Everyone knows they should use website performance data. And it’s probably a safe bet that most businesses are using one tool or another to measure it. But having data isn’t the same as acting on it. Poring over Google Analytics numbers might reveal performance is down, but if you don’t know what improvements to make, how valuable are those numbers?
Data is only as good as what you do with it. You need to look at the numbers, understand what they mean and act upon them accordingly.
Sounds simple, right? Just dive into the data. Maybe, but probably not.
Google Analytics delivers a ton of information, but it’s not the easiest platform for non-experts to navigate. There are no “Look Here!” icons, and the amount of available data is head-spinning. Where do you begin? What should you focus on? How do you apply it to site optimization?
Don’t be intimidated. Here are the insights you should be looking at, what the numbers might suggest and how you can use them in your optimization efforts.
The ABCs Of Google Analytics
That’s not just a clever headline. Intentionally or not, Google offers simple guidance for navigating Analytics. Everything you need to know can be found in the sidebar navigation under the modules for Acquisition, Behavior and Conversions. The numbers there tell you:
How people got to your site
How they interacted with your site
Whether your site goals are being achieved
Additionally, there are many ways to segment the data to get a clearer picture of site performance. You can segment by date to compare performance over time, or segment data related to traffic type, device type, geography and more.
Often those who are new to Analytics shy away from using segments, but they can help ensure you’re acting on the best possible data. Although numbers don’t lie, they can be misleading. Segments help you get the real story.
Numbers can have different meanings depending on context. For instance:
When PPC traffic is driven to a landing page, the statistics will be skewed at the topline view. Even if the page is successfully converting organic traffic, you won’t know that.
A high-traffic blog can make your topline metrics look great but hide problems on other pages.
A job posting for a position could cause a spike in traffic, and skew traffic metrics, but it isn’t marketing related.
Segmenting allows you to separate subsets of data, such as traffic, to get a clear view of how your site and its pages are performing. While you may be inclined to stick to the ABC modules, it’s crucial that you use them in conjunction with segments to gain more context and deeper insight into your data.
When undertaking optimization, the first thing you’ll want to know is how you’re acquiring traffic. The Acquisition module provides information on the ways in which people reach your site.
You can’t treat all traffic the same, particularly when undertaking website optimization. There’s a huge difference between a visitor who met you at a trade show and typed your URL into the navigation bar and someone who found you via a Google search.
The Channels feature breaks down how visitors get to your site. Traffic is attributed to one of seven channels: Direct, Organic, Email, Social, Referral, Paid Search and (Other).
The primary channel to look at is organic, because low organic traffic could suggest deficient SEO (search engine optimization).
If your SEO isn’t up to snuff, Google won’t show your site in searches – at least not on the first two pages of SERPs (search engine results pages), where most clicks occur. Ranking well organically is key to reaching new audiences. If the direct traffic numbers represent people who already know you, organic traffic numbers represent strangers who have yet to make your acquaintance and need an introduction.
Optimization Opportunities: Perform keyword research around your industry, business and core services using tools such as Adwords, SEMRush, Moz or the free Ubersuggest. This tells you the language people are using to search for the goods or services you offer, which may not be the same as the language you’ve been using to describe your offerings. For instance, you may discover your potential customers are searching for cybersecurity solutions, a term you haven’t been using.
Next, make sure each page of your site is targeting an appropriate keyword. Use it:
In the title tag
In the page heading
In the page copy, but do so naturally (do not keyword stuff)
This valuable tool needs to be set up in Google Analytics, but it’s well worth the extra time. It not only tells you the search terms bringing people to your site, but the average position for each term, how many impressions it’s getting and the CTR (click-through rate).
A couple of insights can be gleaned from this data; each offers its own unique optimization opportunity.
Let’s say you’re ranking on the first page for a term and getting tons of impressions, but the CTR is low. Google likes your page enough to rank it in the top ten, but for some reason people aren’t clicking. The two possible culprits are the title tag and the meta description.
Optimization Opportunities: Review your title tag and compare it to those of competing sites. Your title tag is what people see in search results. If it doesn’t have the right keyword or isn’t engaging enough, people won’t click. Make sure it’s under 65 characters, or it will get cut off.
Review your meta description, which is the blurb that appears under the title tag in search results. If you don’t have one, Google will create one using your page copy. The advantage of writing your own is that you can control the message. Clearly present a value proposition or benefit that will entice people to click. Again, there’s a length limit: anything over 160 characters may get cut off.
Also, look at the SERPs ranking above you and compare their title tags and meta descriptions to yours. They’re ranking better and getting more clicks, so this comparison could offer insight into why.
Now, let’s say you open Search Console and discover you’re getting clicks for a particular term, but you currently have little or no content around that keyword. In short, people are visiting a page you haven’t put much effort into.
Optimization Opportunities: Build out the content. You’re already getting clicks, so you need to offer useful information that will make visitors want to take the next step. A better user experience will keep visitors engaging with your content, which will help improve your organic ranking and generate even more clicks. Oh, and it’ll increase the chances of conversion.
When you go into the Behavior module, you’ll see an option to look at Site Content. This is where you can see how visitors are interacting with different types of content. Your options are:
All pages: How visitors are acting across your entire site
Content drilldown: How visitors are interacting with specific sections of your site, such as the blog or a category; you can drill down within each section to the page level
Landing pages: How visitors are interacting with the page they land on when they enter your site
Exit page: How visitors are interacting with the last page they visit before they leave your site
No matter which of these you look at, you’ll get the same data. Three of those data points – bounce rate, time on page and pages per session – are metrics Google uses as signals for organic ranking, because they indicate how much, or little, your pages have to offer visitors.
Individually, these three metrics provide insight into how visitors might be experiencing particular pages. Combined, they start to tell a story of how visitors interact with your site, from the moment they enter it to the moment they leave.
The time between when someone clicks your link in SERPs, visits your site, then returns to the SERPs is often called dwell time. Google uses it as a ranking signal.
Time On Page
This measures the average time people spend on a given page. With so many options to choose from, searchers are unlikely to spend time on a page that doesn’t answer their questions. So when visitors spend just a few seconds on a page, it can suggest there’s little of value there. When they spend three-plus minutes scrolling, they’ve probably found engaging content and useful information.
Optimization Opportunities: Create robust content that answers questions, engages users, provides a great experience and keeps people on the page. In addition to comprehensive copy, include supporting content such as images, charts, videos and infographics that will appeal to a wide audience, engage them and help advance them along the buyer journey.
A bounce is defined as a single-page session. Someone landed on your site and left without going any further. Blog posts typically have high bounce rates, often over 90%, since they’re often part of the earliest stages in the buyer journey. However, a high bounce rate on a service page could suggest either that visitors are encountering a dead end or that they’re not interested in the next steps being offered.
Both situations are problematic. If visitors have questions, and there’s no easy way to learn more – such as a link to an in-depth article – they have no choice but to back out to the SERPs and find another site (possibly your competitor’s) that will answer their questions. By not providing a natural next step, you’re also failing to guide your visitors in their buyer journeys, decreasing the chance they become customers.
Optimization Opportunities: Provide visitors with the next-step resources they need. Use internal linking to lead them to other relevant resources that will help answer other questions or introduce them to related topics and products. Add CTAs to offers that represent natural next steps in the buyer journey.
If the page already has CTAs, consider whether they represent natural next steps. For instance, a blog reader probably isn’t ready for a consultation, but they may be interested in a case study. Also, look at your CTA copy. Is it clear and appealing? Does it frame the offer in terms of a benefit? If not, rewrite it.
Pages Per Session
This measures how many pages people are visiting, on average, during a single session. Think of it as the opposite of bounce rate – they’re not only staying on the page they land on, they’re going beyond it; how many pages are they visiting? Users who find interesting and useful information that answers their questions will go deeper into your site.
Optimization Opportunities: It’s not that different from optimizing for time on page and bounce rate, except you’ll want to make sure every page you link to has great content and offers next-step options to learn more and/or take the next step in the buyer journey.
Another Analytics feature that can help here is Behavior Flow. It will show you graphically how visitors progress from page to page. This can offer insights into which pages you should be linking to and optimizing, or reveal gaps in the buyer journey where you need to create new content.
Taken as a whole, bounce rate, time on page and pages per session show which pages need optimizing, but also which are working. When you encounter pages with great dwell time, use them as a model for your optimization and content creation efforts.
Two other insights in the Behavior module have become incredibly important given recent changes to Google’s algorithm: mobile performance and site speed.
Above the Acquisitions module is the Audience module, which provides data on the people visiting your site. In the Mobile section, you can see a breakdown of the device types they’re using. Compare the bounce rate, time on page and pages per session for each. If the mobile numbers are significantly lower, it’s problematic. With Google moving to mobile-first indexing, you need to offer a great mobile experience.
Optimization Opportunities: Make sure your copy is written in short paragraphs of no more than four to five lines. Paragraphs that are long on desktop turn into formidable blocks of text and endless scrolling on mobile. Use plenty of subheads, as well as bullets and numbered lists. People tend to scan web pages, not read them carefully, so make it easy for them to find the information they want.
Time and again, Google has stated its commitment to recommending sites that offer a great experience. And nothing kills the online experience like slow-loading pages. Site speed has become an important ranking factor, so do all you can to keep your site humming, especially on mobile.
Site speed data is based on a sample, not actual numbers from the entire site. Also, the speeds represent an average of all devices. If your site speed is lagging, investigate further by segmenting by device type to determine if there’s an issue with mobile load times.
Optimization Opportunities: If you aren’t doing so already, use AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages), which can vastly improve mobile page speed.
Additionally, in the Behavior module, you’ll find Site Speed, with an option for Speed Suggestions. Here, Google tells you which pages have issues and provides suggestions on how to fix them, via its PageSpeed Insights. Some of the fixes could be technical, but many involve little more than resizing images, which is one of the most common and easy-to-fix issues.
Ultimately, most websites exist to convert. A conversion can be any desired activity, whether it’s a sale, a download or a consultation request. In order to gauge the success of your site and its individual pages, you must track and measure conversions. This can be done in the Conversions module.
The Goals feature can be used to set up and track conversions. It’s commonly used to track lead conversions, in which visitors submit information, such as email addresses, that can be used to nurture them through the buying process.
A lack of lead conversions could be due to any number of website variables along the buyer journey. But if you’ve done your optimization work in Acquisition and Behavior, you can often narrow the problem to your landing pages.
Optimization Opportunities: Landing page optimization can be tricky, because so many elements contribute to a successful conversion. Just a few of the possible culprits for a badly performing page include:
Lack of a compelling headline with a clear value proposition
No clear statement of benefits
Poor CTA copy
Too many form fields
Since changing any one element could improve (or hurt) conversion rates, you’ll need to be rigorous about making changes one at a time and measuring how each affects performance. Do this through regular A/B testing.
But Goals can be used for more than just lead conversions. They can also be used to measure activity conversions, which are goals set up around specific actions, such as button clicks. They be used to gain insight into:
Behavior patterns on particular pages
Steps where people are dropping off
For instance, you may have an ungated product catalog, the download of which represents a significant step in the buyer journey. You can set up a goal in Analytics to measure how often visitors to that page access the catalog.
Or perhaps your site has a Help icon. You can track every time a visitor clicks on it to see where they’re getting lost or confused.
Optimization Opportunities: Take a look again at the above examples. In the first instance, if the data show that people aren’t downloading the product catalog, you may want to look the CTA button. It the call to action clear and concise? Is it in a place where visitors can see it at a glance, or is it lost among all the other page content?
In the second example, if there’s a high incidence of clicks for help on, say, your Contact Us page, it could indicate that people aren’t finding the information they’re looking for. Or perhaps the email link or submit button aren’t working.
While these suggestions should help you get started using Google Analytics for optimization, it doesn’t answer every question you should be asking. For instance, performance varies greatly across industries, so how do you know if your conversion rate is good or bad in your vertical?
What about prioritization? Of all the potential problems the data points to, which should you tackle first to yield the most impact?
And lastly, while this post suggests some optimization best practices, it’s by no means comprehensive. To cover all of the ways in which you could, and should, write copy, craft headlines, use images and so on, could fill a lengthy e-book. This is just a starting point.
For many business owners, diving into the data and interpreting it in meaningful ways requires time and resources better invested elsewhere. Fortunately, a tool like MAXG, which connects to Google Analytics and HubSpot, can do it for you. Using industry-specific benchmarks and leveraging AI, it tells you:
Which pages are underperforming
Possible reasons why
The recommended prioritization of issues based on how they affect performance
How to fix the issues
You may never be a Google Analytics pro, able to quickly analyze, interpret and act on the data in appropriate ways. But you can begin to understand what the data is telling you or adopt tools that will give you the freedom to focus your energies elsewhere.