Are you a writer that wants to see how people find your stories? Maybe you are an entrepreneur that wants to track your websites traffic, or a web developer trying to up sell a client on a responsive website. If any of the previous are true, The Novice’s Guide to Google Analytics will help accomplish your goals.

Analytics is a powerful tool that provides detailed information about what people are doing on your website, and how they got there. It is completely free, and is considered the standard in web analytics.

This guide is intended for the absolute beginner. We’ll touch on how to install it, best practices for accounts, and explain what the key numbers and graphs mean. We’ll also go over some cool features such as on-page, and real-time  analytics.

How to install Google Analytics

Installing Analytics is easy. All it requires is placing the snippet of JavaScript before your closing head tag. This code will be provided in the signup process.

If you aren’t a web developer, don’t fret. Notice the UA-XXXXX-Y in the code below. That is your tracking ID. If you are using a platform like WordPress or Tumblr there should be a place where you can simply past that tracking ID.

<script type="text/javascript">

  var _gaq = _gaq || [];
  _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-XXXXX-Y']);
  _gaq.push(['_trackPageview']);

  (function() {
    var ga = document.createElement('script'); ga.type = 'text/javascript'; ga.async = true;
    ga.src = ('https:' == document.location.protocol ? 'https://ssl' : 'http://www') + '.google-analytics.com/ga.js';
    var s = document.getElementsByTagName('script')[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(ga, s);
  })();

</script>

For more information take a look at the Google Analytics Support page.

Account Hierarchy

Account hierarchy is an important concept in Analytics, because it mandates who has access to what web properties. That hierarchy can be seen below.

  • User  - Can create up to 25, and manage an unlimited number of accounts.
  • Account – Can have several Web Properties.
  • Web Property – Can have several Profiles.
  • Profile – Actual analytics.

The Username you  login with is at the top of the account hierarchy. Whenever you are logged into Analytics a User is active. A User can manage many accounts. The screenshot below is from the home screen in Analytics. The top folder represents an Account.

google-analytics-account-hierarchy

The Web Property is located directly below the Account. It should show the tracking ID for that specific property. Within the Web Property you can have several profiles. In the Signal Tower example above, I have one Profile for all website data. Clicking on the Profile (signified by the world icon) will open analytics. Creating multiple profiles is more advanced, so we won’t delve any further into it. Just know that it is possible to create multiple profiles, say if you wanted to specifically track mobile analytics.

A User can only create 25 Accounts, but an account can be shared an unlimited number of times. For this reason clients should start their own Account and give you login permissions. This will also avoid  a situation where  the clients Web Property is placed inside an Account. Web Properties cannot be transfered between Users, nor can historical data to be migrated between Web Properties. If this happens you will either have to share the Account, which will give your client access to all web properties, or they will have to start from scratch with a new Account.

google-analytics-date-picker

Using the Date Picker

The Date Picker is a simple, but important part of Analytics. It can be found in the top right corner of most pages.

Make sure you select a range before taking a look at your analytics, because the date range selected will be applied all metrics throughout the application, and not an individual metric. This caught me off guard when I was a newbie.

Google-Analytics-Audience-Overview

Key Definitions and Audience Overview

Audience > Overview

The Audience Overview is the core of Analytics. It will provide you with the seven key metrics on every website, which are defined below.

Pageview occurs whenever a page is loaded by a browser. A visitor might open a new page, they might refresh the page they are looking at — both will result in a pageview. If a visitor comes to your home page, visits the about page, goes back to the home page, and then leaves he has viewed three pages. If a visitor comes to your home page and clicks refresh three times, three pageviews will register.

Unique Visitors, also known as uniques, represent visitors within a specific time frame. The number of uniques will vary depending on the range of the date picker. If the date picker’s range is set for a month. The visitor that makes five visits during that month will be worth the same as a visitor that makes one visit.

Visits are sessions on a website. Unlike uniques, visits are calculated by sessions on the website. Using the scenario above, the visitor who comes five times will have five visits, and the visitor that comes once will have one visit. Visits last as long as a user stays on the same domain, so a user may have many pageviews during a visit.

Pages Per Visit is the average number of pageviews a single visit will return. The higher this number the more engaging your content. This number cannot drop below one.

Average Visit Duration is the average length of time spent on your website. Longer durations show higher engagement as visitors are likely spending time to consume content.

Bounce Rate is the percentage of visitors that leave after one pageview. Low bounce rates are a sign of high engagement for content-heavy websites. Single page websites will have a high bounce rate.

The Percentage of New Visits is the percentage of visitors that have never visited your website. A New Visitor can only be a New Visitor once in their lifetime.

Google-Analytics-Mobile-Users

Using Analytics Before Building a Website

If you are building a new website built, do yourself a favor and take a look at mobile users, and browser technology.

Audience > Mobile > Overview > Pie Graph (Icon to right)

Why does the percentage of mobile users matter?

The internet is shifting from desktop-sized websites to mobile devices with an unlimited number of form factors, which inherently causes problems for developers. Responsive design is the development world’s answer to the multitude of sizes. It allows for a website to take on different layouts based on the width of the screen.

Developing a responsive website is more expensive, so there are a few things to consider before development. Are more than 15 percent of your visitors on mobile? The number of mobile internet users will continue to grow over the next few years. If you have more than 15 percent of visitors coming from a mobile device, you should build a responsive site. Are people sharing your content? Because many people access Twitter and Facebook form their phones. Our Harlem Shake for Designers was shared hundreds of times, and the percentage of mobile users on that page is 30 percent higher than Signal Tower’s average.

Analytics can also tell you what browser visitors have.

Audience > Technology > Browser & OS > Pie Graph (Icon to right)

Do you really need you website to be IE 7 compatible? Older versions of Internet Explorer are absolute Hell for developers. Check Analytics to make sure that you have a sizable user base before supporting older browsers.

Google-Analytics-Traffic-Sources

How People Find Your Website

Traffic Sources > Overview

How are people getting to your website? As a general rule they can type in your address, click on a search result, or click a link on another website. The traffic sources section of Google Analytics will break down the percentage of traffic coming from each.

Traffic Sources > Overview > Referrals 

Referrals specifically analyzes the portion of portion of people clicking links on other websites. How might that be helpful?

Some of those sites will likely be social websites with conversations happening about your content. If someone links to you from reddit, Designer News or Stack Overflow, go join the conversation.

The referrals section will show you linking domains by default. Click the domain to see the exact URL being linked.

How could I improve the Novice’s Guide to Google Analytics? This guide will be an ongoing project. Comments, suggestions and tips are appreciated.