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How to Make the Most of Google’s New Analytics Tools

Guest Post: Jai Sen, Sen Associates

Analytics. The very word excites some and sends others running for the hills.

But there is good news. Google Analytics has emerged as the tool of choice for communications professionals, and Google has put some real muscle behind improving it. As of this writing, most everyone should have access to the new version of the application.

The biggest change is an effort on Google’s part to emphasize common sense and meaningful measurements. Web analytics had always, for the most part, been built around the way servers dish up content, and measured things accordingly. I remember discussions all the way back in the 90s about “hits” evolving into visitors, visits and page views.

Hits, as we thought of them then, were recorded any time a server got a request for any piece of content. The problem was that some web pages had tons of individual elements, so someone looking at one particularly cluttered page would be measured as dozens or hundreds of requests. This turned into a more meaningful measurement of page views, but even this fell flat as questions developed around who was coming to a given site, and then later, whether it was their first time there, where they came from, how many pages they looked at—all the metrics Google now captures.

These core indicators (visitors, visits and page views) are still very much at the heart of the new Google Analytics. What’s changed, though, is the ability to more easily drill down into them to figure out what they mean and how they relate to each other, a deeper look at audience behavior, important context around what may be going on underneath the numbers and, most importantly, ways to measure engagement.

It’s more important then ever to define goals and figure out what you want to measure.

At a session hosted last spring by Public Policy Communicators of New York City, Greg Olson, a Google rep from Boston, started an overview with a simple question: what’s important for you to measure? I thought he put it very succinctly: Don’t try to derive meaning from the numbers. Define first what’s significant and then detail how you want to track those factors over time.

I’m often asked questions like, “I get 10,000 page views per month. Is this good?” or “How many Twitter followers should I have?” The answer will vary depending on what sort of organization we’re talking about, how its audience behaves and whether they’re following best practices—but the question is wrong. Think instead in practical terms.

Here are a few questions that may be helpful in getting some initial perspective on what to measure:

  • How often do you update your website? If it’s less frequently than once a week, it’s unrealistic to expect high traffic; visitors will find you and return to your site to consume new content. Frequent website updates aren’t necessary for every organization and shouldn’t be forced, so be realistic about who will come to see what you’ve got if it doesn’t change all that much.
  • Is your site well integrated with social media? Even if your organization elects not to be on Facebook, Twitter, or other services, you should still provide a means of sharing your content via email and social networks.
  • How many entry points do you have to your website? The more incoming links you have to your website, whether on your own social media or from other sites, the better, obviously. More entry points mean more traffic but, most importantly, traffic from diverse sources.
  • What do you really want people to do on your site? Is it most important that they know about your core mission, or do you want them to read and consume a lot of content? How important is it to you that your visitors share what they find on your site? (Here, too, be realistic: we’d all love for someone to read every bit of content we put up, but it’s pretty respectable if visitors consume 3-5 pages on a typical visit for most sites.)
  • Do you want visitors to spend time on your site, or is it your main goal to send them elsewhere?
  • Do you have multimedia like videos and interactive presentations? What are your goals in terms of how you want these to be consumed and shared?

Thinking about these larger topics won’t give you a list of numbers to shoot for, but if you consider these issues, they will help you focus on the measurements that actually matter to you, rather than looking at a number and wondering if it’s good or bad.

Think in terms of audience, where they came from, and what they’re consuming.

That’s how Google has organized the new Google Analytics suite, and it works.

“Audience” gives you an overview of your visitors, and this is probably the most familiar report for those used to previous versions of Google Analytics. Here you get all the basic metrics everyone talks about (visits, visitors, page views and a few others), in the context of visits. Other reports in this area look at demographics, about which Google now provides even more in-depth information, like geography and language); behavior (whether visitors are new or returning, how often they visit and how much content they consume per visit); technologies they’re using; and reports around mobile and social media usage.

In this area of its new version, one of the most interesting tools Google now offers is a report called “visitors flow.” This report diagrams, visually, where your visitors came from and where they entered your site, but most interestingly, what their path was once they arrived. You can magnify the diagram and increase the number of connections it shows to zoom in on a very significant level of detail. This is the kind of thing you can spend hours exploring if you’re not careful. Think of it as a visual reference for the numbers, so you can get a quick look at what content is really working and the connections your visitors make between sections of your site.

“Traffic sources” provides in-depth looks at where visitors are coming from, and this is particularly important if you’re doing any sort of external promotions, be they link shares with other organizations, links back to your site from social media or advertising or key word buys for your organization. The “content” area allows you to look at traffic from the lens of the particular content your visitors are consuming. You can look for particular pages or see an overview of what’s most popular.

There’s even a real-time view that allows you to see who’s on your site right now, what search terms brought them to you and where they’re coming from.

You can now easily share customized dashboards of metrics with others in your organization.

Google now provides a way to make multiple dashboards that you can share using a link and it also allows you to set up automatic emails of summary reports to designated people.

That  really helps one of the most difficult aspects of dealing with analytics within your organization: which information to share with whom and how. With this new feature, you can set up high-level reports for executives, specific reports for program staff and even summaries you can share outside your organization.

Have you had experiences with the new Google analytics?  Let us know what’s been most helpful to you.  Questions are welcome, too.

Jai Sen (@jai_sen) is a digital media strategist based in New York City.


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