Member to Member :: Understanding Google Analytics

Reading Between The Google Analytics Lines

A website is an important marketing tool for many businesses. It’s their public face on the Internet. But how can a manager know what sort of experience visitors have there? What pages do they visit? How long do they stay on a page? Are there pages that actually turn visitors away? To find answers to such questions, people turn to Google Analytics. It’s a free service offered by Google that generates detailed statistics about the visitors to a website.

How does it work?

Google Analytics (often called GA for short) begins with a bit of JavaScript tracking code pasted into the HTML of the pages you wish to track. When a user visits a page that has the tracking code installed, his browser sends a variety of user information to Google’s servers, including a timestamp marking the exact moment he arrived on each page. Managers can then log onto Google Analytics and review a variety of detailed reports that break down the nature of their web traffic. Here, we’ll focus on three key metrics and what they mean to you: time on page, time on site and bounce rate.

Putting it all together

Let’s say a user (we’ll call him my Starbucks name: Mike) visits your home page at 5:40 p.m. At 5:42, Mike moves on to the Contact Us page. GA calculates the difference between the timestamps sent and assigns the home page a “time on page” of two minutes for Mike’s visit. This system isn’t perfect, though. If Mike then closes his browser window, or if he types in a new URL from the Contact Us page, Google doesn’t collect the timestamp from the new page, and therefore cannot calculate the time Mike spent on Contact Us.

Suppose in this scenario, Mike first visits your home page, but instead of clicking over to Contact Us or some other page in your site, he leaves the site altogether. When a visitor only views one page on your site, this is called a “bounce,” and it is another important factor in your analysis. The percentage of visitors who bounce from your site is what’s called the “bounce rate.”

The last metric, “time on site,” is straightforward. It is the sum of all the times spent on individual pages. Now let’s talk about what the numbers really mean.

It’s all relative!

High bounce rates and low average times on your site are generally negative indicators (unless you have a one-page site). I say generally here because you have to take your site’s content, your users and the entire visit path into consideration.

For instance, a low time on page on a search page may be a positive indicator that your users are finding what they want quickly and moving on, while a higher time on the same page may mean that it’s taking users longer to find what they’re looking for. Similar stats could be interpreted as the exact opposite on a photo gallery or an FAQ page. Bear in mind that a high bounce or exit rate will skew your time on page statistics, since GA has no way of knowing how much time was spent on the one page they visited.

It’s hard to tell if an indicator is positive or negative without looking at the big picture. Where are users coming from? What are they clicking on? What’s the purpose of the page? Where are they moving to next?


 Here are some general tips on improving the time spent on your site as well as reducing the bounce rate:

Check referring links and match expectations

Following a promising link or an ad (e.g., $50 gift card!) that leads to a home page that doesn’t mention what you clicked on is almost a guaranteed bounce. Make sure your external and internal links get the user to a page that’s relevant to what they clicked on. If you cannot change the link, change the page or re-direct the user to the appropriate place.

Time yourself or others browsing your site

How long does it take you to accomplish a task on your site? How much time did it take you to read what you want your visitors to read? Measure it and use it as a baseline to compare your analytics reports against. It won’t be perfect, but it’ll give you an idea if you’re heading in the right direction.

Monitor, modify, test and repeat

Enhancing your site is an iterative process. Nobody gets it 100% right the first time. You need to learn about your users and how they interact with your website, then modify it to fit their needs. There is no point in reading your analytics reports or even recording them if you are not willing to modify your site.

There is much more to GA, but this should help get you started. (Google has plenty of tutorials on their website.) Good luck in your analysis.

Eihab Ibrahim is a Sr. Programmer/Analyst at Wallrich Landi, an integrated marketing communications firm. Visit Wallrich Landi's blog for more posts from the team.