Google Analytics is one of the most valuable tools for businesses of all sizes. Firstly, it’s free - so it’s the default choice for the majority of SMEs. It should provide insights on how your website is doing, where your traffic is coming from, and how your customers act on your site. One problem: to appeal to a very diverse audience, Google Analytics provides so much data and options that it can feel overwhelming. Data Strategist and serial entrepreneur Dan Naylor of Layer Digital provides an overview of how to tame the analytics beast.
How Google Analytics is structured
Google Analytics has a three-stage data hierarchy to organise stats.
The first level is individual interactions – so pageviews, button presses, transactions and ‘events’ (specific user interactions that you can set up). In GA these interactions are called hits, and hit metrics are most useful for assessing specific content, such as how many people are viewing a page. It is important that hit metrics only be used to measure specific content and not used to measure the effectiveness of the entire site. This is because unless you have a one-page website, you need to look at how content is used in sequence and not in isolation. One really high-performing page could be skewing the traffic statistics for the rest.
The second stage of data collects all of the hits of a single visit together - in GA it’s called a session. Session metrics are probably the most useful metrics for people that are looking to drive performance, as they measure the components of a visit. Hit data aggregated into sessions provides the framework to assess how specific content works together during a user’s visit, and where in the visit the content is failing or succeeding.
The final level is how a user is measured. A user is only measured once. User data includes the location, source and device that was used to access the site. User measures are important to explore how traffic to websites is created, and what the starting point for different sessions was. Measuring the user only at the start of the session shows how and from where users are arriving.
Common Google Analytics mistakes
The interface of Google tends to promote comparing individual metrics without taking others into consideration – especially when you’re first jumping into it and maybe getting too excited about stats that aren’t necessarily the ones you should be focusing on (we’ve all been there). To counter this, every organisation should have an analytics plan that structures the important measures, and outlines the relationships between different hit, session and user measures. Google Analytics is designed to be used in a layered structure, where you focus on a small collection of core metrics and drill-down into these if necessary.
The second common error is misinterpreting the meaning of specific metrics by the inference in their names. A great example in Google’s New vs Returning visitors, which is expressed as a percentage. In reality this metric is a count of sessions, started by users who have either been to the site before or not. It is not a count of people as would be inferred by the title – it could be a small group of people visiting the site a large number of times. Any difference between a count of people and sessions could be significant. For startups specifically, this metric can gives a false impression of the success of marketing channels.
What’s a dashboard, and what should startups be looking for?
An analytics dashboard is designed to produce a summary of important information in a selection of graphs and tables. While there are around 700 different metrics in Google Analytics, a business only actually needs six or seven to gain a snapshot of where to focus resources.
Here is where I would start to build a dashboard - not by individual metric, but by subject, to ensure that the correct balance exists between user, session and hit metrics:
Channel: which channel did the user come from? Search, social, etc.
Device: how are people using the site? Are they coming from mobile or desktop, and how is it balanced?
Landing Pages: where did the user journey start? What page did they come in on?
Hits/Pages per session: how engaged were the users? Did they read one piece and leave, or stick around?
Visit Goals: how many sessions included a conversion?
Most visited pages: which specific pages on the site are most popular?
With a sense of where users arrived from, how they started their session, how engaged they were during their visit and whether it ended in a conversion, the basic ingredients of digital optimisation exist. It is easy to use dashboards already created by Google - but the problem is always that without making a conscious design about how to measure your business, you may end up with lots default graphs which offer very little insight from any movements.
What is interesting functionality that many startups don’t include, or don’t realise could be useful?
One of the most overlooked functionalities in Google Analytics is Sessions Goals. These are desired outcomes of a session. The value of the number of sessions that conclude with a goal define softer conversions than sales. This enables businesses to associate and measure the value to newsletter signup, or placing a product in the basket. In conjunction with user metrics, it helps to define where the audience for highest intent for specific engagements are likely to come from.
What is the most misunderstood metric and why?
Bounce Rate is the most obvious candidate. Bounce rate is a percentage measure of one-page visits with no interaction hits. It is a very powerful metric for start-ups as it indicates the efficiency of Landing Pages (the first page of any visit). However, Bounce Rate is usually interpreted as a percentage of people that left the site on any page being visited. Google Analytics will present bounce rate as a default metric on its standard reports, leading to misinterpretation. Bounce Rate should never be used to indicate the performance of a whole site - it can only be used in the context of landing pages.
What are your three tips for entrepreneurs who want to get the most out of Google Analytics?
- Select the minimum number of metrics that that matter to your business – focus on what’s important rather than getting bogged down in data.
- Ensure that your choice metrics balance user, session, hits and goals, to give you a complete view of what’s happening with your site.
- Building session goals around your desired user journey allow users to tell a story through their behavior.