A Guide to Getting Started With Analytics

Google AnalyticsSearch Engine Watch covers a lot on the topic of analytics. From using Advanced Segmentation to get a better idea of you “not provided” and “not set” traffic to a wide array of specific subjects that are invaluable for advanced users.

However, this post is intended for people who aren’t sure where to start or specifically what the data means. This article will cover analytics from a beginner’s perspective with explanations of five core areas, how to get to them, and what to look at while you’re there.

Google Analytics is our analytics platform of choice for this post, though most solid analytics software will have similar functionality – you’ll just have to hunt it down.

Need help with Google Analytics installation? Google covers how to install it here.

We’ll start from the Google Analytics dashboard for your site.

Time Spans and Comparing Time Periods

When you want to gain insight into how your website is performing, one of the most basic, yet crucial functions (and one beginners are completely unaware of) is how to change the time period you’re looking at and compare one time period with another.

From virtually any page in your Analytics a date range will appear in the top right. To the right of this data range is an arrow which, when clicked, displays various options for date selection and comparison.

A short video below will help walk you through some of the capabilities of these features:

To reiterate some key points from the video:

  • The ability to change the date range you’re viewing in your analytics is to the top right side of the dashboard (or basically any other page).
  • You can change the date range to any period for which the tracking code was installed on your site.
  • You can compare a date range with any other date range prior to it.
  • If you’re looking at trends it’s important to remember to select date ranges that match up the days of the week so you’re comparing weekdays and weekends properly.
  • It’s important to remember that most industries have some type of seasonal trending that needs to be considered when comparing date ranges. Comparing a period with the sames date range from the previous year can help you understand annual growth during the same selling period. This is especially important for sites related to tourism, gifts, and other seasonal products/services.

Identifying Traffic Changes

When your traffic drops, it can cause panic. While it may be easy to blame somebody on the SEO side, that may not be the case – perhaps your traffic is just changing.

Let’s start with a quick video on how to get a quick feel for how the site is doing. We’ll dig briefly into the core areas you’ll want to look at to determine where the traffic changes occurred.

In trying to keep the videos brief I couldn’t delve into all the areas you’d look at, but looking at total aggregate data on your dashboard, and assuming that your site is faring as that indicates, isn’t accurate.

Even if you see stability in your traffic, significant changes may have taken place. Understanding that sources of traffic have changed – and further, how those sources have changed (for example, changes in the search queries driving traffic) – can help you isolate problems and opportunities.

What this data means specifically will change from site to site but some of the core considerations are:

  • Change in ranking.
  • Change in search volume (due to change int eh way people search, seasonal trend, etc.).
  • Addition of a reference from a social media or popular site.
  • Increase or decline in brand awareness.

The reasons for traffic changes outside of the obvious, “We went up 3 positions on Google.” are too numerous to mention, but when you see what the change is and think about what you’d done and what traffic has adjusted – you’ll likely be able to determine some likely causes and adjust your activities accordingly.

How to Understand Your Traffic

Understanding how the sources of traffic you’re getting behave is a great first step, but this can often be misleading. For example, if 500 of your visitors from a source bounce off the page in 10 seconds but the other 500 visitors all stay for three minutes and view four pages your initial stats would look like:

Visits – 1,000
Pages/Visit – 2
Avg. Visit Duration – 00:01:55
Bounce Rate – 50%

Using a bit of segmentation however we get a truer picture of the value of the traffic. How to do so is illustrated in this video:

Some simple segmentation can give you a better idea of what the actual value of a specific traffic source is, even if the broad-brush view might lead you to a different conclusion.

This is a key to making the right decisions for your business and avoid forgoing traffic that’s actually behaving better or worse than might be immediately visible from the general data for that specific source.

Where is Your Traffic Entering and Why Do Visitors Leave?

Once you have a better understanding of where your traffic is coming from, it’s important to understand what those visitors doing on your site.

There are a variety of different ways this can be done in analytics. While I highly recommend learning how to set up goals and funnels by reading such great articles as Glenn Gabe’s “A Beginner’s Guide to Conversion Goals in Google Analytics”, for the purposes of this article we’ll work with just the default data available in your analytics.

While goals are a fantastic addition to your arsenal of data, reviewing the more general areas in your analytics that we’ll be touching on should be part of your regular routine. It’s here that you’ll find new opportunities and information on your visitor behavior that may help you to tweak your site structure and content, understand where people are entering and leaving, and perhaps answer some questions you may have regarding why your traffic is behaving as it does.

Here’s a short video outlining some areas you can look at to gain a fast snapshot of site patterns:

As noted in the video, it’s important to keep your mind open to not just what you want your visitors to do but what opportunities present themselves from what they are actually doing.

From using popular information pages and link and social signal points to adjusting your pages to better steer visitors to where they want to go, it’s important to focus your energies on understanding what your visitors are doing and making the most of that.

Everything Else

There are obviously other areas you’ll want to review in your analytics. Here’s a quick list of what’s readily available by default in your analytics and what it’s useful for:

Under the Audience Section:

  • Demographics: This section breaks down into Language and Location and enables you to view the language settings of the users. You’ll look here to see if you have a sizable visitor-base with different language settings to determine if you should expand the languages your site is avaialble in or at the very least, add an automated translation tool to your site.
  • Behavior: This section breaks down into New vs Recurring, Frequency & Recency and Engagement giving you a quick snapshot of how long your users stay on your site divided my timeframe, how many pages the visit order by number of pages, and how many are new vs recurring. This will give you a better idea as to how engaging your content is by blocking your visitors into patterns to better display how the aggregate data breaks down.
  • Technology: In this section you can view the visitors browser type, OS, resolution and more about what technology they’re using to access your site. This is of critical importance from a design/usability standpoint and this area will give you critical data when you’re confirming your site works well for most people. View your site in the key environments (browsers and resolutions) to get a feel for the environment your users are engaging in. Digging in this section you can even compare stick times and page views to get a quick feel for if specific browsers or technologies are hitting road blocks.
  • Mobile: In this section you can get a breakdown of the traffic coming from mobile and what devices they’re using. As mobile becomes increasingly important this section is becoming more critical. Check you site on the top devices (whenever possible) to see your site how your visitors do and make the necessary adjustments.

Under the Content Section:

  • Site Speed: In this section you can view your site load time and page load time. Further, you can drill down to viewing these metrics by browser type and with many sites there can be a huge difference on some pages.


This guide was designed to help you gain a reasonable starting point and understanding of what some of the key areas are in Google Analytics (or applicable to most analytics programs) and how they can be looked at.

I can’t recommend enough to read more on the subject and explore – there are sizable books written on that subject. There’s a lot under the hood and a lot of data that you’ll most certainly find useful.

Once you have a feel for the basics, be sure to visit the SEW Analytics section regularly to keep updated on new features and further analysis of some of the existing ones and ways they can be used to further your business.

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