Getting the Most Out of Google Analytics with the Least Effort

Updated 15 August 2014: Google Analytics has a bad habit of moving reports around in their labyrinthine menu system. I’ve updated the menu paths to the reports below so they’re up-to-date for at least today.


A screenshot of the "Home" tab of Google AnalyticsGoogle Analytics is a free service that collects website visitor statistics about your website. You can learn things such as how visitors find your website, what pages they view, how long they spend on your site, and even where they are in the world!

I’m not a Google Analytics expert, but I use the service for most projects I do (this site included). In this post, I’ll give a brief overview of the Google Analytics terminology, highlight some of my favorite reports, and suggest some immediate uses for your data.

Note: Google recently announced that all accounts are being moved to a new interface. This post references the labels and navigation paths from that new version. If your account hasn’t been switched at the time of this post, you can click “New Version” at the top of any page.

It’s ok. The Jargon doesn’t bite.

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by the language of Google Analytics. Don’t let that get in your way! Here are some of the most common terms you’ll come across.

  • “Visit” – A single computer that came to your site for any amount of time.
  • Pageview – Any time someone looks at a single page on your site. A visit often has multiple pageviews.
  • Pages/Visit – It’s just basic math: the average number of pages viewed for a single visit.
  • Bounce Rate – The percentage of people who view only a single page on your site and then leave.
  • % New Visits – Google tries to determine whether a person has visited your site before. ((This statistic, along with others isn’t perfect, but it’s a good approximation. More specifically, a “new visit” is one browser on one computer that still has a cookie left by Google Analytics from the last time that browser on that computer visited your site.))

Digging Into the Data

There is lots of information to view, but here are some of the first data points I usually look at to get an overview of how a website’s traffic behaves.

Traffic Sources

Traffic Sources displays how people get to your site. A source is either:

  • Direct – Entering yoursite.org in their browser or using a bookmark.
  • Referral – Clicking a link from another site.
  • Search / Organic (used in different contexts) – One of many search engines most of which you’ll recognize.

Traffic Sources > Sources > Search > Organic Acquisition > Keywords > Organic

This report displays the specific keywords that people use to find your site on search engines. ((Unfortunately, as a privacy measure, Google has recently stopped displaying the search terms of users who are logged in to their Google accounts when searching.))

Traffic Sources > Sources > Referrals Acquisition > All Referrals

Dig in a little deeper and you can learn what websites link to any pages on your site.

You can also learn about sites that link to your website (particularly those that aren’t sending you traffic) by going to Google or Yahoo (try both) and searching for “link:yoursite.org”.

Content

Once you know how people got to your site, it’s time to understand what they looked at once they arrived.

Content > Site Content > Pages Behavior > Site Content > All Pages

This shows your most popular pages. You can often find interesting patterns about which pages are viewed a lot and which pages are viewed for a long time (these are often different pages). When viewing this report, remember that the data is combination of two forces:

  • What people want to look at.
  • What your website makes it easy to look at.

Content > Site Content > Landing Pages Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages

Landing Pages shows the page people arrive at on your site. In the small drop down menu that says “Select..,” “Secondary Dimension,” if you select “Traffic Sources” “Acquisition” > “Medium” you can see how people get to each Top Landing Page (e.g. Google, referral, etc. )

Putting this Data to Use

This data has tons of uses! To get the most from it–especially if your time is limited–ask questions of your data. Avoid opening up your analytics and just browsing. That’s how you get overwhelmed.

Questions to ask of your data include:

  • When people find my site through search engines, how many are using terms that indicate they have heard of my organization and how many are finding it based on general keywords?
  • Which referring sources send more engaged visitors, as measured by pageviews and average time on site? Twitter? ((Note that t.co is twitter’s default URL shortener, so if you see referrals from t.co, that’s Twitter.)) Facebook? LinkedIn? Referrals from partner organization websites?
  • After a mention of your organization in the news or on social media, did traffic increase? From what sources?
  • How does your site’s usage this month compare to the same period last year? If it’s different, why?

When you have answers to these questions you can use your answers to:

  • Show an increased interest in your organization to a potential funder or on a grant application.
  • Decide to focus your social media strategy on a particular social network.
  • Update and improve a certain popular section of your site.

Talk Back

  • If you’re new to Google Analytics, what’s one question you’re hoping to have answered? (I’m happy to offer more tips.)
  • If you’ve used Google Analytics before, what’s your favorite report that I didn’t already mention? What does it tell you?

Join the Discussion

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