Hacks: How to use Google Analytics: learn how to improve your website from raw traffic data

Get the best from your website with Google Analytics

Whether you're running a personal home page or a major corporate website, Google Analytics is a powerful tool for monitoring your traffic. It doesn't matter if your site gets one or a million impressions per month -- Google will record what every single visitor gets up to, helping you to understand and improve their experience. See also: Choosing your web hosting package.

Jump to:

Indeed, I use Google Analytics on the PC Pro website, to gain a real-time overview of how the site is performing, and examine the performance of individual pages and sections of the site.

If you're new to online analytics then the Google Analytics interface can seem daunting. But as we reveal below, you only need to learn a few simple techniques to start working out what is or isn't working on your website. Visit: The easy way to sell ad space on your website.

You'll then be able to turn cold data into valuable information, which when applied to future website decisions, can boost your online performance significantly.

How to use Google Analytics (1)

How to use Google Analytics: Why?

There are lots of different web analytics providers out there. Some, like Adobe's SiteCatalyst, charge a steep fee for the service. Others offer only basic software for free, in the hope you'll upgrade to a paid-for service at a later date.

Google Analytics is free

Google Analytics, however, is a completely free service -- at least, until you reach around 10 million hits per month. Frankly, if you have those figures, the $150,000 annual fee for the premium service shouldn't be a problem. For the rest of us, getting set up is a very simple process that can be done in a matter of minutes.

The only real downside to Google Analytics is that it's not the most intuitive service to use. Once you familiarise yourself with the front-end, however, you'll have access to an ocean of data that, when used properly, can effectively write your next six months' web strategy for you.

Legacy data

One advantage to Google Analytics is the fact that there's virtually no limit to how much legacy data you can store, so you can analyse how your site has grown and evolved over time. Here at PC Pro, we have analytics data going back to 24 June 2008 -- with a few clicks, we can confirm that the top article on the site that day was "Murdoch fumes as Facebook overtakes MySpace", with 4,173 views. (Needless to say, our online presence has grown since then.)

While historical statistics can be revealing, analytics can also provide extremely valuable insights through real-time data. Here, Chartbeat is a good alternative to Google Analytics, offering easier access to in-depth data and a friendlier interface.

How to use Google Analytics: What can the data tell me?

Google Analytics reports information in four key areas: it can tell you about your audience (how many people visited your site), acquisition (how they got to your site), behaviour (what they did while they were on your site) and real-time activity (what's happening on your site right now).

Navigating Google Analytics

Tip: The navigation bar on the left side of the web page is how you can access all the different sections of Google Analytics data mentioned above.

Your audience

Let's start by looking at audience data. This is where you can find basic information such as how many users visited your site; the proportion of these that were new or returning; how many individual pages were seen by each visitor; and the average time spent your site.

How to use Google Analytics (2)

What is the bounce rate?

There are also some metrics here that aren't so self-explanatory. Your site's "bounce rate" represents the proportion of visitors who land on your site and then leave again without clicking on anything. As a general rule, a bounce rate below 50% is acceptable -- there's a lot of casual browsing on the web -- but a figure above 80% suggests that something about your site, or an individual page, is driving people away, and that ought to be addressed.

What is a session?

The total number of sessions measures individual periods of activity on a site. Essentially, a session is recorded when a user leaves your site and doesn't return within 30 minutes (this time limit can be edited by going to Admin > Property > Tracking Into > Session Settings), or is simply inactive on your site for 30 minutes. The easiest way to understand this is to picture a visitor spending 29 minutes clicking around your site. During this time they follow multiple links, navigate to several different pages, and then leave. Google Analytics counts this as one session. If the user had gone away for 30 minutes or longer at any point, and then returned and continued interacting with your site, this would be registered as two sessions. Session data helps you understand how many pages users view on each individual visit to your site.

An example of when this would be useful is for working out how often to serve full-page promotions to a visitor. Serving a fresh promotion or advert to a user every five pages might annoy them if they skip pages in quick succession, doing so per session is a more rewarding experience for the user. Similarly you can more accurately judge how many pages an average users visits on your site before leaving with sessions.

If you want, you can drill down even further into your audience. Within two more clicks you can find out where in the world visitors are accessing your site from, who their broadband provider is, and what OS or device they're using, as well as the distribution of age and sex. This sort of information can be terrifically valuable when it comes to tailoring your content or advertising to suit the right demographic.

Read more about: