November 5, 2013

We have offered Google Analytics to our clients for a number of years. It’s a free website analytics service offered by Google.

Before Google launched Analytics, there were a number of free web stats packages that you could use. Web hosting companies usually offer them as part of a standard hosting package but none of the free ones were particularly good.

The biggest problem with web analytics is that web traffic is a really tricky thing to measure. You only want to measure the number of real people visiting your site, and there are likely to hundreds, if not thousands, of robots crawling your site every day. If your analytics program is not careful about weeding them out, it will look like you’re getting loads of visitors from China or India or Russia.

Even if you’ve successfully weeded out the ‘bots, you can get confusing results depending on how you’re measuring traffic. You’ve probably heard of the different words that people use to talk about how much traffic their site is getting. Words like:

  • Hits
  • Pageviews
  • Visits
  • Some people even talk about ‘Uniques’ (what the hell is that?)

One of the good things about the popularity of Google Analytics is that most of us are now looking at our website audiences with the same yardstick.

The main reason you want to use Google Analytics is to find out things like:

  • How many people visit your website
  • What pages they look at
  • How long they spend on your site
  • Where your visitors live
  • What sort of device they are using
  • Where they came from, e.g. another website, from a search engine, from Facebook, an email newsletter.

From basic things like these it’s pretty easy to find out much cooler things like:

  • How many people bought products from your website as the result of a particular email newsletter campaign.
  • Whether your Google Adwords campaigns are paying for themselves.
  • How many people downloaded a white paper.
  • How many sales a particular update on Facebook generated.

Information like this makes it much easier for you to make better decisions about what to put on your website and how to communicate with your audience to make the most impact.

So hopefully you can see now why Google Analytics is so powerful and why it is a must if you want to do any serious online business.

To get Google Analytics to work, you need to place a few lines of code in each page of your website. Google gives you this code when you set up your account and it contains a unique ID for your site. Each time someone visits a page on your site, this code is triggered and it sends a signal off to Google. Google then records a whole lot of stuff about who, where, when, what device, what network, what town/city/country, etc. Just about everything about the user in fact, except their name, address, and shoe size.

The best way to use Google Analytics is to settle on a small number of really important metrics. Some people call them KPIs (key performance indicators). I can’t tell you what these are without knowing about your business; they need to tie in closely with your business strategy.

For example:

  • if you’re selling online advertising on your website, you might want to get the maximum number of unique visitors, pageviews, and average time spent on site. Then you can charge your advertisers more.
  • If you’re selling widgets from an online store, then you would want as many purchases as possible with the highest average order value. You would not want to pay for advertising that attracts a whole lot of visitors who don’t buy anything.

You should consult your Analytics reports every month to check how you’re performing against the KPIs. Try to work out why you’re doing well or badly. Make the necessary adjustments, and carry on.

Google Analytics’ great strengths compared to other solutions are:

  • It’s free.
  • It is very easy to set up. Once the code is in your website templates, you don’t need to do anything else.
  • You can grant access to other people to access your reports without needing to give away a password. They just need to have a Google account.
  • It integrates with Google Adwords, so if you’re using Adwords to attract visitors, you’ll be able to run much more effective campaigns.
  • Google Analytics has a very pretty interface that makes it easy to create dashboards, graphs, and pie charts. You look like a pro with very little effort.

There are a few drawbacks though:

  • Until recently, one of the most useful things about Google Analytics has been that it provides a list of most popular keywords that your visitors use to find you in Google. Google have removed this feature in the last few weeks (nearly all keywords are listed as ‘not provided’). We’re not sure exactly why – but it seems to be a move aimed at increasing the privacy of searchers’ data. So you’ll need to use a different Analytics platform if you want exact search keywords.
  • If you have a really busy site, Google Analytics can get overwhelmed by the amount of data it needs to report on. In this case, it starts giving you reports based on smaller subsets of the data, which can lead to inconsistencies and inaccuracies.
  • If you place paid ads on Facebook and then use Google Analytics to track the visitors coming to your site, you can see some weird discrepencies. For example, we’ve seen a lot of Facebook ad campaigns reporting around twice as many clicks as Google Analytics is saying it has received. Does this mean that Facebook is charging you double what it should be? Or that Google Analytics is only counting half the people who are actually visiting your site? I don’t know – and I’ve never seen a satisfactory explanation for this one.

If you’re keen to look more closely into Google Analytics then the best thing to play around with is Goals. You can set up goals for just about anything and they give you a quick way of seeing how many people perform an action that you want. And they tie directly into Google Adwords and email marketing systems to give you dollar amounts per goal achieved. E.g. you can say with certainty things like

  • “each one of these newsletter signups cost up 23c in Google Adwords, compared to 53c on Facebook ads.”
  • Or… “the Christmas email campaign generated 690 purchases at an average sale price of $49.83 while the end-of-Summer sale campaign brought in 433 purchases at an average of $65.34.”

Imagine trying to come up with stats like that in the days before decent analytics software?

Like everything cool on the Internet, Google Analytics is constantly being updated. It seems like every time I log in there is a new feature (that’s the beauty of cloud-based software – you don’t need to worry about downloading and installing updates all the time). Lately there has been a big focus on making it easier to track referrals coming from social media and differentiating the types of mobile device that your visitors are using.

Social media is a fiendishly difficult thing to try and track sales with. E.g. ‘Did they buy the DVD after seeing the preview on YouTube? Or was it the Facebook updates that made up their mind? Or the Twitter updates we’ve been doing solidly for the last 2 weeks?’. Google Analytics is trying to make sense of this complex web of touch points with a thing called ‘Attribution Modelling’ . Like most things Google, they have probably gone far too geeky on it, but it’s good to know there is a lot of thought going on behind the scenes.

Enjoy using Google Analytics. It’s made a huge difference for us here at Mogul and our wonderful clients – let’s hope it stays free (it should… when we use it we’re giving Google a huge amount of free information about our websites and our visitors’ behaviour!).