4 google analytics improvements to kick off the yearThe new year is officially here, and for many businesses, it’s a time to reflect on what did and did not work in the past, and plan for the future.

One of the things that a lot of companies can improve on is how clickstream tools like Google Analytics is used – often, the tool is just there, providing out of the box reports and answering the most basic of questions. (How many page views did we get last month?)

There’s a better way, but it requires you to think about more than your tools, and to customize the tool so that it spits out exactly the data you need.

1. Have an Analytics Model

No amount of customization is going to save your efforts if you don’t plan about how you’ll use the tool. If you’re answering random questions from people within the company about the site’s page views and visits for a period, you’re using Google Analytics or whatever your clickstream tool is the wrong way.

You need an analytics model like acquisition, conversion, and retention.

  • Acquisition: all the ways and channels from which you acquire traffic, like organic search, pay per click, email, direct, etc.
  • Conversion: all the ways in which the site achieves goals, from direct sales to form fills, trial downloads, and other goals
  • Retention: the site’s ability to keep early stage visitors coming back, and to engage existing customers in continuing conversations

Once you’ve laid out a model, you’ll be able to see which parts of the three areas are working well. Maybe you’re getting tons of value from search but not social, and you’ll need to refocus your efforts. Maybe your form pages are getting a lot of traffic, but the thank you page is not, indicating visitors are dropping off from the funnel right there.

The structure will help you map out the specific reports you need, and the actions you’ll need to take.

Read more about acquisition, conversion, and retention.

2. Measure All Your Successes … Not Just Sales

If you’re using Google Analytics to track orders, congratulations – that’s a great way of using the tool. Once you have target pages and dollar values assigned to them, you’ll be able to measure the performance of the different channels – search, PPC, emails, and other channels can be tied to a sales figure, and that’s a good place to start.

But it’s really just that – a starting point.

Because for every sale you make, you have a visitor path that’s significantly more complex than that. Some signed up for trials first, or they filled out a form, or they downloaded a PDF, and there are those types of conversions prior to the main one of making a sale. You have to see if you perform well there too.

A better way to approach this is to start with the different conversions your site has – macro and micro. And then, once you have that, you’ll know to add event tags for key downloads that count as conversion points. You’ll also want to have goals set up for select destination pages – thank you pages for form fills, and other key conversion pages.

3. Measure On Site Search

So let’s say you’re using an analytics model, and tracking your various conversion points via goals and events. Then what?

It may be time to double down on visitor intent. Before 2013, there were three good places to get that:

  • Surveys: direct answers to your questions from the site users
  • Search Engines: the search terms people type in on Google, Bing, and other search engines
  • On Site Search: what people actually search for once they get on your site

Google has kept most of the terms encrypted after 2013, so that leaves surveys and on site search.

To track it, the first thing you need to do is look at your site’s URL after you conduct a search. What gets added to the URL? There’s usually a “?q” or a “?k” after the main URL string – keep track of that.

Then, from within Google Analytics, go Admin> View Settings> Site search Tracking> ON. The box below will ask for the query parameter – that’s the string after the question mark, the q, or k, or query after the main URL string. Add that, and save. Or you can follow the step by step guide here.

Once you’re measuring on site search, you can study what people are having a tough time finding, study visitor intent more closely, and use the results to see if you can improve the on site search engine you have.

4. Don’t Use the Out of the Box Stuff

Some default reports are useful to a certain degree, but you’ll almost always find that they are not easy to act on. And there’s a reason for this: totals do not convey the true picture. The total visits or views is a vanity metric – useful to check growth over time, but unable to lead to insights about what to do next.

To understand where your site needs to improve, you need to start chunking that data into useful bits. If you’re running paid ads, it might be useful to compare your landing page conversions for PPC versus another channel. If you’ve been improving your site architecture and tags, you should have created an organic traffic segment to see where that’s working most. Actions like those, in Google Analytics, require you to create and use Advanced Segments, filters that show only a subset of the overall traffic – the subset that you need to study to know what to do next.

We’ve tackled Advanced Segments before, and you can read about how to create them here, or what segments you can use for eCommerce here. They take minutes to set up, and should be part of any serious online marketer’s arsenal.

Google Analytics is Useful, If …

Millions of sites use Google Analytics, but it’s really only as useful as you make it.

None of the standard reports and default segments will give you any clue how to act, and none of the extra things you need like on site search tracking are turned on by default. You have to configure the tool, customize your segments, set up events and goals for your conversions, and follow an analytics model – the tool does not really give you that.

Once you learn all of that, though, you’ll be better positioned to find insights from the data. In the world of online marketing, that’s a definitive advantage.