Google Analytics: What You Can Learn from the Audience Overview

Every time I build a website for a client, I ask if they want me to install Google Analytics, and nine times out of ten the response is a sort of shrug. They’ve heard of it, they understand it’s something most sites should have, but they don’t really see the value for themselves. That’s when I start to rhapsodise about all the great data we are able to collect and the sheer volume of valuable insights we can take away from it… and after about five minutes, I get to see my client’s face light up as they realise just how useful Google Analytics is going to be for their business. I do understand however, why most people don’t automatically share my excitement about it: the dashboard can be pretty overwhelming, with well over 50 different reports and a host of other features like filters and data segmentation. Luckily you don’t need to understand every single report in order to start gaining a deeper understanding of your website data. Today, I’m going to take you through just one report, and explain exactly what those numbers mean for your business.

First off, we’re going to go to Google Analytics, select a view, and click on the “Reporting” tab. The default report that is shown is the “Audience Overview” report, which is what we’re going to run through today, but before we even get into what this specific report can tell you about your business, I want to show you some fantastically useful and often-overlooked Google Analytics dashboard features:

Google Analytics Audience Overview

Key Reporting Features in Google Analytics

  1. If you have multiple reporting Views, you can specify which one you want to review using the top-right dropdown as shown.
  2. Select the date range you want to view; the default is 30 days but you can view a week or even a year if you want, and also compare with other time frames if you want.
  3. If you’re ever confused by a report in Analytics, just click on the mortarboard icon and a panel will appear, which will explain all the information you can get from that particular report.
  4. Segments are very useful when you want isolate certain sets of data. For example, you can apply a segment to see how new visitors interact with your website compared to returning visitors; or you could view only the data from people who made a purchase on your site.
  5. If there’s a particular report you want to review regularly, you can schedule automatic email reports by clicking “Email” and specifying how frequently you want to receive them.
  6. The items above are all dashboard features you can access from any of your Google Analytics reports, but now it’s time to look at the data specific to this report: our audience metrics.

Google Analytics Audience Overview: Key Terms and What They Mean

Firstly, Google Analytics defines a single visit to your website as a “session”. The number you see in this report is the total number of sessions for a given date range, so bear in mind that a single “user” (visitor to your website) may have generated multiple sessions. That’s why the total number of users will always be lower than your total session count.

Finally we come to “pageviews”, which are simply the total number of your website pages viewed in a given date range. Note that unless specified, these are not “unique pageviews”; i.e. the same page can be counted multiple times within a single user session. So if a user follows this path during their visit: Entrance (Home Page) > About Page > Home Page > Blogpost > Exit; then both views of the homepage will be counted.

It is useful to keep an eye on how many users, sessions and pageviews your website receives on average because it will allow you to analyse your marketing efforts to see whether they are effective in increasing traffic to your website, or whether you need to change your tactics.

The New vs. Returning Visitors pie chart is useful if you want to check whether a particular campaign has increased the ratio of new visitors to your site, but by itself doesn’t really tell us all that much more than that. However in combination with other reports it can give you a lot of useful information about the differences in activity between new and returning visitors – for example, maybe see that your new visitors are exiting your website before completing any of the actions you want them to, like signing up to your email list. That will let you know to review your landing pages and see what you can try to improve this.

Finally we come to what are often described as engagement metrics, because they are often good indicators of whether or not visitors are engaged with the content on your site. “Pages / session” and “ave. session duration” pretty much explain themselves: they are the number of pages on average that users visited during a single session on your site, and the average length of time they spent, respectively.

There tends to be a little more confusion on the last metric, “bounce rate”, but put simply, a bounce is just when a user visits your site, and then leaves again without visiting any other pages on your site, or triggering any events. Now I’m going to go into a bit more detail on engagement metrics because a lot of people tend to view them as absolute: for example a high bounce rate is generally considered bad, while a high number of pages per visit is good, and they forget to apply context to their data.

An example of this is: if you have a one page site, your bounce rate is going to be hovering at pretty much 100%, but that obviously doesn’t mean your website is necessarily performing badly – there’s just nowhere else for your visitors to go.

And what about a high number of pages per session? Just as a high bounce rate isn’t necessarily bad, this one isn’t necessarily good. For example, say you compare it with the ave. session duration and notice that although your visitors are visiting a lot of pages, they are doing it in a very short amount of time. That could actually indicate that they’re having trouble finding the information they are looking for on your site – perhaps your menu labels aren’t clear enough or your product catalog isn’t well organised.

So as you can see while these are very useful metrics, they really do need to be placed in context when reviewing your data, and that is a rule that goes for all data analysis: without context, all your data is just a bunch of random numbers.

We have barely scratched the surface of all that Google Analytics has to offer, but hopefully this article makes the dashboard seem a little less overwhelming. If you have any questions or suggestions for other Google Analytics features you’d like me to cover, feel free to join the conversation on Facebook or Twitter!