What is Google Analytics? A Guide to Getting Started

Google Analytics is one of the most powerful web traffic analytics tools that modern marketers can access.

It provides businesses with huge amounts of data related to user behavior for visitors to their websites, including:

  • Traffic by channel;
  • Devices used to access a website;
  • Each online user’s location;
  • How much time a visitor spent viewing a web page;
  • What content they viewed;
  • If they are a first-time, or repeat, visitor, and so on.

 

Read our short guide below on how to get started with Google Analytics.

What is Google Analytics?

Google Analytics is both a free and premium web analytics tool offered by Google, which gives website owners the ability to measure the performance of their websites.

According to a recent web technology survey by W3Techs, Google Analytics is the most popular web traffic analysis tool they monitor, used by 54.9% of websites, and boasting over 80% of the web analytics market share.

How has Google Analytics evolved over the years?

Originally launched in 2005, Google Analytics has a long and rich history. In fact, it goes back even further, to 2003, when Google purchased a company called Urchin Software for their web statistics analysis program, a company that was still running as recently as March 2012.

Google took the building blocks of Urchin Software’s technology and used it to create their own analytics tool, in the process becoming the first company to offer a full commercial analytics suite on a free-to-use basis.

In the early days, Google Analytics provided a relatively small amount of analytical data; the tool has continued to grow in scope and capabilities to the point at which, today, few webmasters are familiar with all of the features that it has to offer. In fact, partly because it’s free to use and extremely well-known, it’s often a case of “set it and forget it,” especially for smaller brands.

More recent developments to Google Analytics (GA) include Google Analytics 360 (GA360), and the universal ID, allowing marketers to track behaviors across different web properties instead of limiting them to a single website per Analytics account.

 

GA versus GA 360

Google Analytics 360 is the premium version of the service, which is primarily aimed at enterprise teams. It’s essentially ‘regular’ Google Analytics, but on steroids, combining the basic Google Analytics suite with the kinds of features that you’d more often associate with a fully-fledged CRM system. As its name suggests, it aims to provide a 360-degree view of your entire business.

Part of the way that it does that is through being just one of seven components of the Google Marketing Platform, sitting alongside:

  • Display & Video 360
  • Search Ads 360
  • Analytics 360
  • Data Studio
  • Optimize 360
  • Surveys 360
  • Tag Manager 360

 

That makes it a pretty powerful tool above and beyond just removing the data caps that you can run up against in the free version.

The downside is price: Analytics 360 will cost you $12,500 per month and requires an annual contract, so if you decide to use it, then you’re in for a minimum spend of $150,000. That, sadly, puts it well out of the price range of pretty much everyone who doesn’t work for a large enterprise.

Why is web analytics important?

A web analytics tool like Google Analytics is designed to track, measure, and report on all activities that occur on your website. Web traffic analytics is as important to website owners as navigation tools are to sailors. Sailors need to know they are heading in the right direction long before they lose their way, run aground, or get lost at sea.

Without web traffic analytics as a guide, marketers are equally blind to the outcomes of their digital marketing strategies. They can’t measure or optimize their organic or paid media campaign performance before it’s too late.

Web traffic analytics reveals a great deal about a website. It shows:

  1. Where your visitors come from;
  2. If they are new or returning visitors;
  3. How much time they have spent on your site;
  4. The links on your site that get the most clicks;
  5. The paths that visitors take to navigate your site and where they drop off before converting;
  6. Which content on your site doesn’t add value, and which pages can be optimized to increase traffic.

Why is this important?

All the above data can help a marketing team optimize its efforts to see a greater return on investment (ROI). The main purpose of any marketing analytics (including web traffic analytics) is to measure ROI. How do you know if the time, resources, and budget you are putting towards a marketing strategy work? The only way to confirm this is by collecting data that shows you what isn’t generating the desired and required outcomes.

How does Google Analytics work?

Google Analytics works by giving its users a tracking code that they can embed into their website. This code will automatically run whenever someone accesses the web page, dropping a cookie on their machines to track the activity they take throughout the site and report it back to you.

It’s able to capture a huge range of data on your website’s visitors, especially if they’re logged into their Google accounts, which can also provide you with analytical and interest data. You can track everything – from how many people visit your site and where they’re coming from, to the operating system they use and how they interacted with a particular element – like a link or a button – on your site.

What is a tracking code?

A tracking code is basically a short snippet of (usually) JavaScript, which you embed at the top of your web pages, and which loads in the background every time someone visits your website. It tracks viewing and behavioral data and then sends that data to your analytics platform – in this case, Google Analytics.

For Google Analytics, you’ll need to add the Google Analytics tag (or analytics.js file) to each page of your site you want to track. This can even be done without any technical expertise, as it’s just a case of copying and pasting the code from your Google Analytics dashboard where you are instructed to on your website. Some website content management systems (CMS) even come with a specific menu setting that allows you to add your tracking code.

Below is an example of a GA tracking code:

This image shows an example of a Google Analytics tracking code.

How to implement Google Analytics on your site

Installing Google Analytics is easy because all it takes is a little snippet of code. It’s literally just a case of copying and pasting, and so you don’t need any serious web development experience to get the job done, but there are also some other ways to go about it for those who are less tech-savvy.

The three main ways to implement Google Analytics on your site are via Google Tag Manager (GTM), via a plugin, or via your WordPress theme editor.

Via Google Tag Manager

Google Tag Manager (GTM) is a tool specifically designed to help you to install Google Analytics tracking on your website.

  1. The first step is to sign up for Google Tag Manager, after which you’ll need to create your Google Analytics account (if you haven’t already).
  2. With both accounts set up, you’ll need to create an analytics tag with Google Tag Manager; you’ll also need to set up any goals you’d like to track before finally linking Google Analytics with Google Search Console.

While this process may feel intimidating, it’s a lot easier than it sounds. Here’s a handy little guide you can follow if you’re struggling.

Via a plugin

Another easy alternative is to use a plugin for whatever content management system (CMS) you happen to use. If you’re using WordPress, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of third-party plugins you can download and install on your site to add Google Analytics tracking.

Most of these plugins do the hard work for you and simply ask you to enter your Google Analytics property ID. Alternatively, you’ll need to input the embeddable code that Google Analytics provides you. Follow the instructions for the plugin that you’re using to see how to do this.

Below are plugins you can use to install Google Analytics on WordPress:

The following plugins can be used to implement Google Tag Manager in your WordPress site:

Via Theme editor

Finally, you can edit the header or footer file of the WordPress theme you’re using to insert the embeddable code. Again, Google will provide you with this code, and so it’s just a matter of copying and pasting it into the relevant sections of your website.

Be sure to add the code to a website element that loads with every page view, which is why we suggested the header or the footer. You can find more information on how to do that from this useful guide.

Google Analytics reports – dimensions vs. metrics.

Now that you have Google Analytics implemented on your site, what data can you expect to see? Let’s touch briefly on Google reports and the difference between dimensions and metrics.

What are dimensions?

Dimensions help you categorize data in Google Analytics based on specific characteristics or features (i.e., data attributes). These dimensions make up your Analytics reports – i.e., each dimension is its own report in the Analytics dashboard. Metrics are then the values calculated for each dimension.

For example, let’s say over 16,000 people visited your website in the last month, and you want to know how they got there.

If we look at the report on the right, Analytics can show you that over 8,000 visitors came from google/organic search and that nearly all of these were new visitors. In this case, the dimension (or category) recorded is the Source/Medium. The dimension value (or metric) would be google/organic.

You can see multiple sources being tracked under the Source/Medium dimension, including referral and direct traffic.

 

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Some of the most popular dimensions in Google Analytics include:

  • Age
  • Source/Medium
  • Browser
  • Country
  • User Type (new vs. returning visitors)

 

Below are examples of Analytics reports showing traffic by browser and by country.
This image is a table showing the Browser Dimension in an Analytics report, listing all the browsers used by site visitors to access the stite.

Traffic by web browser

 

This image is a table showing the Country Dimension in a Analytics report, listing all the countries from where web traffic is originating.

Traffic by country

 

You’ll note that different dimensions store different types of values. For example, the country field can only store valid country names. That said, you can also combine a primary and secondary dimension in one report for a more detailed data analysis. For example, you can view data on all Spanish speakers from the United States or all iPhone users who came through from Facebook.

What are metrics?

Metrics are the quantitative data measurements in an Analytics report. Common web analytics metrics include:

  • Sessions
  • Number of visitors
  • Number of page views
  • Bounce rate
  • Dates/times
  • Average visit duration
  • Conversion rate

 

Google Analytics data is split into five main categories, providing web admins with an easy way to compare the data they’re most interested in analyzing at any given time, to see where online users are coming from, what they’re doing, and whether they’re closer to a conversion.

 

The five key data categories are:

  1. Real-time data
  2. Audience data
  3. Acquisition data
  4. Behavior data
  5. Conversions data

 

This image shows the Age Dimension in Google Analytics tracking site visitors by age and according to Acquisition, Behavior and Conversion metrics.

The table above shows site visitors being categorized by age and their data being grouped and tracked according to Acquisition, Behaviour, and Conversion metrics.

 

Let’s take a closer look at these data categories.

 

Real-time data

Real-time data is exactly what it sounds like: performance data shared with you in real-time, showing you exactly what your website visitors are doing at any particular point. Here, you can see which pages are being viewed and by how many people, as well as real-time insights into audience, acquisition, behavior, and conversion data sets.

Real-time data tends to be particularly useful for larger websites, as you need a reasonable amount of visitors at any given time if you hope to have access to any meaningful amount of data.

Audience data

Audience data allows you to dig deeper into who exactly is visiting your website. If online users are signed into their Google account when they visit your site, Google will capture and aggregate the following data so you can better understand who you’re reaching.

 

  • Demographics: Includes details such as the age ranges and genders of your audience.
  • Interests: Uses Google search data and other markers to provide an overview of the kinds of content that your visitors are interested in.
  • Geo: Geographical data such as city and country.
  • Behavior: Integrates some of the data that we’ll talk about later from the behavior data section.
  • Technology: Information on which technologies users are accessing your website through.
  • Mobile: Breaks down visitors based on whether they use smartphones, tablets, or desktop computers.
  • Cross-device: Enables cross-device tracking, such as if they first access your site on their tablet before returning on their phone or laptop.

Acquisition data

Acquisition data shows how people discovered your website and what traffic sources they used to get there.

You can expect to see data related to:

  • Source/medium
  • Bounce rate
  • Landing page
  • Keywords
  • Campaign
  • More!

Acquisition data is split into the following categories:

  • Overview: This shows you a list of the most common traffic sources for your website.
  • All traffic: This allows you to dig a little deeper, separating traffic into the most common channel categories.
  • AdWords: This tab brings in data from a linked Google AdWords account and gives you a closer idea of what your PPC traffic is doing.
  • Search Console: This brings information from your Google Search Console, providing more information on organic search and the keywords used to find you.
  • Social: Drills down deeper into social media, including which individual networks are referring traffic.
  • Campaigns: If you’re using Google’s tag manager to establish UTM parameters, this is where you’ll see them. You can learn more about this or use a free UTM URL builder here.

Perhaps most significantly, you can separate acquisition data by channel, which allows you to see precisely where online users are coming from.

 

Channel categories include:

 

  • Organic: Visitors who’ve arrived from a search engine through an organic search engine result.
  • Direct: Visitors who’ve entered the website’s exact URL into their browser’s address bar.
  • Referral: Visitors who’ve clicked through to your site from another website.
  • Paid Search: Visitors who’ve clicked on a Google PPC advertisement.
  • Social: Visitors who’ve clicked through from a social networking site.
  • Email: Visitors who’ve clicked through from an email campaign.
  • Display: Visitors who’ve clicked through to visit your site from a display ad campaign.

Behavior data

Behavior data tracks what people are doing on your site once they arrive on it, providing a range of metrics such as:

  • Page title
  • Pageviews
  • Unique pageviews
  • Bounce rate
  • Exit percentage

As you can see, these metrics can be super useful for looking at exactly what people are doing and what their user experience looks like. You can further segment this data into three main subsections:

 

Behavior data

This allows you to drill down into exactly how people are behaving once they land on your site. You can segment behavior data into sections – only looking at user behavior on your News page, for example – and you can also identify bounces – where on your site people most often tend to leave.

 

Site speed

This allows you to measure how quickly your web pages are loading for different users across different devices. This is important because a one-second delay can reduce page views by 11%, customer satisfaction by 16%, and conversion rate by 7%. You could never run tests yourself across all of the different device and operating system combinations, and so this essentially allows your visitors to do it for you.

 

Events

Events are essentially pre-programmed interactions that you encourage your users to take. If you’ve uploaded a video, for example, then you might want to set up an event that will track whenever someone clicks the ‘play’ button. Other examples could include when people load flash elements, download a file, or even just spend a certain amount of time on a specific page.

If you want to track events, you need first to set up event tracking. When you do this, you’ll be prompted to fill out three key elements for each event:

 

  • Event category: This helps you categorize different types of events under the same label to make data analysis easier. For example, you could view all events at once categorized as “videos” or “downloads.”
  • Event action: This provides another level of analysis and can help you to dig a little deeper. For example, under the videos category, you might want to have actions including “play button clicks” and “pauses.”
  • Event label: This provides a further level of information and context. Keeping with the same theme, the label might specify the video’s actual name so that you can differentiate between different video content.

Conversions data

For most businesses, conversions are the ultimate goal of all marketing activities. As the name suggests, this metric is all about measuring when an online user “converts” from a regular visitor into a lead: i.e., someone who’s taken a desired action on a website.

  • For ecommerce sites, this ‘action’ would be when a visitor adds a product to their online shopping cart and follows through to check out and makes a purchase.
  • Other websites may track conversion related to online users visiting a particular web page, or submitting their contact details in exchange for a free, time-based service subscription.

 

How to set up conversions in Google Analytics

Step 1. Create the conversion goal you’d like to track

Navigate to your “All Website Data” view in your Google Analytics dashboard, and then follow the menus into “Conversions” and then “Goals.” You’ll be prompted to set up your first goal by clicking the bright red “New Goal” button.

 

Setting up a new goal in Google Analytics

 

 

Step 2: Select a goal template

Google provides you with several pre-set options and templates, including revenue goals, inquiries, and engagement goals. Here you will also be able to set up your own custom goals.

 

Selecting a goal template in Google Analytics

 

 

Step 3: Fill out the goal description:

You’ll be able to enter a name for your goal and specify how you want to track it. The main options are to track destinations (such as a Thank You page), duration (time spent on site), pages per session (how much of your site visitors are viewing per session), and events (such as button clicks, clicks on videos, etc.).

 

Filling out the Goal description in Google Analytics goal setups

 

Step 4: Fill out the goal details:

If you’ve set up a goal that tracks destinations, this is where you’ll enter the URL of the destination page.

 

If you’ve set up an Event goal type, you can now set up the conditions that need to be fulfilled as an event is triggered for it to be qualified as a conversion in your report.

 

 

 

Step 5: Start tracking:

Once you’ve followed all of the above steps, you’re ready to start tracking. Google will automatically start tracking your conversions, you just need to wait for your conversions to start displaying in your dashboard.

Google Analytics logo

Google Analytics should be considered a default component of any website build right from the start.

The only time you might want to skip using it is if you’re using another web analytics tool, and even then, it has to be better than Google Analytics to be considered in the first place.

Full customer relationship management (CRM) systems tend to come with decent analytical tools, but they don’t benefit from being free to use. Google Analytics can also be rolled out across other digital properties; if your brand has a YouTube channel, for example, you can monitor performance both there and on your website in real-time.

Google Analytics is a powerful web analytics tool. You need data to act on it, so the sooner you install it and start gathering this information in real-time, the better.

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