. You’ll then see a list of your webpages on which Google Analytics is installed. Click the URL next to the globe icon for the page you wish you view stats on.
After signing in, you’ll be greeted by your Audience Overview. You can see a screenshot of Wonderful Machine’s Analytics Audience Overview page in the screenshot below:
As the name implies, this screen will show you an overview of your site’s traffic – your audience – over the past 30 days. You can click the date drop-down box in the upper-right corner to choose any date range you wish, or to compare date ranges (month-over-month, for example). You can also change the data interval, which has the effect of “zooming” in or out. Hourly is the most detailed, and month is the best way to track long-term changes. Much of the information is self-explanatory, provided you know the terminology. Basically, a user is any unique person that uses your site (previously called “unique visitors”) and a session is any visit to your site. One user can have multiple sessions, and each session has a number of pageviews, expressed as a two-digit decimal number.
To see more about any of these fields, or any of the other hundred or so statistics that Analytics offers, use the toolbar on the left.
Analytics’ most powerful feature is revealing which sites sent, or referred, visitors to your page. In the terminology of Analytics, a referrer is the website that contained the link your user clicked onto navigate to your website. This provides a great deal of insight into what marketing efforts are seeing the greatest impact, and to how users are arriving at your site.
For example, if you wanted to see how many referrals you’ve gotten from Wonderful Machine, click “Acquisition” in the menu on the left, then click “All Referrals” in the expanded menu:
Below is the Referral Traffic page for wonderfulmachine.com. This page shows a list of the top referrers to our website. You’ll notice that our top referrer is our own blog, which makes sense – people on our blog are naturally the most interested in viewing our website. On your own site’s page, you’ll see wonderfulmachine.com somewhere on the list, and you can see exactly how many visitors we’ve sent your way.
What this doesn’t show is visitors who landed on your website by typing the URL in the address bar or clicking on a Google search result (called an “organic” visitor). To find that information, click on “All Traffic” in the left-hand menu bar. The graph is the same as the one for Referrer’s, but it shows other sources of traffic, including direct (which is typing in the URL) or “organic” (which is a search result).
Google recently switched up its terminology for analytics. What used to be called “visits” are now known as “sessions.” A session is essentially a group of interactions within a certain timeframe. These sessions can contain multiple page views or social interactions from a single user. However, the session will expire after 30 minutes of inactivity, and if the same user visits the same site once the session is over, a new session is started. A new session also beings if that same user leaves the site and returns via a different outside source. Additionally, what used to be called “unique visitors” is now simply termed “users,” meaning the number of separate people who visited the site, regardless of the number of sessions they logged.
The last piece of important information is the bounce rate. This is the number of users that leave your website without interacting with it. This number may appear shockingly high, but that’s not abnormal. A user may “bounce” if they ended up on your page accidentally, or it wasn’t what they were looking for, but they also might be reported as “bounced” if they watched the auto-playing slideshow on your website without clicking on anything. If you have all your contact info displayed on your home page, you could very well be on the phone with that “bounced” user, so take these numbers with a grain of salt.
At best, the bounce rate is a coarse measurement of interaction that’s optimized for standard link-and-text websites. Fortunately you can control what’s reported as a bounce by using Events. Other technical issues are addressed on Google Support’s bounce rate help page. If none of those technical problems are causing your high bounce rate, you may need to think about how your website is designed and promoted, and make sure you’re getting it in front of interested eyeballs, rather than just any eyeballs.
That covers the basic information that Google Analytics provides, but there’s a lot more under the hood. Take the time to click through the other menu options and view the information there. You can discover things about your sites you never knew, share reports, create custom Dashboards to show specific information and create custom campaigns to track your emailer marketing. There’s a lot there, and a lot to learn, but its worth exploring.
I’m using a Flash site. Why isn’t Analytics tracking which parts of my site users visit?
Analytics can only track visits to a unique URL per page. Most Flash sites only run inside a single page, and therefore only a single URL is used.
To correct this, many Flash sites will utilize page anchors like: http://www.yoursite.com/#/portfolio/advertising to provide unique URLs for Analytics to see. You would need to contact your web designer or provider for more information about implementing them.
What’s the difference between Sessions and Pageviews?
Sessions refers to the number of times users have visited your site. Pageviews is a tally of all the pages viewed on your site. Because a single user might view many pages in a single Session, the raw pageview count will be higher than your Sessions or Users number.
Can Analytics tell me who is visiting my site?
Yes and no. Analytics can provide basic information about people visiting your site (country, language and some technical information). It cannot divine who these people are, or provide any sort of qualitative analysis. This is the sort of thing that big companies pay big money for, and while it’s possible, Google Analytics does not provide it.
What is Direct traffic versus Referral traffic?
Direct Traffic refers to visitors that come to your website with no intermediate step. In most cases, the user typed the URL directly into the address bar, but they also could have opened a bookmark or clicked on a link in an email. Referral Traffic means a visitor came from another website.
Can Analytics help me track the success of email campaigns?
Yes. Analytics allows you to set up custom URLs to your site that can be added into emails to track traffic from your campaign. If you’re using a service like CampaignMonitor, it may already be done for you. Or, you can set it up yourself. You can read more about this here.
I’ve been using a different stat counter, and it provides different numbers than Google Analytics. Which is more accurate?
There are many different tools that allow you to track your website traffic. Often, they will have a different set of methods for determining what qualifies as a visitor, unique pageview, page popularity, etc. Typically, this is a matter of semantics and no one tool is objectively more correct than another.