5 things you (probably) didn’t know about Google Analytics

Things can get a little muddied when it comes to unique visits, cookies, and tracking traffic. Here’s some help.

I think I’m pretty Web savvy.

I know my fair share of HTML code, and have a lot of experience measuring the performance of websites. But when I was asked if I’d like to attend some Google Analytics 101 training I jumped at the offer—even before I knew breakfast and lunch were going to be free.

I am kind of a nerd and enjoy looking through analytics and putting all the data together to tell a story. Although it’s great to say “page views are up 15 percent over last month” or “the bounce rate for site A decreased over the past two months,” many will yawn at these numbers, and others will scratch their heads.

Perhaps more important, it is great fodder to get your boss/client/advertiser excited about the work you’re doing because they are seeing (and understanding) results.

For example: “Hotdogs.com saw a 15 percent increase in visits from April to May,” versus, “People who searched ‘best hot dogs’ in Google landed on our home page and subsequently visited two more pages on our site proving they are finding our content relevant. Our efforts in improving content and SEO have led to a 15 percent increase in page views over the last month.”

To me, the second example better explains the data and lends to some important insights.

The first step to understanding Google Analytics lies in knowing what to look for. Though I’m sure many of you know the basic user interface, day one of my two-day analytics training threw some interesting curveballs.

Here are five things you may not have known about Google Analytics.

1. The true definition of a visit.

Seems simple enough, right? A visit is the distinct number of times someone interacts with your site. However, there’s actually one more part to this definition. If the person is inactive for more than 30 minutes, that visit is over. For example, say you go to lunch and leave www.hotdogs.com open and you’re gone for 30 minutes, your visit is over. If you come back and click on another page, that becomes a whole new visit.

“Think of this like the number of times people enter the front door of a store,” said Jonathan Weber from Luna Metrics, a training presenter. They can come in and realize they forgot their purse, and then go out and get it. Hey, that second time entering the store is a new visit.

2. A unique visitor may not be what you think.

Unique visitors are all about cookies. These visitors really aren’t about the number of people visiting the site, but the number of unique cookies recognized. Many don’t clear their cookies for two years or so, therefore, these users are only counted once over a specified time period, even if they visit your site multiple times.

“Unique visitors are only as accurate as the cookies,” Weber said.

What this means is that if a person views a site from the office, then the same site from home or even via Internet Explorer and then Chrome, he/she is counted twice.

3. Tracking traffic is not always straightforward.

Many companies and organizations have newsletters that are sent via email. But it’s hard to measure the success of these campaigns depending on where the email ends up.

For example, if a user clicks on the newsletter URL through Outlook, that will count as direct traffic. Yet, if the email goes to a person’s Gmail account, it will be counted as referral traffic. How do you to get around this? There’s a nifty tool called Google Analytics URL Builder, which will generate a trackable URL.

Just follow the three steps below. Shorten your link as needed in bit.ly, and email away. If there were a newsletter called Hotdog Weekly, I would enter the URL in step one and then have a consistent source and medium for every issue, for example, source=newsletter and medium= email. It’s all case-sensitive so e-mail and email will create different URLs and not bring all of the data to one place in your analytics.

4. Comparing relative success is relatively easy.

Google Analytics enables you to compare metrics for traffic sources, pages, etc., against the site’s average. In the screen grab below, it shows how this feature gives you the ability to see how visits from different traffic media compare with pages/visit.

The line down the center represents the average, and in general those pages in the green are performing well and those in red are doing poorly. Don’t fret. This can help you tell your story and figure out how to improve content on your site and where to put your focus.

This screenshot shows that although referral traffic sent more than 2,705 visits in the last month, visitors aren’t going much further than where the URL they clicked sent them. Though organic search sends more than 65 percent, visitors are viewing more pages upon visiting.

5. Social media is measurable

Google Analytics recently added a feature under the traffic sources tab that breaks down social visits from social networks. Instead of digging in your referral traffic, you can now see all social engagement in one section. There’s even a nice line graph comparison of all visits and visits via social referral.

One other cool feature with the social traffic sources is those sources that are social data hub partners (e.g. reddit, Google+, and Diigo), you can click on a tab called “Activity Stream” and see all conversations including links to your site in a specified time period. I recommend that you explore this new feature.

Jackie Roy is a digital content associate at TMG Custom Media. A version of this article first appeared on Engage. (Image via)

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