How to Make Sense of Google Analytics

John Hope-Johnstone

Google Analytics is amazing! It is daunting in the amount of data that can be obtained. I love to use the  expression in our HPR seminars that we’re “drowning in data and starving for knowledge.”

Google Analytics can generate up to 85 different reports but if the reports don’t really give you any actionable knowledge then they are meaningless. Bottom line is that you are going to have to create your own dashboard that has meaning to YOU and from which you can take meaningful actions.

The key to all good knowledge is that it be actionable, also that it be simple”…”simple”… “simple.”

One of the ways I help to simplify Google Analytics is to combine some of their different measurements and create a new number. An example might be, rather than just measure Unique Visitors, I combine the number of Unique Visitors + Page Views into a new combined metric. Perhaps, when something goes wrong with the Web site, I will look at each metric individually, but to create our own dashboard I use combined metrics that tell me more.

As an analogy, airline Pilots have “key” instrumentation, (anyway, those pilots without glass cockpits and computers flying their planes). They rely on these instruments to tell them that all is going well. These instruments usually are; 1) Artificial horizon. 2) Air speed indicator. 3) Rate of climb or descent. Now there are many more instruments on the cockpit’s dashboard but those are the first a pilot will look at is something naughty is going on with the aircraft. Then he/she will go to another row of instruments until the dashboard is exhausted. After all the instruments are exhausted, then there is a manual checklist to go through.

You need to simplify Google down to three or four key instruments that tell you if you are flying right or crashing. I find that combining Google Analytic data more useful in understanding the big picture:

1: Key Instrument = Unique Visitors + Page Views:

The unique visitor is akin to you air speed. You need this to keep the plane in the air. You need velocity to keep the Web site humming along. Page views are indicative of the value that the visitor has placed on your content. Every page on your Web site to refer and often link to another page’s content on your site. Does it?

Another key piece of information is that most knowledge is gained by “trending” information against something else. When you step on a bathroom scale (something I try to avoid), you trend against last week’s weight, or last month’s weight. Likewise when you look at the Unique Visitor dashboard +Page Views, it is meaningless until it is trended against either last month’s performance or last years. Hence the most important tick box in Google Analytics is the “compare to past” tick box under the date range of the dashboard. Once it is ticked and a date range selected, now you are “trending” rather than looking at squiggly meaningless lines.

However, unless that trend tells you what action to take to reverse the downward trend, then you have no “knowledge”.

2nd Key Instrument: Page Views + Bounce Rate: Whereas “total page view” is a key instrument, when combined with “bounce rate” it tells a greater story. It tells you about the quality of your content. How boring your Web site is.

However, you cannot treat all pages equally. Another trending instrument is to set Google Analytic “Goals” for your Web site. As a simplified explanation, Goals are only a page view, nothing complicated about that. If you set a goal in Google Analytics, you are telling it what page view constitutes the completion of a Goal, and Analytics then tracks it. It is an easier way to generate the reports that you need as well as a great way to measure your business objectives.

How to set up Goals in Analytics Log in to your Google Analytics account at

  • Select the account that contains the profile you’ll be creating oals in from the Overview page.
  • Find the profile for which you will be creating goals, and click ‘Edit’ under the ‘Actions’ column.
  • Under the ‘Conversion Goals and Funnel’ section, select one of the four goal slots available for that profile and click ‘Edit.’Turn the goal ‘On’ or ‘Off.’ If you choose ‘On,’ that means you want Google Analytics should track this conversion goal at this time. Since there are no ways of deleting goals, turning it ‘Off’ can make the goal inactive.
  • Select from one of the three match types that Google Analytics uses to identify the goal. Enter the Request URI in the Goal URL box. Reaching this page marks a successful conversion. For example, a registration confirmation page, a checkout complete page, or a thank you page.
  • Enter the ‘Goal name’ as it should appear in your Google Analytics account. If your goal URL is case sensitive, this means your goal URLs are capitalized exactly like the visited goal URLs.
  • Enter the ‘Goal value.’ How do you define a goal? Determining a success measurement for each of your key Web site pages is as critical as Unique Visitors.

Here are 10 possible goals, (some contributed by Ryan at Web Analytics World):

  1. Track blog comments on your site (I hope you DO have a blog page on your site???)
  2. Track Newsletter subscriptions
  3. Track brochure requests
  4. Track White Paper downloads
  5. Track bookmarking
  6. Track video plays
  7. Track information quests
  8. Track consumer reviews or comments
  9. Track requests for information
  10. Track event bookings

I am sure there are thousands of other important actions to set Goals for and track and I invite you to add yours to help others via the comment section.

3rd Key Instrument: “Sources All Traffic” + Key Search Terms: Lastly you should know and keep track of who the Web sites are who are sending you traffic and communicate with them. When combined with key search terms this provides an instrument that tells you that your planes attitude is correct and that you are not about to go into a flat spin.

HPR recommends that you should keep your own Internet Marketing Business Intelligence Monitor that tracks your goals and other key measurements from Google analytics, social media and marketing campaigns. This is one of the actions that we undertake at HPR Internet and Social Media Marketing on behalf of clients. Even the very step of setting up a B.I. Monitor makes you ask the  question “what is important for me to know and track”.

The next question is how can I simplify the analytics even further? My recommendation is to bring all the responses down to one final number. At HPR Social Media we call this number “The Engagement Factor” and we show it on our own home made dashboard.

We include on that dashboard; facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Web site metrics, blogs, everything.

Even though these are not apples to apples it is still a final number that can be trended into a percentage of growth or decline and therefore can be turned into actionable knowledge.

Now we need to make sure that we can run our marketing from this information. The best way is to take the various metrics and align them to the buying process of the consumer.

Whereas there are over 17 buying stages in the purchasing funnel, they can always be simplified into three; 1) Brand Awareness, 2) Engagement and 3) Conversion. Align your analytics and Engagement Factor to these three pots and you will know where you are weak or strong and know how to correct.

Thanks for reading. Please leave us a comment about how you simplify Google Analytics.