When Brian Clifton gave a talk on Google Analytics in 2011, he took the audience back to the 1990s.
In digital analytics at that time, website owners had just started collecting data about how users arrived at their sites and where they navigated around once there. Search engines didn’t track referrals, so no one knew if anyone was clicking on links in search results. And yet, Clifton said, “the question was ‘how do I get the most traffic?'” since users were arriving somehow.
That fundamental question hasn’t changed much in the last few years, even though Google Analytics has undergone many changes since then to become a far more advanced tool used by every marketer and the best digital marketing agency in town.
It’s still about understanding where traffic comes from and where people go after they get there. But Clifton said he has something new to add: “How do I get the most out of my analytics?”
Where is Google Analytics headed?
The answer is a combination of automated Google Analytics tools that take care of common tasks, advanced segments that provide a deeper understanding of what’s going on, and intelligent hypotheses that test whether your assumptions about what’s going on in your business are correct.
A lot of people use Google Analytics without even realizing it. Maybe they have a website or mobile application, and someone told them to install the analytics tracking code, so they did, but they haven’t looked at the data yet. Well, with more than 7 million websites using Google Analytics “out of the box” to start with, just out of curiosity, Clifton said it’s worth taking a peek.
After all, he added, “you’re not managing anything if you don’t know what’s happening.” And knowing that data is flowing to the analytics service means you can listen for events that tell you something is wrong. “If I’m a website owner and I want to know who’s coming to my site if Google Analytics shows me a spike of traffic from the Netherlands, it becomes an alarm bell for me.”
At its most basic level, Google Analytics tracks pageviews, but Clifton said that’s not particularly interesting. He prefers to look at events, which are things that happen on the pages you’re tracking. Keywords are an easy place to start digging into the data.
“Now I know what my users are doing,” Clifton said. “What they’re typing into search engines is one of the most important things that I can measure.” That’s because the search results on the first page are, by Google’s own admission, what 99 percent of users look at.
Over time, you can use events to understand more about your customers’ behavior. For example, if they are searching for “how do I make a website,” there’s a really good chance that they’re beginners who don’t know much about web design. That makes them a perfect customer for someone who can create a site (or at least point the person in the right direction).
“But we need to go deeper,” Clifton said, and segments are key here. A segment is just a collection of users who share certain characteristics, such as most likely to convert or click on certain kinds of ads. A corresponding engagement report can track how segments of users interact with your site or app.
A roster of the best digital marketing agency and marketing professionals also use segments to understand how various marketing campaigns are performing, including paid campaigns you run on search engines, social media sites, and elsewhere.
For example, Clifton said he once worked on a campaign with a travel company that wanted to know if users who were exposed to its ads on Facebook then searched for flights on the site. It was an easy segment to build, even though it required importing data from Facebook into Google Analytics.
“You can start asking questions about your business with the data you have right now,” he said. “At some point, you’re going to be able to take these segments and learn about your business.”
But what if you want more control over the data that Google Analytics collects? Clifton said he admires how passionate developers can get about code, but managing code for analytics tracking is something people should generally leave to experts.
There’s also a reason that Google Analytics continues to survive in spite of its competitors: people love it.