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How to Decode Your Most Pressing Google Analytics Questions

 How to Decode Your Most Pressing Google Analytics Questions (Source: plus.google.com)

Google Analytics is the easiest way for marketers, developers, and businesses to track the successes and failings of a website – but for many, the powerful free tool just leaves more questions than it actually answers.

“What exactly is bounce rate?”

“How do I have such a high average time on page and a high bounce rate?"

“Which metrics should I actually be concentrating on?”

“Hey, what did you mean when you said that bounce rate and exit rates are different things?”

“…Help?”

At times, Analytics can be frustrating and a little confounding, even for the experts. Fortunately, like any program or process, there is a way to work through and logically break down all of your Google Analytics questions.

We're a big fan of the work that Mana Ionescu does around the corner from us at Lightspan Digital and she offers these three helpful steps to approaching a Google Analytics conundrum:

1.) Could technology be impacting these numbers and how?
2.) How is the data calculated? How will understanding the variables in the formula impact my interpretation of that data?
3.) How do the numbers play in the context of my goals for this page, my users’ site experience and more?

Let’s break down those steps in greater detail. Here are three ways to think through - and add significant value - to your next Google Analytics session:

1.) How Is the Technology Affecting My Numbers?

Google Analytics isn’t the impartial, ethereal third party we imagine it is. Like any piece of technology, Analytics’ tracking mechanism isn’t foolproof or free from the risk of human error, and there could be any number of factors causing your data to look off.

Often enough, the problem is that the code hasn’t been implemented properly on your website. Having an Analytics expert take a look at your code could reveal improper installation. If you notice any other abnormalities, there is a chance that other pieces of code or errors (like Javascript errors) on your site may be interfering with Analytics, or the code that is installed isn’t up to the task of advanced tracking, such as cross-domain installation.

And even if tracking is working fine on your end, Analytics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Google collects its data about your visitors using HTTP requests, browser information, and, most importantly, “cookies,” which are directly responsible for collecting session and ad data (which go into metrics like bounce rate). There are any number of things that users can do to turn off or impact cookies: Maybe their browser doesn’t accept cookies, they have a firewall set up to block and delete cookies, they regularly delete cookies manually, or they’re simply browsing in “Incognito” mode, which deletes cookies on exit and cause users to look like new visitors with every session.

And don't even talk to us about the bane of our analytics existence, "Ghost Spam" (commonly referred to as "Referrer Spam".) According to Wikipedia, this is when spammers "send fake visits to Google Analytics, often without ever accessing the affected site. The technique is used to have the spammers' URLs appear in the site statistics... [w]hen the spammer never visited the affected site..." We've learned a few tips and tricks from taking these out of our clients' results set, but the spammers are getting craftier.

In the end, the most important takeaway is that Analytics is not infallible, and in order to really get a grasp on your tracking results, it’s important to understand both the benefits and the limitations of the tech.

2.) How is the Data Calculated?

Remember what we said about Google Analytics being far from infallible? Well, we weren’t exaggerating. In some cases, the program collects and measures data in a way that can seem somewhat counterintuitive.

For instance, did you know that even if a user stays on your landing page for 25 minutes, it will count as a bounce if they leave from the same page they entered? It’s true! Regardless of how much time they actually spend on your site, that visitor will be counted toward your bounce rate. The trend currently is to build long-scrolling web pages with a lot of data. On these sites, a high bounce rate may not be an indication of a problem. 

Another intriguing aspect to the tracking? Average time is not what you think it is, since according to Mana, “Google will record the average time on page for a bounce as 0… because GA only records the time after you left a page to visit another page of the website.” What this means is that average time can be a very misleading metric if you don’t know how to follow it properly.

3.) How Do These Metrics Actually Reflect My Goals?

When it comes to analytics, context is everything. And even though Google will use the same tools and metrics on every page, the reality is that not every page on your site is created equally – and that’s by design. So a high bounce rate on a page designed to lead to conversions may be a troubling sign, but a high bounce rate on a page designed for educational content, like a blog post, may not be a big deal at all.

Think of the pages of your site in terms of two primary functions: educational pages and sales pages.

Educational content pages are those that provide information to users without necessarily focusing on converting into sales. For these sorts of pages, worry less about bounce rate - since readers are probably coming to your educational pages looking to complete one specific goal and then “bounce” – and, instead focus on time on site, the number of seconds (or, hopefully, minutes) that users spend on your site, which can majorly influence your Google rankings due to dwell time.

In contrast, sales pages target potential buyers rather than casual visitors, and should be analyzed differently as a result. With sales pages, focus on pages per visit and exit percentages with a tool known as Funnel Visualization. Located under Conversions > Goals > Funnel Visualization, this report allows you to track the percentage of users who drop off with each step of your ecommerce process (for instance, a shopping cart, a check-out page, and then a thank-you page), allowing you to determine what steps it will take to keep visitors moving toward a complete transaction.

We realize that this may still seem a little hard to parse. Fortunately, that’s where we come in! Geek is your one-stop shop for web development, content creation, and digital marketing. Our experienced team knows all of the ins and outs of putting the web to work for your brand, freeing you up to do what you do best.

Why not check out some of our past projects or download our free ebook? And when you’re ready, drop us a line to get the conversation started!

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Jason Finn

Founder & Chief Geek

Jason has nearly 20 years of consulting experience, predominantly in the technology space. Most recently he was the COO and Director of Technology for Rich Casto & Company, a national training and consulting organization in the real estate industry.
As a consultant for IBM, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, and Envision Consulting Group (now IMS Health), Jason has served clients of all sizes, including Big Pharma, Fortune 500, and Global 1000 companies:

  • Allstate Insurance Company
  • AOL (America Online)
  • Astellas Pharmaceuticals
  • Eli Lilly and Company
  • Ford Motor Credit
  • Wockhardt USA (formerly Morton Grove Pharmaceuticals)
  • Norwich Union
  • PNC Bank
  • Reynolds and Reynolds

Sarunas Budrikas

Creative Director

Sarunas is a web design and development expert with hundreds of successful projects in his portfolio. He is passionate about delivering extraordinary user experiences for every client and consistently goes above and beyond everyone’s expectations. As an SEO expert and strategist, he can optimize your website, or app, to get the most out of it, day in and day out. Sarunas holds a degree in Electrical Engineering from Kaunas Technology University, in Lithuania. Sarunas now lives in Chicago, and calls it home.

Alexandra Olsavsky

Client Experience Specialist

Alex specializes in content generation and social media promotion for Geek | Chicago clients, helping to solidify their presence in the online community. This includes blog writing, graphic design, co-ordination and design of weekly newsletters, and active engagement on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and LinkedIn. Outside of Geek, Alex is a classically-trained soprano who professionally performs around the city of Chicago (most recently with the Chicago Baroque Band, and with the Rolling Stones for their "50 and Counting" tour).