All things considered, Google Analytics is the best web analytics tool on the market. It is free to use and easy to install on your site, so there is no excuse not to have it. Every site you build for yourself or your clients should have Google Analytics installed from the day it goes live. Once you have it installed, the next crucial step is to log in to it and pay attention to what the data is telling you. That is where things get difficult for some people.
I understand that web analytics data can be intimidating. The average person logs in to their analytics a few times in the three to six months after their site goes live, looks at the basic dashboard data, digs a little deeper, develops a combined sense of apathy and confusion, and never logs in again. The main reason people feel like their analytics are not worth studying is that they do not know what they should look for. Should you care about hits, visitors, bounce rate, time on site, pages per visit, time per page, all of the above, or none of the above? When you do not know what to look for or why, logging in to your analytics account seems like a waste of time.
My goal in this section is not to make you into a certified Google Analytics Consultant, but I do want you to come away from this with an understanding of what you should pay attention to and why your site analytics matter.
The Basic Data: What Matters
The main reason people get overwhelmed when they look at their site analytics is that there is just so much information there. What is it all and what does it all mean? Everyone has a sense that paying attention to their site’s analytics is important, but the volume of data is so bewildering it feels like you would have to take a course in analytics to be knowledgeable enough to see the forest through the trees. At some point, all the data in Google Analytics has a good reason to be tracked, and you can never really know enough about how to analyze the way your visitors use your site, but here is a run down of the basic elements you can use to keep tabs on how your site is doing.
Visit count is the main data point you will view each time you log in, mostly because Google puts that report front and center in the dashboard by default. There are a few things to keep in mind when using visit count to assess how your site is doing.
First, visit count and hit count are different. A hit is triggered any time anything is requested from the server. So, if you have a page with thirty images on it, loading that page will trigger at least thirty hits. I never pay attention to hits and neither should you.
Second, while visits can be a good way to track the basic growth of your site, you should not make major site decisions based solely on the goal of simply increasing traffic. The point of your site is not to bring a lot of people in, it is to bring a lot of the right people in and to then get them to do the right things.
When a user leaves the site after visiting only one page, that is considered to be a “bounce,” and a bounce rate of over forty percent is generally considered to be a problem. People make a big deal about bounce rate, and while bounce rate is an important metric, you need to look deeper than your site’s overall bounce rate percentage to get a sense of what is really taking place. When you implement a content strategy on your site, you add a considerable amount of content to your site on a regular basis. This content does not go away; it will slowly build over the years, and before you know it, your site will be hundreds and hundreds of pages deep. If you follow the basic rules of SEO, Google will aggressively index all of those pages, and you will receive a large portion of your traffic from search engines—possibly fifty percent or more.
When you begin to have this level of traffic, your bounce rate will undoubtedly increase. Imagine, for example, that you wrote a case study on the packaging design job you did for Pepsi five years ago. A marketing student searches for terms related to Pepsi’s marketing history, and Google refers them to that page on your site. Since this student is not interested in hiring an agency, they leave your site after reading that page, and, by doing so, they register as a bounce. Now, you wrote this page quite a while ago, and people do not visit it as often as they used to, and most people who land on this page directly from a Google search might behave in much the same way as that student. Because you have continually added hundreds of pages to your site each year for a number of years, you probably have a number of pages that perform in this way.
Since bounce rate is an average metric that is calculated across every page on your site, your site’s overall bounce rate could easily be adversely affected by having fifty or so pages like the one described above. Again, having a bounce rate of over forty percent is generally considered to be poor, but marketing sites for services firms that employ a content strategy tend to have higher bounce rates because of the reality of the situation described above. Does this mean that you should delete all of those older, higher bounce pages just to reduce your site’s overall bounce rate? Hardly. Instead, I encourage you to be cognizant not just of your site’s bounce rate, but also of the pages that negatively contribute to it. If you notice that your site’s most crucial pages, such as the home page, portfolio page, and contact page, had bounce rates higher than forty percent, I recommend taking action to remedy the problem. However, if your bounce rate is higher than average due to legacy content on your site, you can let it slide.
Pages Per Visit and Average Time on Site
These two are the last of the four dashboard metrics I recommend paying attention to regularly. The visits report tells us how many people come to the site, and the bounce rate report tells us how many people leave without investigating further. These two reports give us a sense of session depth in terms of the number of pages people click through per visit and about how long they tend to stay. For a marketing firm site, two to three pages per visit and two or more minutes per session are generally considered to be decent benchmarks. There is no need to pout or cheer if these numbers are off a little on either side, but if there are dramatic trends either way, you may want to investigate the cause.
Analytics truly began to make sense to me once Newfangled added goals to our website account. Through goals, you can tell analytics what visitor behavior you are looking for so that you can then see what on your site affects that behavior. For example, you might set “Newsletter Signup” as a goal. You can do so in analytics by assigning to it a name and the URL that indicates when the goal is met. In this case, it is your “Thanks for Subscribing” page. You can create and modify goals from the “Profile Settings” area in your account. I recommend setting up one goal for each call to action you have on your site. Once the goal is in place, Google not only keeps track of how many goals have been completed, but what search engine phrases, referring sites, and site pages led to successful goal conversions.
Goals give context to the way people find and use your site, and they allow you to measure and improve your site based on users’ actions, as opposed to doing so based solely on volume of visits.
This post is an excerpt from my book, "A Website That Works."