What is Google Analytics and why should I use it? (and more)

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I have been working with Google Analytics for about 10 years. I use it almost daily for my own, and client website reporting, and have started providing a series of Google Analytics training courses.

While the courses are for people who already have some understanding of Google Analytics and want to improve their knowledge, skills and confidence, I find it helpful to take a step back and start the Introduction to Google Analytics course by running through the following information:

What is Google Analytics?

Google Analytics is a free website analytics software that measures the traffic (visitors) to, and their activity within a website or online application.

It provides valuable data such as:

  • How many people visit your website
  • How many pages they view
  • How long they stay on your website
  • Where they come from (continent, country, region, city)
  • What devices they use to view your website (computer, tablet, mobile phone)
  • How they get to your website (search engine, ad, social media, link from another website etc)

and so much more.

Once the Google Analytics tracking code is successfully installed on a website, it will begin tracking and save a record of all data that can then be reviewed based on selected time periods.

Why should I use a web analytics tool?

In my experience, people often make assumptions about the performance of their website. Using a web analytics tool provides factual data about how your website is actually performing.

By regularly reviewing the historical visitation, activity and behavior trends of visitors to our websites, we can better understand how people are really interacting with our site. This enables us to make informed, strategic and results-focused marketing decisions.

What other web analytics tools exist?

There are a number of alternatives to Google Analytics, some free, some paid.

Examples of other web analytics tools include:

Clicky offers more detailed real time analytics, and Crazy Egg is an example of a heatmap tracking software.

Both of these tools can be used in conjunction with Google Analytics to provide complementary insights.

How does Google Analytics work?

Google Analytics operates through a combination of Cookies and JavaScript.

To function, a Google Analytics account and property must be created, and the unique tracking code then added to every page of the website or application to be tracked.

The tracking code is a snippet of JavaScript code that then runs in the visitor’s Internet browser when the visitor browses the website (providing JavaScript is enabled within the browser). It anonymously collects the visitor’s data and sends it to a Google data collection server.

As well as transmitting information to the Google server, the tracking code sets a first party cookie (providing cookies are enabled in the browser) on each visitor’s computer.

This cookie stores additional anonymous information that allows Google Analytics to determine such factors as:

  • Whether the visitor is new or returning
  • What day/time the visit occurred
  • The traffic source that directed the visitor to the website e.g. search engine, referral site, social media etc

What prevents Google Analytics from tracking data?

If JavaScript or Cookies are disabled within the browser, Google Analytics cannot operate, and will not collect any data from that visitor’s session.

Ad blocking programs can also disable Google Analytics, preventing data collection. Privacy networks can also mask users’ locations, which create inaccuracies in geographical data.

All of these factors can prevent some visitors and activity from being tracking, leaving some gaps in the data.

However, these limitations are considered to be small, affecting only a small portion of visitors. These limitations also affect the majority of web analytics tools, as most operate using JavaScript and Cookies.

With this in mind, it is important to understand that while Google Analytics data isn’t 100% thorough and accurate, it can be the best understanding we have about our websites’ visitation and activity.

So rather than thinking of Google Analytics data as specifically what has occurred on the website, it provides valuable information about website trends, by using sampling.

Sampling
The practice of selecting a subset of data from your traffic and reporting on the trends detected in that sample set. Sampling is widely used in statistical analysis because analyzing a subset of data gives similar results to an analysis of a complete data set, but can produce these results with a smaller a computational burden and a reduced processing time.
Source.

Why can Google Analytics data vary from other website analytics’ data?

Many website platforms that allow you to build and host websites on their server (rather than you selecting your own independent hosting), such as WordPress.com, Weebly, Wix and Squarespace, offer their own website visitor statistics.

This tracking data often varies from that provided by Google Analytics. This is due to a different tracking method.

This data is generated based on the number of impressions – or how many times the pages are loaded and viewed – and page refreshes are counted as new visits or views. This is why these statistics often show a higher number of “visitors” than Google Analytics.

These statistics are also gathered based on server activity, and so are limited with what information they can collect about a visitor.

The combination of cookies and JavaScript that Google Analytics (and other tools) use, allows a more accurate understanding of individual website “sessions”, and more details about the visitor and their activity on the website.

What are the benefits of using Google Analytics?

Beyond the benefits of using any web analytics tool to better understand your website’s performance, the main specific benefits of Google Analytics include:

  • it is free to use
  • its implementation is relatively basic
  • it is well documented, with a lot of great free resources available, as well as paid resources and courses
  • it integrates easily with other Google products (Google Search Console, Google Adwords etc)
  • you can easily export report data as PDFs or Excel spreasheets
  • it easily connects with other tools, such as dashboarding tools like Cyfe
  • it is well maintained and regularly updated, making it stable and reliable

So what should I do?

My recommendation is that at the very least, all websites should be tracking their performance, so Google Analytics (or another web analytics tool) should be implemented upon launch, or as soon as possible.

Even if you aren’t reviewing the data initially, you are collecting it to allow for historical review in the future.

Find out how to install Google Analytics here.

If you are interested in learning more about Google Analytics, check out these great free resources, or our Google Analytics courses (Adelaide-based).

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