4 Common assumptions not to make when using Google Analytics

On the face of it, the standard reports in Google Analytics (GA) are simple and intuitive.

But, as an old boss of mine was fond of saying: “To assume is to make an ass of yourself.”

So, in a bid to help prevent people inadvertently making asses of themselves by misinterpreting their website data; here are 4 common assumptions to avoid making.

1. That total users represents that number of individual people that visited the site.

Most people look at this figure and assume it means a unique visitor, an individual who has come to look at the website.

The Google Analytics help text even supports this interpretation. It tells you: “The Users metric shows how many users viewed or interacted with your content within a specific date range.”

It would be easy to dedicate an entire blog to explaining the term user and how Google Analytics calculates it in different situations, but the key point to note is that:

A “user” is a unique combination of browser and device, not a person.

So a visitor who first viewed you website on their office computer and then checked it out again using their iPad on the way home from work would be recorded as two users.

2. That Average Session Duration is a true representation of how long people spend on the site.

Average session duration is an important statistic because it measures people’s direct engagement with a website. But use it to identify trends; on its own it is probably the most misleading statistic in Google Analytics.

The problem is that whilst it is easy to determine when a visit starts, because the website has to download that first page. GA does not know when a visit ends.

Knowing that a second page has been downloaded is straightforward and so is a third or fourth. But GA has no way of knowing when the visitor moves onto the next website, and therefore does not know when the visit has ended.

This means that the session duration is actually the length of time between loading the first page and loading the last page. It does not take into account the time spent on the last page. Bear in mind that the last page may well be what the visitor was looking for and spends most of their time on it.

To make matters worse the statistic is horrendously distorted by the bounce visits.

A bounce is when a single page is visited. It is not uncommon for over half the visits to a website to be bounces. A bounce visit has no second page and therefore session duration for these is recorded as 0 seconds.

But because average time on site is calculated as total length of time of all visits divided by the total number of visits (including the bounced ones) the average time becomes significantly understated.

3. That direct visits are always reported as direct visits.

If you look at the All Traffic / Channels report or the All Traffic / Source Medium report in the AChannel Groupingscquisition section of the GA reports it appears to show how visitors arrived at the site for each session.

Looking at this snippet from the Channels report you might think that 427 visitors came direct to the site, whilst 740 used a search engine, 82 were referred from other websites and 57 from links in emails.

However, Google Analytics is a bit more sophisticated than this.

It will categorise the session according to how the particular visit was initiated for all channels except when the visitor comes direct. For direct visitors, it will look back to see if they have visited before using a non-direct method and put the session into the same channel as that. Only if the visitor has not visited before using any other channel will the visit be shown as direct.

Hence a visitor, who first visits using a search engine and subsequently keeps returning by directly typing in the URL, will continually be categorised under the Organic Search channel.

4. That the Funnel Visualisation report shows the actual path followed by all visitors.

This is a great report. It provides a simple visualisation of the path you expect visitors to take through a website as they progress towards a specified goal. This can tell you a lot about how effectively each page is working in attracting visitors and guiding them towards the purchase, sign-up, download or whatever other conversion you are trying to achieve.

But people are prone to taking it at face value and assuming it is showing the exact path followed by those visitors to get Funnel reportto the goal.

It doesn’t.

For a start it does not matter what order the visitor visits the pages in, they are always shown as visited in the order defined in the goal set-up. Furthermore, the report will automatically include as visited any steps that were missed out by the visitor.

If you need to see an accurate picture of how visitors navigate around the website the Goal Flow report is the place to go.

Make sure you understand it, before you report it.

Whether you consider these faults or features, they don’t stop Google Analytics being a powerful tool for helping you understand what is happening on your website. But, like all analytics tools, you need to make sure you properly understand what you are looking at.

Are you surrounded by data but starved on insights?

Unless you are measuring how well your online marketing and website content is performing you will miss out on the opportunity to learn, improve and, in the end, to increase your profit.

The keyword here is opportunity

Measuring your web visitors’ activity does not necessarily bring you actionable business insights. It depends on how you go about it.

It is easy to start tracking online activity and suddenly become so swamped by data that instead of propelling the business forward it ends up holding it back.

Since having too much information often ends up frustrating decision making rather than aiding it.

If this is your situation the chances are you are looking at the data trying to work out what they could possibly be telling you and how you could use this to your advantage.

Whilst there is a place for this type of analysis, to discover trends and uncover problems, it is no basis for managing your day-to-day marketing budget.

That is why the most important step when starting to measure website visitor behaviour is to determine what really matters to the business. Then set out to make sure that is what you measure and report on.

This way, when you are looking at the statistics the hard work is mostly done, since you have made sure you are reporting information that is relevant and meaningful.

Make web analytics work for you

1. Decide what is important to know.

2. Measure it.

3. Learn from it

4. Profit from it.

Is your online business flying blind?

Targeting the sources that bring the best customers to your website is key to having a successful online business. But without the data to give you the confidence that you are heading in the right direction, you really are flying blind. However, finding this information is far from easy, and that is where a specialist web analyst can help.

What to expect from a Web Analyst?

A good web analyst will reassure you that what you believed is correct or will tell you something you didn’t already know that has direct implications for how you run your business.

How do they do this?

Broadly this breaks down into two stages. The first is to make sure the data collected is as relevant and complete as possible and the second is to dig into the data and to identify or create reports that are relevant and meaningful to your business.

Collecting Relevant and Complete Data

Web analytics systems will all collect a certain amount of information as standard, but with some forward planning and additional set-up so much more information can be collected, and it is this information that can often make the real difference to your business.

It is also important to make sure that there is end-to-end tracking of visitors across the companies website or sites. Busy websites tend to grow: landing pages are added, layouts updated, new product lines launched. With so much to consider the tracking is often forgotten or added in a different way for different sections. The result being that it is not possible to piece together a full picture of visitor sources and activity.

Reporting Relevant and Meaningful Information

Standard reports in web analytics systems tend to provide high-level superficial headline information. Often interesting, but not very helpful.

The job of the web analysts is to understand your business and your analytics data and from this provide you with bespoke reports and analysis that are 100% relevant to your business.

Why use a Web Analyst?

A web analysis will not single-handedly propel your online business into the stratosphere. But they will help you make sure you are on the right path.