One of the downsides of managing a website is that you rarely get a first-hand view of how people are using it. Fortunately, there are tools that can give you a much deeper understanding into this, such as Google Analytics.

With minimal setup, Analytics can help you answer questions about your website such as:

  • How many people visit my website, on desktop and mobile?
  • Which pages on my website are the most popular?
  • What websites and sources send traffic to my website?
  • Which marketing tactics drive the most traffic to my site?

Although the design is user-friendly, there are a lot of numbers, charts and menus and it’s easy to get lost down a rabbit hole if you’re not sure what to focus on. This guide explains some of the most critical metrics in Analytics and some recommendations of what you should be looking at.

Don't forget to set up your Google Analytics account, if you haven't already.

Important web metrics

These are some of the most important metrics for you to understand when using Google Analytics.

Sessions – a session tells you that someone came to your site and spent some time browsing. A session is defined from the moment the person arrives on your site until they leave.

Users – users are the number of unique people who have come to your site. It is not a perfect measure, as the same person could come to your site from different computers or devices within the same time period of time, but it’s as close as you’ll get.

Bounce rate – one of the most critical metrics, this tells you the percentage of people who came to your site and only viewed the page they landed on. A high bounce rate is generally a bad sign as it means your website content is not working for people or you are bringing the wrong kind of traffic to your site. The metric lets you easily identify areas of concern on your site.

Exit rate – this measures how many people left your site from a certain page. It can give you an indication of pages on your site that might not be working properly (e.g. no/weak call to action) – but it’s worth remembering that people have to leave your site from somewhere.

Avg session duration – this is the average time of every session on your website.

Avg pages per session – this is the average number of pages visited per session.

What should you measure?

It’s important not to measure the performance of your website purely on vanity statistics (top-level stats that don’t tell you the full story).

For example, an increase in visits to your site is not necessarily good news. More visits could be the result of spam or an irrelevant Adwords campaign, which means all the new traffic to your site is actually worthless traffic. By digging a little deeper, you can uncover actionable insights that will lead you to make more sensible, evidence-based decisions.

We’ve recommended a few areas to get started with:

Comparing time periods

Context is vital when you’re looking at your stats. Knowing how things have been going recently is a good start, but it’s much better to see if things are changing. That’s why comparing different time periods for your stats is so important – it will let you know if things are getting better, worse, or staying the same.

We recommend comparing your stats with the same time period in the previous year, where possible (e.g. if you’re looking at March 2017 stats, then compare them with March 2016). This is because there can be seasonal changes with visitors throughout the year so, for example, comparing December’s stats to June’s could be misleading.

Likewise, if you compare your stats year on year and you know that at the same time last year you ran a big campaign and/or received some significant media coverage, you need to take that into account when comparing your stats.

How’s your mobile traffic doing?

People are increasingly accessing websites on their mobiles. It’s important to remember that just because your desktop visitors are finding your site easy to navigate doesn’t mean the same is true of your mobile visitors.

  • To look at your mobile traffic, go to Audience > Mobile > Overview.

First, look at how much mobile traffic you’re currently getting to your site. Your site should always accommodate visitors on mobile devices, but if mobile traffic has overtaken desktop traffic then your strategic website decisions should be considered from a mobile-first standpoint.

Next, look for differences between desktop and mobile traffic on your site, particularly in bounce rates. Is the mobile bounce rate significantly higher (more than 10%) than desktop? If so, this may mean that you haven’t optimised your site for mobile visitors.

Things to think about:

  • Are there pages with a lot of text and, if so, can the copy be cut or broken up with headings?
  • Is the website menu too big and difficult to navigate on mobile?
  • Are the calls to action on important pages clear enough and positioned in a way to work for mobile users?

Where is your traffic coming from?

Knowing where your traffic is coming from can give you a great insight into how well your various marketing efforts are driving traffic to the site.

  • To access your traffic sources, go to Acquisition > All traffic > Source/Medium.

This will tell you how much of your traffic your acquiring organically through Google searches and how much you’re getting through your marketing efforts, e.g. social media, email, Adwords.

It’s important to pay attention to bounce rate here as it’s possible you may be driving a lot of traffic to your site from a particular source but that those visitors aren’t staying on site. If so, you may need to rethink your marketing strategy. If you have the Google Grant, pay attention to the bounce rate of your Google PPC campaigns – you should be aiming for a bounce rate below 70%, preferably under 60%. Anything higher than that should be an indication that your ads need reviewing.

What are your top landing pages?

A landing page is the first page someone arrives on on your website. Typically your top landing page will be your home page, but these stats will tell you exactly which pages are giving many of your visitors their first impression of your website.

  • To find them in Google Analytics, go to Behavior > Site Content > Landing Pages.

If one of your top landing pages has a high bounce rate (anything over 60% as a rough benchmark), this can be an indication that you need to do some work to optimise the page.

Things to think about:

  • Is there a relevant call to action that the page is missing?
  • Are you directing irrelevant traffic to the page through an Adwords campaign?
  • Does the headline and summary create expectations for something different than what’s actually on the page?

In certain situations a high bounce rate may not actually be an indication there is something wrong with the page. This is particularly the case if the purpose of the page is to signpost visitors to another site or if contains information such as the location of a charity shop.