Whether you want to know how many mobile devices accessed your contact page from Albania or what percentage of your traffic is made up of “travel buffs,” the questions you have about your website and its audience can most likely be answered by Google Analytics—no matter how silly or granular they may be.

In fact, the problem with GA’s data haystack is that most people don’t know where to find the needles of information they are actually looking for. Instead, they get distracted by vanity metrics and try to make decisions based on macro trends that tell them little about the best way to optimize their site.

Google Analytics can be a deeply complicated place and easy to get lost in for people new to this program. However, these five best practices can act as a guide for you, helping you bypass much of the meaningless data so that you can quickly and easily navigate to the answers you need. When using GA becomes less random wandering and more a targeted journey from A to B, you'll save time, focus on data points that matter to you, and get a better understanding of how your website is performing, so you can make the decisions that will put it on track to grow and succeed.

1. Take Google’s Analytics Academy Courses

You might be tempted to set up a Google Analytics account and get started right away. Although trial and error will be how you learn much of Analytics, for beginners, getting a solid foundation through Google’s own Analytics Academy Courses is the best way to get started.

Google has published six courses that can teach you everything, from basic uses for GA to advanced techniques. These courses are 100% free, and after you’re done, you can even take a free test to become Google Analytics Certified.

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For most people, taking the Google Analytics for Beginners course is enough to give them an introduction to what they can do with this platform.

In this course, you will learn how to set up a GA account, use basic reports, add filters and secondary dimensions, and configure goals and events.

The course takes four to six hours, and you can expect videos, quizzes, and demo accounts you can interact with to help you get familiar with GA. By the end of the course, you won’t be an Analytics expert, but you’ll know your way around the most basic functions that allow you to analyze your site’s raw data.

2. Figure Out Your Website’s Most Important KPIs

Before you begin customizing your GA account, you need to know what data to spend your time tracking. This starts with determining your website’s key performance indicators (KPIs).Google Analytics is the perfect tool for tracking and measuring three main types of KPIs:

  • Acquisition KPIs: Metrics concerned with how readers get to your site
  • Behavior KPIs: Metrics that tell you how users engage with your website and move along their buyer’s journey
  • Outcome KPIs: Metrics that track goals and conversions on your properties

Possible KPIs you could track on your site include:

Behavior

Time-on-page. An important metric that gives you an idea of how much people are engaging with your content.

Bounce rate. A “bounce” is when someone clicks on your page and immediately backs out. It could reflect poor load times or that your content is not what searchers are looking for.

Exit page statistics. These pages are the last page users see before leaving your website. High exit rates on a particular page might show it is poorly optimized.

Acquisition

Organic traffic volume. The amount of traffic that comes to your site from unpaid search.

Pay-per-click (PPC) traffic volume. The amount of traffic that comes from paid links on search.  

Referral traffic volume. The amount of traffic that comes from links on other websites.

Direct traffic. Traffic that comes from other sources, including when someone types in your URL.

Outcome

Goal conversions. How many times you get a conversion, a completed action that contributes to your primary digital marketing goals, over a period of time.

Return on ad spend (ROAS). How much money you make in sales/conversions from ads after accounting for the money you spent on the ads.

Cost-per-click (CPC). The cost of the average click generated from a PPC campaign.

The KPIs you choose to track should always connect back to the ultimate goals of your website. For example, if you are a company that uses social media to sell bespoke kitchen knives on your website, then you would want to track your social media traffic volume and how many conversions you’re getting from social media marketing campaigns month over month.

The objective is to find metrics, like purchases, downloads, or signups, that tell you whether you are moving closer to your organization’s high-level goals. Examine your marketing funnel, determine which KPIs will help you understand how well your current marketing efforts are performing, and then start learning how to track them with GA.

3. Choose Your Analytics Views

One of the best ways to get more out of your GA is to filter out useless data at the source by implementing different views for your property. Views help you filter analytics data so you can learn about and make decisions on important subsets of your property, for example, for a single website domain, a single app’s data, or information on non-internal traffic.

Regardless of your goals, you should always have, at minimum, three views set up on your GA property:

  1. An unfiltered original view
  2. A test view
  3. A  custom view

At no time should you ever modify or remove your unfiltered original view. When you add filters to a view, you stop GA from collecting that data. If you have only one view and then add a filter to it, you will permanently exclude any data removed by that filter. Keeping an unfiltered view means that you will always have your complete website data set to fall back on and examine.

Your custom view is where you will spend most of your time, as you should have configured it to help you track your KPIs more effectively than with your unfiltered view. Meanwhile, your test view allows you to try out new filters for your custom view without worrying about permanently erasing any data.

To set up a new view on GA, go to your admin settings (the gear icon on the navigation bar), and then click the blue “+ Create View” button.

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Name your view, and choose whether it will be for a website or an app. After that, go back to the Admin menu and click on “Filters” to edit your current view. If you want to switch between views, you can click on the drop-down menu below the “Create View” button.

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From the “Filters” menu, you can add filters to your view to help you more easily pinpoint and analyze subsets of data within your property. Start by clicking on the red “Add Filter” button at the top of the page. You can start to create your new filter from the pop-up window, either with a predefined filter or with a custom filter.

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Creating filters can be difficult for new GA users as there are nearly limitless options and combinations. The best way to learn how to use filters effectively on GA is to practice using them yourself.

To help you practice, Google has created instructions for eight different basic filters you can add to GA. A good place to start is with a view that excludes all internal traffic. For small websites, you’ll only have to exclude your own IP address, making this a relatively easy test to start with.

When creating new views, always stick to these Google Analytics best practices:

  1. Test new filters on your test view.
  2. If you are using multiple filters on a view, that filter order matters to the end result.
  3. Never add filters or change your original view.

As you become more familiar with views, remember that the goal is to sort your data in a way that helps you find better insights. Some common ways you could achieve this include:

  • A view that isolates your target market
  • A view that is restricted to only one country
  • A view that focuses on a single traffic type (organic, PPC, social, etc.)

Refer back to the KPIs you set earlier. Which views you use could help you better understand how well you are doing in regards to your top KPIs. Find ways to isolate them with filters, and you’ll have more accurate data in front of you to truly see how your efforts are paying off.

4. Set Goals on Google Analytics

To help you measure the success of your pages, you can set up goals to track conversions on your website. By explicitly setting your goals on GA, you can more easily track, compare, and optimize your web pages to increase the likelihood of increasing your monthly conversion rate.

On Google Analytics, a goal measures conversions, an action taken by a user that contributes to your business's ultimate objectives. For example, if your ultimate objective is to sell shoes, then each pair of shoes you sell is a conversion.

By setting goals on GA, you can learn how many times you reached your goals with your audience in a month, your goal completion rate, and how much your completed goals are worth in an estimated dollar value.

To set up a goal on Google Analytics, click the “Admin” gear icon on the side navigation bar, choose the view you want to set your goal for, and then click on “Goals.”

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Then, click on the red “+ New Goal” button and begin the process of creating your first goal. You can choose to create goals in three ways:

1. With a Goal Template

If you are new, using a goal template keeps everything nice and simple. Choose from a list of premade goals, and you’re all done.

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2. With Smart Goals

Smart Goals are only open to people who have linked their Google Ads account to their GA and have enough traffic. Once these prerequisites are met, Smart Goals use machine learning to assist you in setting goals that will help you increase your conversions.  

3. With a Custom Goal

Custom goals are more similar to goal templates. The difference is that you need to input all of the data yourself, and you have far more creative license than with the templates.

When creating a custom goal, you can choose between one of four kinds of goals:

  • Destination Goals: A goal that is met by a user reaching a certain page or destination on your website.
    Example: A user reaches the checkout page of your website.
  • Duration Goals: A goal that is met by a user spending a certain amount of time on a page or your site.
    Example: A user stays on one of your recipe pages for more than 10 minutes.
  • Event Goals: A goal that is met by a user performing an action on your website.
    Example: A user downloads your eBook.
  • Pages/Screens Per Session Goals: A goal that is met when a user visits a preset number of pages on your site.
    Example: A user explores five different pages on your website in a session.

The setup for each goal will vary slightly based on the goal type you have specified. For instance, a destination goal requires you to tell Google which URL it is tracking and whether it will be tracking a single page or a funnel. With a funnel, you can see how far your users get along a registration or checkout process and make a change if drop-off spikes at a certain point.

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For each type of goal, you can also set a value. Values help you estimate how much these conversions are worth to your business in dollars. Although it is optional, adding a value is a best practice that will help you compare the values of different conversions on your website.

The purpose of GA goals is to track information that’s important to your business, but the information doesn’t need to be positive. For example, you could set a goal that tracks people who reach your cancellation page. With this goal, you could easily see whether your cancellation numbers are up this month, so you can make appropriate changes if you start to see an increased number.

5. Be Wary of GA’s Data Misconceptions

For all the wonderful things you can find on GA, you still need to be careful of some of GA's more misleading data. Consider these as Analytics’ limitations. As long as you know they exist, then you shouldn’t run the risk of basing your decisions on misleading or inaccurate data.

The first problem that plagues GA’s data is “dark traffic.” Dark traffic is the traffic that Google can’t determine the source of. When you look at your traffic by sources, you should see a healthy percentage of traffic from organic search, referrals, social, and direct traffic.

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Dark traffic hides in the direct traffic source; for instance, in the above screenshot, we can see that nearly 60% of all traffic for this site comes from “direct” traffic sources.

But what does this mean? Generally, when we think of direct traffic, we think of people knowing your website, typing your URL in, and directly visiting. However, almost no websites get a full 60% of their traffic solely from people typing in the URL. Usually, you can expect organic search to make up the largest chunk of your actual traffic, with PPC, social, referral, and direct making up the rest. The inflation of direct traffic on GA comes from dark traffic, and, unfortunately, there’s little you can do about it. If you are truly curious where this traffic is originating from, your only chance is to find spikes in direct traffic and then try to correlate it to a new link, a new promotion, or anything that could possibly drive this traffic.

Beyond that, it’s best to remember to take your direct traffic numbers with a grain of salt and not to base too many decisions on those statistics.

Another big data inaccuracy on Google Analytics has to do with the average-time-on-page metric. Average-time-on-page tells you how long the average user spends on your pages. If you have a page with an above-average time-on-page, then you should analyze what it’s doing right so you can replicate it in future content.

However, although this data is useful as a comparison, it is less than accurate as a firm number. This inaccuracy is due to how Google tracks time-on-page.

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When a person moves between pages on your site, Google can track how long they spend on the first page they visit by comparing timestamps of when they arrived on page 1 and page 2. However, when there is no engagement with the final page visited, Google can’t track how long the user stayed there. So, the time-on-page is calculated as zero for the final page.

For example, in the image above, after the user visits page 3, they leave your site, but since there was no interaction, Google records the time-on-page as 0 seconds, even if they had spent a minute reading through that page before they left. This calculation method can drastically impact the average time, especially for pages on your site that are often exit pages.

Again, there is little you can do about this other than keeping it in mind when considering the time-on-page metric. As you become more familiar with Google Analytics, you’ll get to know its quirks, too. The important takeaway here is that you should always think critically about the data GA shows you.

Use Google Analytics Best Practices to Find What Really Matters

Sometimes Analytics can feel like an insurmountable haystack with not nearly enough needles to be worth the effort. Still, by following these best practices, we promise the task will become more manageable with a bit of time. As long as you keep your goals and KPIs in mind and work to focus solely on the data that will help you reach those goals, you’ll find GA to be one of your favorite programs for optimizing your website properties.

As helpful as Google Analytics can be, data analysis for your website does not end there. If you want to learn more about your site’s SEO and place on the Google search engine, take a look at our guide to using Google Search Console, so you can optimize and boost your organic traffic sources.