This series is meant to help those who want to start doing SEO for their website, but have no idea where to start. If this is the first post you’re seeing, check out Part 1 for a better intro. Otherwise, let’s get moving.
Congratulations! You should now have some good Google Analytics (GA) data on your website. When you log in at google.com/analytics, you should see something like the screenshot below. This is the default “home” page.
The funny thing is, this home page is all but useless. I really have no idea why Google decided to make (and keep, after all these years!) this the home page. I just found a post by a local web marketing company about this called The Google Analytics Home Page is Useless, and it’s so true. Anyways. End of rant. Let’s go through this and show you what’s important vs not. The idea is to turn what looks confusing and intimidating into this:
I’m going to slim down our options on what you should be looking at, and pick the 5 best reports that you should be using. I’m going to pick these reports based on two assumptions:
- You have zero experience with any web tracking reports.
- You’re mostly concerned with SEO traffic.
If you have more experience and/or are curious about other traffic, this should still help, but at the end, feel free to be bold and “remove some tape from the controller”, if I may. Otherwise, here we go.
Learning the Basic Google Analytics Reports
Let’s start out by identifying what the general areas are. Basically, you have your Admin Toolbar, Report Sidebar, and Report Display.
The default report that is shown in the Report Display is the Audience>Overview report. In this case, let’s call “Audience” a “Report Section” and “Overview” a “Main Report”. We can go down one more level into a “Sub-Report” too. For example, if we click on the Audience>Geo>Language report. We’re going to use this often, so remember: Audience = Report Section (RS), Geo = Main Report (MR), Language = Sub Report (SR).
As of the writing of this post, there are 45 Main Reports and 76 Sub Reports viewable by default. That’s 121 reports in total, not including the Admin Toolbar–way too many for a beginner. Let’s start getting rid of the ones you don’t need right now.
First of all, stay away from the Admin Toolbar altogether. It houses mostly advanced options we don’t need at first. Then, we can get rid of the Dashboards, Shortcuts, Intelligence Events, Real-Time, Audience, and Conversions Report Sections. They have some great data, but they’re not for us yet. Here’s what your “remote” should look like now.
Basic Report #1: Acquisition>All Traffic
This brings us to our first useful report: Acquisition>All Traffic. If I could choose a home page, this would be it. As the name mentions, this shows you all the traffic you got to the site during the selected time period (for this exercise, we’re going to keep the time period at the default of the previous 30 days–in general, that’s a great date range to use). Because we’re in the Acquisition Report Section, we can see that it will show us data on where all our traffic is coming from (you can think of them as “acquisition channels“).
These “channels” are labeled by their “Source/Medium” and sorted by Visits. Let’s do a quick explanation for each of these (full definitions here if you want):
Source: This is quite simply the source of the traffic. It could be “google” or “bing” or “yahoo” for search engine visits, “facebook.com” if it’s a social link, etc.
Medium: This describes the type of traffic it is. It can be “organic” for free search engine traffic, “referral” for visits from other websites, “email” if it’s someone who visited from an email newsletter, etc.
So, a normal Google search visit would have a Source/Medium of “google/organic”. If I linked to another site from my site, that traffic would be “leelkennedy.com/referral”. Make sense?
The only weird exception to this is that “(direct) / (none)” type you see in the screenshot. This is called a “Direct” visit, and it happens when someone enters the website directly. This can happen two ways: either the person physically types the URL in whatever browser they’re using (Chrome, Safari, etc), or if they enter the site through a bookmark. Any site that you view daily (facebook, your email, etc) is probably a direct visit because you either have bookmarked it or you type in the URL directly.
The last metric I mentioned is the “Visits” column (since the writing of this post, Google has changed the name of this to “Sessions”–but everything else still applies). This is pretty self explanatory–when someone visits your website, it counts as one “Visit”. The only important note here is that the same person can have multiple “Visits” to your site if they were to leave and come back. They’re not separate people every time. Let’s keep it simple and stop there.
As you can see in the screenshot, the channels that brought the most visits to this site is the direct channel and Twitter. It also got 1 from Bing, and 1 from Yahoo. When you look at your All Traffic report, what do you see? If you promote your site through social media often, hopefully you see lots of twitter and facebook visits. If your site is already quite popular and has a lot of repeat visitors, you should have a strong direct channel. If you do well in search already, you may see some google/organic or bing/organic traffic already. There is an unlimited number of traffic types, and no two sites are the same. What’s important at the moment is to start getting familiar with from where your site gets it’s traffic. At a high level, the All Traffic report is perfect for this.
Basic Report #2: Acquisition>Keywords>Organic
If you do get traffic from Google already, do you ever wonder what keywords people are using to find you? Learning about your site’s most common “search queries” is one of the best sets of data you can have, and we can get that straight out of GA. If you know how people are finding your site, you can reinforce that part of the site and get more people like that! Sounds easy, right?
Unfortunately, Google has made this very difficult in the last few years. We used to get keyword data on every search engine visitor that visited our site. If 100 people searched for “google analytics how-to article” and visited your website, you’d see a nice report of all those visitors–what pages they went to, how long they stayed on the site, etc. Now, Google encrypts that data (supposedly for security purposes) and, instead of our list of keywords, we get the keyword “(not provided)”.
Despite this large setback, it’s still a report worth looking at, under the Acquisition>Keywords>Organic Sub Report. Hopefully, less than 100% of our keywords come in as (not provided), so we should be able to see some information here. At the very least, the “Organic Keywords” report will show you only your organic search engine traffic, so you can see data on those visits in aggregate.
In the screenshot above, you can see there is only one search engine visit, and the keyword is “stephanie hollingsworth” (I’m using my fiance’s site as an example and that’s her name). As your site grows, you’ll see more and more data in here. A growing graph of search engine traffic is one of the best indicators of the health of a website. Every week or month that you break the previous week’s/month’s record is cause for celebration!
Basic Report #3: Acquisition>Search Engine Optimization>Queries
This is the last report we’re going to look at in the Acquisition Report Section. Luckily, it’s a great way to get back some of the keyword data that has been taken from us by Google’s Not Provided. Click into the Acquisition>Search Engine Optimization>Queries Sub Report and this is probably what you see.
By default, we won’t have access to this data! So, let’s set it up. Click the “Set up Webmaster Tools data sharing” button. You’ll be taken to an Admin page and, unhelpfully, not told what to do next. Luckily, I’m here to direct you. Scroll all the way to the bottom and click on the “Edit” button in the “Webmaster Tools Settings” section.
I believe you’ll be taken to some kind of “do you want to sign up for Webmaster Tools” page (I don’t have a screenshot of that because I’m already signed up). There might be a button that says “Add a site to Webmaster Tools”, but just generally click “yes” until you are sent to the Google Webmaster Tools URL (it’s google.com/webmasters/tools/home I believe) and the page looks something like the screenshot below. Click the big red “Add A Site” button and fill in your website’s URL in the box that comes up. To make sure you get the URL right, just go to your website and copy it from the URL bar and paste it in there. Click the Continue button when you’re done.
You’ll be taken to the verification page. If the “Recommended Method” of verification is Google Analytics, it will look like the screenshot below. If the recommended method is something else, click on the “Alternate Methods” tab and find the Google Analytics option there. Either way you find it, all you should have to do is hit the big red “Verify” button. When you do so, you should see the Congratulations message and a big, satisfying green check mark.
When you see the check mark, close those new tabs and go back to the GA Admin screen we came from. In the “Webmaster Tools Settings” section, hit the “Edit” button again, and you should see a screen like the screenshot below. Click the radio button next to the site you just created and click the Save button.
It will give you one last “are you sure?” message and then you’re done! If you go back to where we were in GA (you may need to re-select “Reporting” from the Admin Toolbar), and click into Acquisition>Search Engine Optimization>Queries, you will no longer see the error message. You’ll probably see a completely blank report (a flat line), but that’s okay! Just like we left our GA setup run for a week or two to collect data, we’re going to let this run too. When we come back, we’ll have some general search query information about our website–what kind of searches we come up for, how many people click on our site, etc.
Basic Report #4: Behavior>Site Content>All Pages
You now know the best basic reports in the Acquisition Report Section! If you check these reports out ~weekly, you should have a good idea of the makeup of your site’s traffic. One quick note here: if you’re obsessive like me, you may have a tendency to check your GA reports every day, or multiple times a day. You need to resist that urge. Until you have a solid handle on the minutia of GA’s reporting, it is going to be best to take in the data in aggregate, in weeks or months at a time. There is generally a lot of noise in web tracking, and you don’t want to get caught up in it. In general though, if you see that you’re getting a good amount of, for example, Facebook traffic, spend your time coming up with a good strategy to get more of that and then execute that strategy–don’t worry so much about GA during the day-to-day.
The 4th report we’re going to look at is the “All Pages” report. Here’s what it looks like for a very small site (and I’m also giving a shot of our updated “remote”):
Now that we are in the Behavior Report Section, we’re looking at a slightly different set of metrics (important note: there is also a “Behavior” Main Report under the Audience Report Section–make sure you’re not there, but instead in the separate Behavior Report Section–you can thank Google for making this confusing). Instead of the Source/Medium of our visitor channels, we’re looking at each Page on our site now. Also, instead of seeing the number of Visits for each, we’re looking at Pageviews. This is all very simple–every time is page is viewed by a visitor (as in, it is physically loaded in a browser), it gets a pageview. In the same way that there can be multiple Visits for a single person, there can be multiple Pageviews per person. In fact, if you sit on one page and reload it over and over again, you’re tallying up a bunch of (you could call them “fake”) pageviews. All of those views will be shown here.
The “Page” column just shows a list of your website’s pages, ordered by # of pageviews. The “/” page is commonly the most popular page in this report–it is your home page. The rest of the pages should be self-explanatory. If it says something like “/about-us/”, it’s your About Us page, if it says “/contact/”, it’s your Contact Us page.
This report is one of my favorites because it’s a raw look at what pages are the most popular on your site. If you run an events website, which event (page) is most popular? If you have a couple pages on your site that describe your services, which of those is most popular? Over time, you’ll be able to compare which pages were most popular when, giving you an additional look into the seasonality in your site.
Once again, this is a very high level look at your site’s data. We’re not able to get a bunch of insightful information about what our visitors love about the site or what causes them to leave. This is a quantitative, aggregate look at the pages on your site. As time goes on, you’ll be able to see what pages are the most popular. If a specific service page is viewed the most, maybe you should send that page to someone if they express interest in what you do. If you tend to link to a certain page in your Facebook posts, but a page you don’t normally link to gets a lot of pageviews, you can guess that that page is extra interesting to your site’s visitors. Get familiar with this report and watch it over time.
Basic Report #5: Behavior>Site Content>Landing Pages
The last report we’re going to look at is very similar to the previous one. It’s under the same Site Content Main Report, but this time we’re looking at the Landing Pages Sub Report. The screenshot is below, and I’m also going to finish our “taping job”, so that only the 5 reports we’ve looked at are showing. Think of this as a guiding suggestion until you are more comfortable with GA’s basics.
This report is once again looking at the pages of your site, but this time it’s the “Landing Pages”. A landing page is the first page a visitor sees when they hit your site. Remember that example that I just gave about how you link to a certain page on Facebook, but another page is more popular? In this report, you’d only see the first page. This is a great report to use in conjunction with the All Pages report because you can see on what page people started compared with what pages are the most popular in general. For example, if you have a “Contact Me” page, you probably don’t tend to link to that in Facebook posts and it’s probably not a common page that shows up in search results. So, it wouldn’t be high on the Landing Pages report (or it might not show up at all). If that is the case, but it does do well in the All Pages report, you can know that when people come to your site, they tend to navigate to that page once they’ve arrived–which is good because it means they’re interested in talking with you!
If you compare the All Pages screenshot I gave with the Landing Page screenshot above, you can see that the home page (shown as “/”) is the only Landing Page for this site. But, the /art/ and /science/ pages do well in the All Pages report. So, when people find the site, they tend to easily click into those deeper pages. This is a good sign, and I hope you see a similar pattern on your site!
I’m going to stop there for now. If you’re brand new at this, that will be plenty to fiddle with. We’re still not talking about SEO much specifically, so I’ll give a basic scenario using the reports we just saw to give you an idea of what you can do with the tools that are now at our disposal.
Let’s say you run a service based website, like a vet that does house-calls. Let’s say you’re pretty small (only a few employees), and most of your business comes from word-of-mouth, with the occasional website visitor. Now that we can look at these details, start to ask yourself questions like this:
- Where do you get your website traffic from in general?
- Do you give out business cards often? If so, chances are, people are entering your site directly and your most common Source/Medium is (direct)/(none).
- When people enter your site, what pages do they visit?
- If they mostly enter on the home page, where do they go from there? Do they view that “Testimonials” page you built? Or maybe one of your specific services pages?
- What percentage of site visitors go to your Contact Us page? Normally, a page like that will have a form that sends you an email when it’s filled out. What is that “form fill rate”? If you get 20 visitors to that page on average a week but you only get 1 or 2 emails, that’s only a 5-10% “conversion rate”. What can you do to make that better? Maybe, instead of a form, you could just list your email address directly and let them email you through their normal email account? Maybe you could mention a “free consultation” on the contact page and you’d get more emails?
- Do you get any search engine traffic? If so, what are the most common landing pages? Is there something special about those landing pages that would draw search engine traffic? If, for example, you’re the only vet in town that can work on horses, a page dedicated to your equestrian treatments may provide unique value to potential customers with horses in the area.
There’s a wide range of reports to explore and business decisions that can be made as a result of these reports. If you’re comfortable, start looking at the more detailed metrics in GA (bounce rate, exit rate, etc), or you could even try your hand at an Advanced Segment if you’re feeling bold. I’ll address the next level of GA reports and include some more actionable steps we can take next time. Until then!
Good write up once again! I wish I had a site to do SEO for…
Are those parts of pieces of paper that you pasted over the sensitive parts of your site?
Also, I may do this for rocketcityforums.com just for the heck of it…
Lee Kennedy says
Thanks! You could make a site really easily, just got to pick something you’re interested in.
The “pieces of paper” were just snips from the remote control meme picture. I just pulled them off that and stretched them into place. Crude, but it works.
Do you have any analytics on rocketcityforums at all? If not, then you definitely should! See the previous post on getting it set up.
Great post, Lee! Love the blog. Thank you for delivering rich, informative and useful information for those of us aspiring to learn more about this vital skill.
Lee Kennedy says
I appreciate it! Glad to help. I’m churning them out as fast as possible, but if you have any questions in the meantime, post them here and I can answer and/or update the post(s).
If my site is being viewed through an RSS reader, how are the page visits and stuff calculated?
Lee Kennedy says
Unfortunately, if they’re not going to the actual site, they’re not going to show up as a Visit/Pageview. You would have to view your Subscriber/Pageview metrics through your RSS program (feedburner is the most popular one) instead.
RSS readers add convenience but can take away from your actual site visits, which are often the ultimate goal. To bridge the gap, they are often used as a gateway tool where you only show the intro paragraph of a post or you encourage them to visit the actual site in some other way.