Understanding the complicated-but-foundational tool of digital analytics
Week 4 of CXL Institute’s Growth Marketing Minidegree covered an introduction to Google Analytics (GA), intermediate GA functionalities, and an overview of Google Tag Manager.
Google Analytics: what
If you play around in the digital world, you’ve probably encountered Google Analytics (GA). I set up GA for the first time when I launched my personal website almost a year ago. I check the main dashboard every week and browse the search console queries to see which search terms bring visitors to the site. I explored other functionalities once, when I noticed I couldn’t distinguish real traffic from my hits when tinkering on the back end and checking my changes in the main view. I Googled how to block internal hits and excluded my IP address without understanding much beyond the step-by-step instructions I followed.
After CXL’s 15 hours of video content on GA, I would say I’ve gone from dipping my toe in the GA pool to swimming. Maybe, like, for a club team.
In the past, I’ve retained little from passively watching tutorials on technical tools. The information is dense and usually lacks a narrative connecting each module, much like a textbook. From the first lesson, though, the CXL instructor for the GA section (Chris Mercer) linked in the Google Analytics Demo Account — a fully functional (view-only) GA account tracking real business data from the Google Merchandise Store. Each video flipped between showing the demo account and Mercer’s measurementmarketing.io account, which encouraged me to follow along, engaging with GA as I learned.
For the customization not replicable on the demo account, I used my site’s GA. Something about modifying my GA account made the whole process all the more exciting. And as a perk, the day I get more traffic, I’ll be ready to analyze every detail about my visitors (in a purely educational, non-creepy way).
How GA relates to growth marketing
Digital analytics tells you the “how” of a business’s online results — i.e. how you make money online. Behind the numbers lie behaviors, which offer all sorts of insights into the customer experience and journey.
GA is part of the Google Marketing Platform and is one of the most-used digital analytics tools. Unless you have over 10 million website hits, the platform is free to use, from solo blogger to medium-sized business.
GA collects, stores, and reports the behaviors of a website’s visitors. Of the three capabilities, GA excel at the storing part. Google’s other marketing products fill in to support the other two: Google Tag Manager collects, and Google Data Studio reports.
Although GA isn’t the most straightforward tool to understand, it’s easy to set up and get started. You can install GA through a tracking ID most site-builders/plug-ins integrate automatically or through Google Tag Manager/code snippet (that GA provides) for custom-built sites. Google also generates a ton of very detailed help pages for troubleshooting and learning specific portions, and each lesson linked to the relevant Google resources to learn more.
The CXL lessons introduced the platform by walking through the categories of reports — each one answers specific questions about users.
What are users on the site right now doing? Are GA/site changes working?
Real-time reports shouldn’t be used to make business decisions, but they offer a snapshot of the present to test if the right data is flowing into GA without needing to wait and lose data if not.
Who are my users?
GA tracks users via client IDs and recognizes returning users through cookies. User tracking isn’t perfect, since GA can’t match different devices and incognito windows to one user. The only exception is Google Signals, which uses ad personalization settings for logged-in users for demographic data and cross-device behavior.
Where are users coming from?
GA by default attributes traffic to 1. organic (users click through to your site from a Google search), 2. referral (users click through to your site from a link not on Google), and 3. direct/none (users directly type in your URL or “just appear” according to GA). You can set up customized acquisition reports to track email, social media, and any other acquisition channel of interest. If you want more users on your site, you first have to know how existing users find you.
What actions are users taking?
Extra useful here: bounce rate, exit rate, and events (specific behaviors you can set up otherwise not tracked by GA).
What results are my users driving?
Since every site has a unique definition and path for conversions, GA doesn’t automatically track anything here. You can set up goals (eg. time on site, newsletter sign-ups, purchases) to provide GA with the actions to track. GA uses your definition of a conversion for detailed insights into how traffic sources work together for repeat visitors, which segments of users convert (and which don’t), and where people fall off your site’s funnel sequence.
Free and powerful
Each of the report descriptions barely scratches the surface of what GA can do, but I hope the overview previews how versatile the tool is. Understanding GA boosts your data literacy and benefits anyone in the digital space, not just marketers. Unlike newer tools that may be relevant for only a handful of years, I don’t think GA will be replaced anytime soon.
The Google Marketing Suite modules were very well done. As with any worthwhile class, the instructor explained the why behind each aspect, not just the what; how GA calculates each metric, which metrics show up in multiple reports and how they relate, and the logic behind the numbers GA presents. These are the details that elevate learning from a memorization game (with low retention) to long-term, useful knowledge.