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Analyzing Your Site Using Google Analytics

Google Analytics began its life as another company's premium tool for Web site traffic analysis--at a substantial yearly cost to users. Fortunately for value-minded Webmasters everywhere, Google bought the company and immediately offered the service for free.

(If you're wondering why Google doesn't charge a penny for such a prime product, it's because Google recognizes that many medium-size and big businesses will take advantage of the full package of Google services and use Google Analytics in conjunction with the money-making Google AdWords service, with which it is closely integrated.)

To use Google Analytics, you sign up (creating a free account), and then answer a few simple questions about your Web site. At the end of the sign-up process, you're given a small block of JavaScript code. To enable Google Analytics, you need to copy this code into every page on your site. (If your pages are generated dynamically by a programming platform, you'd paste the JavaScript code into the master template.)

Every time a visitor surfs to a Web page on your site, the JavaScript code will run, and a small parcel of information will be sent to Google's servers. This information consists of the publicly accessible details of any Web request--things like the type of browser that's being used, the features it supports, the language it's configured to use, the IP address of the computer it's connecting through (which Google can use to locate the visitor geographically), and so on. The code also stores a tiny unique cookie on each visitor's computer (similar to the way almost all e-commerce Web sites work) so that Google can distinguish new customers from repeat viewers.

Reviewing Google Analytics Reports

The Dashboard of a Google Analytics report; links on the page can provide in-depth information.
The Dashboard of a Google Analytics report; links on the page can provide in-depth information.
The remarkable part of Google Analytics is that you don't need to understand this process in any detail, and you don't need to worry about storing or analyzing the masses of information that it collects. Instead, Google Analytics provides a host of different reports that you can use to analyze your Web site's traffic. Using these reports, you can discover a wealth of information about your site's traffic, including such key types of data as:

  • Where (geographically) your visitors come from
  • What browsers they use
  • Which pages are most popular, and how long visitors look at different pages
  • Which pages are mostly viewed last before a visitor leaves your site
  • What Web sites (or search engines) referred your visitors to your site (a great way to compare the value of different paid placements)
  • What proportion of your visitors are new
  • Which pages are most likely to "bounce" (a bounce occurs when a visitor enters your site at a particular page, and then exits immediately without viewing any other pages)

When you first log in to Google Analytics to view a report, you'll see a general dashboard. (Keep in mind that you'll need to wait at least 24 hours after updating your Web site before Google Analytics has enough information to show you anything.) This single page has an incredible amount of information packed into one place. It graphs the total number of visitors, day by day, and provides an overview of where they come from and what pages they view.

To dig into these results and retrieve much more information, you can use the links provided on the left side of the page. For example, sophisticated users identify goals (specific pages they want the user to reach, such as an order confirmation page) and then examine what portion of visitors reach this goal. They also create reports with cross-sections that combine more than one type of analysis. This allows you to determine, say, the most popular Web pages in a specific city, or to look for surfers who come from a specific referring site.

If you use Google Analytics along with AdWords, you should be able to greatly extend your Web presence. But all three Google services have the potential to help you grow your business--all you have to do is create an account and get moving.

Matthew MacDonald is the author of numerous books and is a contributing author to Google: The Missing Manual, published by O'Reilly Media.

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