Lessons learned: Graduating from the Google Analytics Academy
I’ve had a working understanding of Google Analytics over the years but worried that I may have been missing its true potential. So, I decided to throw myself into The Google Analytics Academy and write about it (starting from the very beginning) for anyone that has had the same niggling feeling.
Note: The Google Analytics Academy is not as good as the Hubspot Academy (but is also not as cheesy in fairness).
Starting at the beginning
Google Analytics is self described as “a platform that collects data and compiles it into useful reports”. Ultimately, it is there to help you understand how people are using your websites.
The Academy Trainers tell us, “In marketing, we have the concept of a purchase funnel” and explain that Google Analytics is a way of measuring aspects of that funnel online, specifically:
Acquisition (which relates to building awareness and acquiring user interest)
Behaviour (which relates to how users engage with a business)
Conversation (which relates to how users become customers and transact)
Simple enough... if you know what online behaviours lead to positive outcomes, you can do more of what works.
For example; if you’re a consumer brand you might discover that certain goods are popular in specific areas by analysing geographical sales data (and so increase advertising in those places).
If you better understand how users progress through their online journey, you can make changes to improve conversion. Aims and goals of course differ by business, and so do the benefits of analytics.
An example goal given for ‘a lead gen site’ is to collect user information for sales teams to then connect with potential leads.
The Practicalities: Collecting Data
The tracking code also collects the ‘Traffic Source’ (in theory at least), which is what brought the users to the site in the first place. This might be a search engine, an advertisement clicked on, or an email marketing campaign.
The Academy instructors are keen to emphasise that once Analytics processes the data, it’s stored in a database where it can’t be changed. This means that when setting up, you shouldn’t exclude any data you might want to analyse later.
The Analytics Account Structure
This is where Google Analytics gets a bit confusing in my humble opinion...
An ‘Account’ determines how data is collected. It is also the place from which to manage access to that data.
Ignore this paragraph if you’re easily bored: Multiple ‘Accounts’ can be grouped under an ‘Organisation’ (although to this day I haven’t actually seen this label used in Google Analytics). The instructors tell you that having an ‘Organisation’ is optional. The idea is that users can manage multiple accounts under one grouping (which I do, just without the ‘Organisation’ label that’s referred to in the Academy). This means that I can have access to multiple client ‘Accounts’ in one place (i.e my Account). When I login to my Google Analytics Account, I can use the drop down menu to select the one I want to go into.
When an Account is created, a ‘Property’ is also automatically created. Each Account therefore has at least one Property, but others can be added. Why add more? Properties can collect data independently of each other (but this requires using a unique tracking ID in the tracking code).
The idea is that you can collect data from different websites or mobile apps. So if you have multiple websites under one company, they can all be housed under one account.
Example: Starfleet could have a microsite for its ‘Academy’ that is separate and would benefit from its own analytics.
You cannot aggregate data from separate Properties.
As each Analytics account can have multiple Properties, Each property can have multiple ‘Views’.
Views are filtered views of data. For example, you may want to just view data from a specific region, or you may want to set filters to ensure data doesn’t include any internal company traffic. In fact, this is the first thing set-up takes you through. FYI, this stops you checking and experimenting with Google Analytics on your site yourself without going ‘incognito’.
The View level lets you set up ‘Goals’, which is a way of tracking conversions, or objectives. For example, this could be getting a certain number of users to sign-up for an email newsletter.
Views only include data from the date the View was created and onwards.
Note: You can assign permissions to other users at the Account, Property, or View level. Each level inherits permissions from the level above it.
When you load up Google Analytics, you can easily switch between Accounts, Properties, and Views. On the left hand is a navigation bar that lists the below:
Real-Time Reports: Which shows live user behaviour on the site
Audience Reports: Which shows info about users, like age and gender, where they’re from, their interests, how engaged they were, whether they’re returning users and what tech they’re using - Note: It wasn’t immediately apparent to me just how it gets this information (but I think I’ve found the answer - included later in this post)
Acquisition Reports: Which show the channels people came via (could be an ad or marketing campaign). This is separated out as:
Direct: Which usually means someone’s typed in the website's URL or accessed via a bookmark. Note: When the Source is ‘Direct’, the Medium is ‘None’
Organic: Unpaid search
Cost-Per-Click (CPC): Paid search
Referral: Traffic that comes from another website
Social: Traffic from a social network
Other: Low volume sources Behaviour Reports: Which show how people engaged (what pages they viewed, and their landing and exit pages)
Conversion Reports: Which track website Goals based on objectives
Two kinds of Reports
There are two kinds of reports in Google Analytics: ‘Overview Reports’ and ‘Full Reports’.
Overview reports (Accessed: Audience > Overview) provide a high level summary of metrics in one place.
Different metrics of the Audience Overview are shown in different formats. The most prominent is the line graph that by default shows data points for the number of users on each day over a selected time period. You can change the metric and date range (and make date range comparisons). You can also compare a metric to a second metric over the same time period.
Annotating the graph with notes that add context is a nice little bit of added functionality.
The metrics you’re taken through are:
Sessions: The total number of sessions for a given date range Users: The total number of visitors
Pageviews: The number of times that pages were displayed to users (including repeat visits)
Pages Per Session: Average number of pages viewed during each session (including repeats)
Average Session Duration
Bounce Rate: Percentage of users who left after viewing a single page and taking no additional action
Percentage of New Sessions: New users to the site
You’re also taken through the options of seeing what technology visitors are using to view the site including the Browser, Operating System and Service Provider.
‘Full Reports’ include more in-depth information and more options. Expanded versions of each Audience report are accessible in the left-hand navigation bar. Underneath the segment picker are links that control the different types of data in the report.
The ‘Summary’ view is a summary of Acquisition, Behavior, and Conversion metrics. The idea is that this view makes it easier to look at everything based on the ‘Marketing Funnel’.
‘Secondary Dimensions’ can also be added. So, for example, you can look at the different types of devices people are using to access the site based on their geographical data.
Of course, different metrics will vary in usefulness based on the individual organisation.
Although all of this can seem really complicated (it is), in reality the art is about setting up a view of the metrics that matter most, so that you can check them regularly. You may also want to set-up certain metrics to monitor the impact of specific marketing campaigns. But still, it’s not like you have to be an expert in every facet of Google Analytics to get value from it.
Think of how many ingredients there are in the world, yet most people cycle a dozen meals that work for them. The same applies for analytics!
Setting up dashboards and adding widgets helps make this stuff more easily accessible. Boring point: There are two types of dashboards: private and shared.
Back to Basic (Reports)
If we return to Basic Reports, things are actually quite handily presented if you ‘get’ the principles...
As you may have guessed; these reports help you better understand the characteristics of users and are divided into yet more categories.
‘Active Users’ reports show how many users had at least one session on the site in the last day, seven days, 14 days or 30 days. Google calls this a measurement of “Site Reach” or “Stickiness”
‘Demographics and Interests’ reports. The Demographics reports provide information about the age and gender of users. The Interests reports show users’ preferences for certain types of web content like technology, music, travel, or TV
Note: To see this date in the reports, you have to enable advertising features in Demographics and Interests reports for each property. This requires going into the Admin tab under Property and selecting Property Settings. Under Advertising Features, you have to set ‘Enable Demographics and Interest Reports’ to on.
You can only do this if you agree to adhere to the Google Analytics Advertising Features Policy.
Once activated, you will see data in Demographics and Interests reports about the age, gender, and interests of users (if the audience is big enough).
‘Geographic’ reports anonymously determine a user’s continent, sub-continent, country, and city through the IP address used by their browser‘
Behaviour’ reports (accessible below ‘Geo’) help you understand how often users visited and returned to the website. The “New vs Returning” report breaks out Acquisition, Behavior, and Conversion goal metrics for new and returning users
Technology and Mobile reports help users understand what tech audiences use to consume site content
Acquisition reports give insight about how users got to a site. They can reveal how well marketing tactics are working (and which ones are converting).
The tracking code captures several attributes when a visitor lands on a page.
‘Source’ provides more information about the medium. So if the medium is ‘referral’ then the source will be the URL of the site that referred the user. If the medium is ‘Organic’ then the source will be the specific search engine.
A good indicator of traffic quality is explained to be bounce rate. By selecting the comparison view and clicking the metric ‘bounce rate’, you can compare bounce rate for each source/medium combination to the site average.
An interesting aspect here is ‘organic’ sources. If Google is referring more traffic than other non-paid sources (and has a low bounce rate) you know users arriving from organic search are landing on highly relevant pages. If they’re not, you know they’re not. This can be very telling.
Channels Report allow you to view traffic by channel, which bundles the sources together under each medium. Traffic sources are automatically grouped into basic categories (or channels) like Organic, Social, Direct, Referral, Display, etc. Clicking into each channel will break out the individual sources for that channel.
Referrals Report allow users to view traffic by which sites have linked to theirs. You can click into individual referrals to see which specific web pages link back to the site.
Behavior reports show how users interact with a site; from they look at, to how they move around.
‘Pageviews’ shows how frequently each page has been viewed. Metrics in the “All Pages” report like “Average Time on Page” and “Bounce Rate” indicate time spent on the site. Reports can be sorted by these metrics to quickly find high/low-performing pages.
Under ‘Site Content’...
The ‘Content Drilldown’ is useful if trying to understand the performance of particular content
The ‘Landing Pages’ report lists the pages where users first arrived. This can be used to monitor the bounce rate for each landing page
The ‘Exit Pages’ report shows the pages where users left the site
The ‘Events’ report tracks how users interact with specific elements of a website such as when users click on a video player or a download link. Event tracking requires additional implementation beyond the Analytics tracking code snippet (which I don’t cover here, but can be learnt about at The Google Academy)
Tracking a marketing campaign
Marketing campaigns are tracked in Google Analytics through ‘campaign tagging.’
Campaign tags are extra bits of information that can be added to the URL links of online marketing or advertising materials. These are comprised of ‘tracking parameters’ followed by an equals sign and a single word or hyphenated words.
When users click on a link with added parameters, the Google Analytics tracking code extracts the information and associate that user and their behavior with a certain marketing campaign. As a result, users can tell which marketing activities brought what people to the site!
For example, a monthly email newsletter sent to customers with links back to a website; by adding a campaign tag of ‘email’ to these links, the site can identify the users that came to the website from the email newsletter in Google Analytics.
There are five different campaign tags that help identify specific information about campaign traffic. Medium, Source, and Campaign are required campaign tags. Tags can also be added for Content and Term.
‘Medium’ communicates the mechanism, or how the message was sent to the user. You can include ‘email’ for an email campaign, ‘cpc’ for paid search ads, or ‘social’ for a social network
“Source” communicates where the user came from. If the medium was “email,” the source might be “newsletter”“Campaign” can communicate the name of a marketing campaign such as “2020-Start-Of-Year-Campaign” or “2020-Webinar-Promotion”
“Content” can be used to differentiate versions of a promotion. This is useful when testing which version of an ad or promotion is more effective. If you’re running a test between two different versions of a newsletter, you can label these tags “v1” and “v2” to help differentiate
“Term” is used to identify the keyword for paid search campaigns that are not via Google - so, you would only use this field if you are manually tagging a paid search campaign
To add these parameters into the URLs associated with your ads, Google Analytics provides a tool called “URL builder”.
The URL Builder enables users to add campaign parameters to URLs to track Custom Campaigns.
The first step is typing in the URL of a website or where you want to take users. You then have to fill out fields for the campaign, source, and medium. You have the option to fill out the fields for term, content, and name. Term, content, and name can be any values, you just have to make sure that they’re descriptive enough to recognise when they appear when looking at Google Analytics reports.
Naming conventions note: Typically, tags are single words. Underscores are added if multiple words are used.
Consistent spelling and capitalisation when entering tag values is important since Google Analytics is case sensitive.
Clicking ‘Generate URL’ generates the link with all the correct campaign parameters attached.
You can only use the builder to generate one URL at a time, so you have to use a spreadsheet to simplify the process. Google provides its own example template!
Google advises checking tags (as they’re easily broken by certain ‘website configurations’). The advice is to open an ‘incognito window’ and paste the link into the browser. Once the site loads, you can navigate around the site and complete some actions. From there, you can see campaign information in the Real Time reports or wait a few hours to review the data in standard Campaign reports. Visiting the “All Campaigns” report in the “Acquisition” section under “Campaigns” lets you compare incoming traffic from various marketing campaigns. To verify that the campaign is collecting data properly, you can type the name of the campaign into the filter. Fingers crossed, you should see an overview of the campaign clicks that you tested.
Goals let you associate the metrics in your reports with specific business objectives.
Two types of goals are outlined in the Academy: business goals and Google Analytics Goals. Business goals are actions you want users to take on your website. Each time a user completes one of your business goals, Google calls it a “conversion.” This could be signing up for a newsletter or buying a product.
In Google Analytics, the “Goals” feature is used to track these conversions.
Once you configure Goals, Analytics creates conversion-related metrics such as the total number of conversions, as well as the percentage of users that converted. This is referred to as the ‘conversion rate.’
When setting up Goals, you can also set up Goal Funnels, which visualise the different steps needed. Again, this could be used to track newsletter sign-ups, contact form completions, page navigations, number of pages viewed in a session, or time on site.
I guess the most important thing is deciding what you want to track based on business goals. Analytics provides you with some pre-set business goal templates. But as long as you get it in a position you’re happy with, you don’t need to be an expert in every single area.
Goal types can be triggered by a particular user action, such as...
‘Destination’ - when a user reaches a specific page on a site such as a thank-you page
‘Duration’ - based on the length of a user’s session
‘Pages or Screens’ - based on how many pages a user views in a session
‘Events’ - tracking specific actions on a site
Note: Funnel Visualisation only work the ‘Destination’-type goals.
To assign a monetary amount to the conversion goal, you can flip the “Value” toggle to “On” and type in the amount that each conversion is worth. You would only use this if each conversion was worth a consistent amount. I imagine this value is left set to “Off” for 99% of the time (unless you have an ecommerce site).
Once you’ve verified the settings, turning the Funnel switch to “On” allows you to add the funnel steps. Each funnel step represents an action on the website that needs to be taken in order to accomplish the Goal.
Goal data is available in almost all of the other Google Analytics reports, such as the Audience and Acquisition reports.
In addition to creating custom goals, the Analytics Solutions Gallery shares Goals built by other users that can be reused. The idea being you don’t have to reinvent the wheel time and time again.
Google Ads are of course promoted as a good thing and easily linked to an Analytics account. When you link your Google Analytics account to your Google Ads account, you can:
View Google Ads click and cost data alongside site engagement data
Create remarketing lists in Analytics to use in Google Ads campaigns
Import Analytics goals and transactions into Google Ads as conversions
View Analytics site engagement data in Google Ads
When linking Google Analytics and Google Ads accounts, campaign data is shared between the two systems, but it still requires campaign tracking.
Although you can manually add campaign tracking tags to Google Ads URLs using the URL Builder, there is another option. Google Ads can automatically add a special campaign tag to Google Ads URLs through a feature called auto-tagging.
You can see how Google Ads campaigns are performing in ‘Campaigns’ reports.
‘Keywords’ reports help you understand how well keywords and individual ads are performing. For example, if a keyword is bringing in a lot of traffic but has a high bounce rate, it might indicate a disconnect between the ad and landing page content. If there is a keyword with a high conversion rate but low number of impressions (or number of times an ad was shown), users may want to raise the bid for that keyword, so the ad is shown more often and reaches a larger audience.
Bid adjustments are a Google Ads feature used to automatically adjust keyword bids based on a user’s device, location, or time of day. The Bid Adjustment report in Analytics lets you analyse Google Ads performance for the bid adjustments that have been set for various campaigns.
No wonder I’ve avoided throwing myself fully into Google Analytics!!
I’m not going to lie; getting fully to grips with it has been very boring in parts BUT worth it in the long run.
Understanding what is possible, setting things up in the right way and being able to interpret and act on the data is what’s key.
The potential of Google Analytics can be intimidating, but in reality, the day-to-day is much more simple. It’s one of those things that you kind of need to know how it works to be able to use it properly.
Google Analytics is like an immense toolbox; I’ve often grabbed a Philips, but now I can grab the odd Star Head screwdriver! Oh and I get a PDF certificate, so there's that...