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A guide to Google Analytics – part 2

Add dashboards, create custom reports, anaylse real-time stats and data to supercharge site performance

Dashboards

By far the easiest way to customise Google Analytics is using dashboards. These let you drop widgets onto one of 20 dashboards per profile, with each widget showing a graph or a table for a particular set of dimensions and metrics. Chart options include pie charts and timelines, while there’s also the option of just showing a particular metric. You can add filters to widgets, as well as treating custom reports as widget contents.
Each dashboard can cover a different time frame, set using the time control in the top-right of the screen. You can set a custom view or a relative range; relative ranges simplify using dashboards, as they give you all the relevant data for the last week or month. You can also choose to compare dashboard contents to the same data from a different time period, using the Compare to past feature. Specific dashboards can be assigned to specific users too – but at the moment need to be created in that account, as you’re currently unable to share dashboards with other users.

The standard report

At the bottom of the Standard report are a set of tables that give you a quick overview of key demographic and system metrics. You can use the demographic tools to see the languages used by your users, helping define your internationalisation strategy. Other useful data includes their country of origin and even the cities they come from. Extra features let you see the service providers used, which can give you an idea of the effect of proxies and the like on your site operations.
Choosing the System option lets you see the browsers that visitors are using, along with operating systems and service providers. You can click on any entry to drill down further, seeing how your site usage metrics break down across different browsers. Opting for a secondary dimension, you can extract details of the specific version used, the underlying operating system – even the number of screen colours and the resolution (plus if there’s support for Java and Flash). Mobile users are similarly broken down by operating system and screen resolution.
Sometimes the most important data that you get from tools like Google Analytics isn’t what you’re looking for. That’s where the service’s automated Intelligence Events come in. Google Analytics triggers an alert when there’s any significant changes in traffic patterns on your site – whether it’s a sudden spike in the number of users or if it’s a change in the bounce rate. You can use this information to correlate sudden shifts with changes in your site or advertising campaigns – or even with the release of a new browser or mobile device.
Alerts don’t necessarily have to be automatically generated either; instead, you can create your own custom reports. All you need to do is set up an alert for a specific metric – for example, if you get over a set number of pageviews in a certain amount of time, or if pageviews spike by a specific percentage, etc. Then choose how often you want any alerts to be generated – whether that’s daily, weekly or monthly. Alerts can be sent by email, or if you’re in the US, by text message.

Custom reports

While the default reports and dashboards are packed with useful information, you can also create your own reports. Like working with any desktop business analytics tool you’ll need to start by defining the dimensions – things like visitor type, the referring site or a specific page URL. Once you’ve chosen your report dimensions you can then select the appropriate metrics for each dimension you’ve used. Google provides a useful tool that lists the dimensions and metrics used by Google Analytics, along with the valid combinations – check it out here: http://tinyurl.com/coreapi. A custom report can have up to five dimensions and up to 25 metrics. You can add filters so that users can explore data, as well as bringing in metrics for other sites you’re analysing. Reports can be added to dashboards or exported as a CSV file for further analysis.
More complex reporting and data comes when you start adding goals to Google Analytics. Goals are what Google Analytics uses to determine whether a website is meeting your targets. Once a goal is achieved by a user it’s counted as a conversion. There are currently four types of goal that you can set:

•  URL Destination: This is a specific page that a user has viewed; for instance, this might be the checkout page for an eCommerce shopping cart
•  Time on Site: This is the total amount of time a user spends on your website, or on a specific section of your site. You could use this to see how long they spend browsing your catalogue, for example
•  Pages/Visit: This is the number of pages you expect a user to look at on your website, or the amount you’d like them to be reading. It’s a good metric to use for a content-heavy site
•  Event: If you’ve set up event tracking, this is triggered if a user completes the event – for example, downloading a music track or a PDF.

Goals can be grouped into sets, and these can be used to manage tracking a host of different targets for your site. Each Google Analytics profile can have up to four different sets of goals, with a maximum of five goals per set. Goals have a value, set by the number of conversions and the numeric value of the metric associated with the goal. If you’re using a URL destination goal you can also set up a Goal Funnel – the series of pages you intend a user to take to reach the destination. You can use this to see where users drop out of the process, enabling you to pinpoint which pages need investigating further to improve conversions – and increase your site revenue.

Real-Time

The latest update to Google Analytics is GA Real-Time, a tool that shows current activity on your site. At this moment, the feature is in beta but is ready for use. It’s best thought of as a tool for dynamic sites, so if you’re running a news blog or similar, you can use it to quickly track the viral nature of a story, watching the effect of it passing through social networks, seeing where it gets the most traction and watching where it gets re-linked.

Google Analytics Real-Time gives you a basic report view, with a single dashboard that shows the current number of active visitors on a site, indicating which are new visitors as well as those that are returning. You get a look at the referrers they’ve used to come to your site too, and you can see how services like Twitter and Facebook drive engagement. Alternatively, if you’re using services like AdWords to bring visitors to your website, you can uncover the keywords that users are clicking on, helping you to refine campaigns. There’s a lot you can do with both these pieces of information. You can use the first to determine just when a Twitter account should post, or a Facebook page update, while the second can help to reduce your advertising costs by enabling you to target your spend appropriately.

Other parts of the Real-Time reports show pageviews per minute and per second, along with a dynamic map that displays precisely where your viewers are located around the globe. The map may, at first glance, appear to be eye-candy, but it’s actually a super-useful pointer to understanding which parts of the world are likely to engage with content at various times of the day. For example, a breaking item may need to be reposted on social networks to catch both European and American peak interactions. You can drill down into this data more deeply, seeing the countries you get the most interaction from. Two other views show traffic sources and the content that was viewed, letting you focus on the metrics that matter to you from hour to hour.
There’s one thing to note with Google Analytics Real-Time: while it works in all modern browsers, you will get the best look and feel from inside Google’s own Chrome.

Using your data

Using the data you get back from Google Analytics can be harder than getting the service running or building reports. Raw data is all very well, but how can you sort the wheat from the chaff and ultimately transform it into ways of making your site more efficient?

The real key to using a tool like Google Analytics is asking the right questions. If you’re concentrating on the effects of an advertising campaign you should take advantage of its comparison tools to ask (and answer) questions about the reach of a campaign and its effect on your traffic. Alternatively, a designer could use reports to understand just how optimising the site for specific browsers affects its usage, or to help tweak a mobile version of a site to attract more than just iPhone users.

Understanding which browsers your visitors are using can also help modify sites to take advantage of the latest HTML5 technologies. If you’re finding the majority of your users are operating HTML5-capable browsers, you can start to migrate site support away from older, less capable browsers and take advantage of the more modern approach to site design, while still monitoring the effects of changes on older browsers. You can also keep close tabs on how changes affect how long users stay on the site, plus how they interact with eCommerce and other key features.
Getting to grips with your mobile users is increasingly becoming more important and the host of tools in Google Analytics will help you optimise your site for mobile devices. Knowing which devices they use is crucial, and you can get a feel for that from the breakdown between the different mobile operating systems. However, while iPad and iPhone get different entries, all Android devices are batched together, whether they’re tablet or phone. As a result, you’ll need to drill down into screen sizes to determine the percentage of tablet users visiting your site in order to come up with the best possible layout.

It’s important to remember that Google Analytics isn’t a performance-measurement tool. You won’t get details of how pages load on users’ browsers or how your site handles heavy load. For that you’ll need a separate user-experience testing tool and some additional business analytics software (which can be something as widely available as Excel) to combine the results from different tools and give you a greater insight into your site’s operations. Google Analytics lets you export your data in a number of different ways, ready for you to use as part of your overall site-measurement process.

One useful option is to link GA to Google’s Webmaster Tools. This lets you see SEO and search data as part of your Analytics, helping you tune site content to both appear in searches, and attract and retain visitors. Getting the content that works well for both can be difficult, so any tools that help you find that balance can prove invaluable. The result is a site that looks and feels natural, avoiding the stilted nature of pure SEO-driven content, while still appearing high in search results.

Letting your users know

Google Analytics is a useful and important option for any site that needs to track and manage usage. However anyone using the service needs to be aware of the effects of an European Union directive on cookies, which the UK Information Commissioners Office will enforce. As Google Analytics sets a first-party cookie, you’ll only need to inform users and get consent once. However, if you’ve opted into the benchmarking service, you will also need additional consent for this, as tracking information is shared with third parties.

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