Google Analytics - what it is (and why you need it)
You may well have heard of Google Analytics, but how much do you know about it? If the answer is “quite a lot and I have it running on my site” then top marks for you, everyone should follow your lead and here is where you can stop reading. If the answer is anything else then you’re welcome to continue, and discover what it is, how it works, and why you should be using it if you have a website for anything.
What is Google Analytics?
Google Analytics, which we’re going to refer to now as GA, is a free tool from Google that enables you to see how your site is being used.
Imagine you are a visitor to a theme park, and upon entry, you’re given a wristband that records everything you do in the park - what attractions you visit, how much you spend at eateries, how much you walk around, the route you take through the park, if you revisit anything, and so on. The one thing it doesn’t record is who you are, you’re just another body collecting data which is added to everyone else’s so that the park owners can see how users behave in the resort, what should be invested in and improved, what might be a waste of resources, and a number of other things that will ultimately increase profits at the same time as improving future visitors’ experience of the place.
If you can picture that, then you’ve essentially visualised what GA does with a website.
When GA is activated on a site, the site is given a unique tracking code know as a tag. This tag is inserted into the code on every page. Visitors to the site arrive using a browser (eg. Chrome, Edge, Safari for iPhone, etc) and, using an anonymous user ID, the browser interacts with the tag , collecting data about the visitor’s behaviour on any page with that tag. This data is sent back to Google’s data collection servers. All of the information gathered for that tag across all users can be accessed by the site’s owner who, with the aid of the GA toolset, can use it to identify trends and patterns in how visitors engage with their website.
How much data is collected?
A lot, to put it bluntly. There are three main categories of data collected: Acquisition, Behaviour, and Audience.
Acquisition data is all about how users got to your site, whether it was via a link in a set of search results (either paid or organic), a link from another site, a social media platform or possibly something else.
Behaviour data is, as the name suggests, all about what your users do when on your site. Which pages they view, how long they stay on a page, which page on your site was their entry point (landing page), what time of day they are visiting, what is the last page they visit before leaving your site, what elements were interacted with, and so on.
Audience data focuses on characteristics of the user such as how they are accessing your site (which browser and operating system), geographic location, if they are a returning or new user, and it is even possible for GA to have an idea of the user’s age, gender and interests. The important thing is that, even though this is a lot of data collected for every user, it is not looked at on an individual basis but as part of the larger picture of traffic on the site as a whole. Metrics like age, gender and location aren't really important unless they are a common feature of users displaying a particular behaviour - for example, a particular call to action on a site might be found to have different engagement rates depending on the country it's viewed in because of different cultural attitudes to the colour of the button.
What is all this data good for?
That's where the 'analytics' part comes in. The suite of tools at analytics.google.com enables you to arrange the data in visual reports and compare different types of data to find patterns that give insight into how well the site is working for your visitors and, ultimately, you.
By understanding where your traffic is (and isn’t) coming from you can assess how well your marketing strategies are working and where you should be focusing your efforts to bring more visitors to your site.
Understanding your visitors’ behaviour once they get to your site gives you what you need to improve their experience and increase their engagement while they are with you.
And all of this is without even mentioning e-commerce. If you have a site that actively sells, then being able too see behind the curtain of how your online store is functioning is not just advantageous, it’s pretty much essential. One of the most critical things GA can do for you is help you analyse the entire user journey of your customers and identify any barriers to purchase at any point in the process.
How to get started?
The very first thing you need is a Google account. If you have a Gmail address (or an email address that is managed by Gmail) then you already have a Google account. If not, getting one is dead simple - go to accounts.google.com/signup and it will walk you through the process of signing up. You then use your Google account to sign into analytics.google.com to get going.
We would highly recommend working through Google’s own Google Analytics for beginners course which is free and takes you through how to set up GA on your site and then how to navigate the toolset and understand reports.
Of course, you may want to have someone else (like your friendly neighbourhood web designers) manage your GA property for you, but it’s still recommended that you set it up in the first place so that you retain ownership of it (You can make anyone an admin on the property). That way, if you fall out with the agency managing it, or they go out of business, you won’t find yourself in the possible position of losing all the historical data about your site that you have built up over time.
Google Analytics is always improving
GA is something that Google has been constantly developing and adding to since they first acquired Urchin Software Corp in 2005 for their web statistics analysis program Urchin On Demand.
Since then, the system has been improved over the years in line with web analytics evolving from a niche occupation to an intrinsic element of online business, guided by feedback and wish lists from users. Universal Analytics was introduced in 2012 with an improved tracking code (aimed to be as developer friendly as possible) and delivering more features, such as cross-platform tracking, to deliver better insights about users. Now they have rolled out another major revamp in the form of GA4, which introduces event-based tracking giving the possibility of much better insights into what your users actually do on your site (or app).
There is a well-known Chinese proverb; “ "The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now." This is thoroughly applicable to Google Analytics. If you already have it running on your site, then you will have data to work with and, using the GA reporting tools, you could learn new things about how your audience is engaging with your site. If you don’t have it set up, now is the time.