Do you remember working on your very first website? You might have felt a certain rush when the site first went live, and you knew that people around the world could visit its unique address and explore its pages. As you watched your visitor count steadily rise (or skyrocket, if you were lucky), you likely started wondering, “Who are all these people?” That may have led to other questions, like, “Where are they from? How much time do they spend browsing? Have they visited the website before, or is this their first time?” Back then, especially if you were just a kid playing around on the internet, you might not have been able to answer these questions. Now, you can answer all of them and more using Google Analytics metrics.
Google Analytics is a powerful tool that can help you understand who is visiting your website, what they do on your website, and how your website is performing overall. Plus, it’s free! Countless marketers use Google Analytics to evaluate the performance of their website and marketing campaigns, tracking and analyzing their metrics to make data-driven business decisions. If you aren’t already, we encourage you to do the same.
That said, it’s important to watch out for Google Analytics metrics that are often misunderstood or misinterpreted. Whether you consider yourself a novice or a master of digital marketing, you’ve likely been fooled once or twice by some misleading metrics. Below we explore five of the most frequent offenders.
What Are Google Analytics Metrics?
In Google Analytics, metrics are quantitative measurements of data. They communicate how your website is performing in relation to a specific dimension (a “descriptive attribute or characteristic of data,” such as country, browser, or language), and they can be measured as either sums or ratios. All metrics are expressed through numerical values, including percentages, dollars, and time. If you want to see how your website is faring in regard to your marketing goals, metrics are invaluable tools.
Frequently Misunderstood Metrics
You may think that you understand most common metrics on Google Analytics, but do you really? Let’s take a look at some metrics that marketers frequently misread.
Averages are sometimes important, but they don’t always tell the whole story, especially when it comes to search engine rankings. Most websites are composed of many pages, some of which rank highly and some of which rank poorly. Each of these pages may rank high or low for certain queries, and these rankings may be impacted by the searcher’s device (mobile or desktop). When you combine all of these rankings together, the average position doesn’t hold much value. Instead of focusing on the average position, look at the various factors driving it up or down: the pages, the queries, the devices, the countries, the dates. Analyzing these dimensions will give you far more food for thought than this not-so-simple metric.
Definition: “Single-page sessions divided by all sessions, or the percentage of all sessions on your site in which users viewed only a single page and triggered only a single request to the Analytics server.”
If someone “bounces” from your webpage, that means they did not visit any other pages on your website directly after viewing the specific webpage at hand. Although this sounds like a bad thing, it’s important to remember that bounces are not inherently bad. Some are, but others are actually productive. For example, consider the following situations:
- A user visits a webpage, finds the company’s phone number, and contacts the company directly.
- A user visits a webpage, finds the company’s address, and hops in the car to visit the business in person.
- A user visits a webpage, returns to the results page to compare options, but eventually purchases from the original website.
- A user visits a webpage and learns valuable information about the company and its products.
- A user visits a webpage, bookmarks it to read later, and then visits another website.
These are just a few of the many scenarios in which a bounce is not a failure. It’s also worth keeping in mind that traffic sources can have a huge impact on bounce rates, with display ad campaigns, social media traffic, and blogs often producing high bounce rates. Check out our blog post Bounce Rate: A Complex and Consistently Misunderstood Metric to learn more about this.
But of course, there are many situations where bounces indicate that the user was unsatisfied. They may have bounced because they didn’t find relevant information, they found the website ugly or unprofessional, or they were confused about how to take the next step in the buying process.
All this to say, many marketers obsess over their website’s bounce rate without good reason. Instead of creating a strict goal for your site-wide bounce rate, which is typically too broad to be useful, create goals for individual landing pages after determining what sort of bounce rate is appropriate. For some pages (like blog posts and contact pages), a high bounce rate should be expected. For others, like a landing page that aims to convince users to book an appointment online, you may want to be more ambitious with your bounce rate goal.
Average Session Duration
Google Analytics can’t measure how long a user spends looking at a webpage before bouncing away because it uses the launch of the next page view to calculate the session duration. This means that every bounce receives a 0 for session duration unless the user spends more than 30 minutes on the webpage (the default length of a session), which will trigger a new session. So let’s say a user lands on your webpage, spends 20 minutes perusing, closes the browser, and then gives you a call. That session, despite being very productive, will still have a duration of 0.
In addition to being skewed by the number of bounces, average session duration is also heavily impacted by the number of pages viewed per session and the number of total sessions. For all these reasons and more, average session duration is not a good indicator of how long users are spending on your website.
New and Returning Visitors vs. Total Users
Google Analytics helps you understand whether your visitors are “new” or “returning” by looking at the existing tracking cookie on the user’s device. If the device lacks a tracking cookie, Google creates one, starts the visitor’s session, and labels the visitor “new.” If the device already has a tracking cookie, Google starts the session and labels the visitor “returning.” Sound good so far?
The issue arises when marketers add up their numbers of “new visitors” and “returning visitors” and expect the sum to match the reported number of total visitors. Typically the total number of visitors will be lower than the sum of new and returning visitors. Why? If a single user visits your site multiple times during the recording period, they will be labeled as both a new visitor (on their first visit) and a returning visitor (on all their subsequent visits).
Count of Sessions
In the Google Analytics report for Frequency, you’ll find the Count of Sessions dimension. Although this metric, like all Google Analytics metrics, provides helpful information when used correctly, it often misleads users who don’t understand its meaning, don’t understand the report format, or are using the metric without considering the wider context. Let’s dig in:
How Is Count of Sessions Calculated?
As we mentioned above, Google Analytics uses a tracking cookie to count how many times a user has visited your website. Their first visit is their first session, their second visit is their second session, etc. So when you see the Count of Sessions, remind yourself that there is likely a lot of duplication. The sessions counted for each “Count of Sessions” do not indicate that the user only had one session, or two sessions, etc. For example, if someone returns to your website three times within the specified time period, they will be counted in three places: Count of Sessions: 1, Count of Sessions: 2, and Count of Sessions: 3. This isn’t exactly intuitive, so many people get the wrong idea from the numbers.
How Much Duplication Is in Your Count of Sessions Chart?
It’s rarely a good idea to focus only on the Count of Sessions report. This only makes sense if the total number of sessions for the period almost equals the number of users. In all other cases, when the number of sessions is significantly higher than the number of users, you must understand that a lot of duplication is occurring. Unfortunately, you can’t use this metric to understand how many users visited your website once, twice, etc. You also can’t learn the distribution of the number of visits by the number of users. Because Google Analytics isn’t very clear on this point, many people assume the numbers mean something different than the reality.
Why Is There a Bump at the End of the Bar Graph?
When you look at the bar graph of the Count of Sessions data, you may be surprised to see a bump at the end. Count of Sessions: 1 is high and from 2 to 8, the numbers gradually decline. But at Count of Sessions: 9-14, the graph may pop up again, before slowly descending as it reaches 15-25 and 26-50.
As you might have guessed based on the numbers, this is because the graph unevenly groups the data, combining several data points at the end of the graph. The Count of Sessions: 9-14 group combines 6 session counts, and the 15-25 group combines 11 session counts. This creates a perplexing and potentially deceiving jump in the data. Plus, it’s important to remind yourself again that the numbers likely include duplication, and that the metric displays sessions, not users.
These are not the only Google Analytics metrics that may be leading you astray. So before you jump to any conclusions regarding the data presented, or make any bold moves regarding your website and its marketing, check that you fully understand the metrics influencing your decision – and never use individual metrics without considering the bigger picture.
If you’re hoping to build a beautiful, effective website that ranks highly on Google, contact 417 Marketing for help. Our team of knowledgeable, creative, and passionate professionals specializes in SEO, web design and maintenance, and Google AdWords, and we have successfully completed over 700 websites since our inception in 2010. Click here to contact us and learn more about what we can do for your company.