Understanding Google Analytics: definitions of key terms

Overview
Google Analytics provides a wealth of information to improve your online presence; we offer an introduction to some key terms.
Author
Emma Willis
Date

Google Analytics

A few months ago I wrote a blog post on the most important metrics for measuring online success, using data easily accessible via one of the most commonly-used analytics tools: Google Analytics. However, while the information may be easy to get hold of, that doesn’t necessarily make it easy to interpret and use, especially if you’re new to the world of data analytics. To help the uninitiated get to grips with this incredibly valuable tool I’ve compiled a brief glossary of the key terms you may come across when navigating through Google Analytics.

The basics

Pageviews

This is the number of times users view a page that has the Google Analytics tracking code inserted. This covers all page views; so if a user refreshes the page, or navigates away from the page and returns, these are all counted as additional page views.

Visits

Visits are the individual periods of time (also known as “sessions”) that visitors spend on your site. A visit is ended either after 30 minutes of inactivity or if the user leaves your site for more than 30 minutes (if a user leaves your site and returns within 30 minutes, this is counted as part of the original visit).

Unique Pageviews

The unique pageview number counts all the times the page was viewed in an individual session as a single event; so whether a visitor viewed the page once in their visit or five times, the number of unique pageviews will be recorded as just one.

Unique Visitors

When a user visits your site for the first time, a new visit and unique visitor are both recorded. If the same user returns to the site after their initial visit, only a new visit is added.

Google Analytics is able to recognise whether a user has been to the site before through the use of cookies. This means that if a user deletes their cookies, or accesses the site through a different browser or machine, then they may be mistakenly added as a new unique visitor; for this reason Google Analytics tends to place more prominence on the visits data.

User behaviour

New vs. Returning Visitors

New visitors are those users that have not visited your site before the time period specified, while returning visitors will have made at least one visit to at least one page on your site previously. This is again determined by whether Google Analytics can detect cookies, which indicate previous visits. If Google cannot detect a cookie one will be set for future recording, unless the user has disabled cookies in their personal browser preferences.

Google Analytics New vs Returning Visitors

Pie chart showing breakdown of new vs. returning visitors

Segments

Segments enable you to analyse your data in more detail, by filtering the results to show only information for certain kinds of traffic. You can also use segments to compare results between groups of visitors; for example new vs. returning, or paid vs. organic search traffic. Google also allows you to set up custom segments to for even more granular analysis.

Landing Page

The page your user begins their visit to your site on; quite simply, how they ‘land’ on your site.

Bounce Rate

Bounce rate is given as a percentage, and represents the number of visits when users leave your site after just one page; regardless of how they got to your site or how long they stayed on that page. 

Visitors Flow

The visitors flow report shows how users moved through your site, from landing page to exit page. Visitors flow reports can be customised to show additional detail, such as the geographic location of users or the traffic source, and also shows how many people exited at each stage of interaction.

Google Analytics Visitors Flow
Visitor flow report

Traffic

Traffic Sources: Direct vs. Referral

Traffic sources show you how users got to your site, and in Google Analytics are split into direct and referral traffic.

Direct traffic is made up of visitors that type a URL directly into the address bar, select an auto-complete option when typing the URL, or click on a bookmark to get to your site (however, instances when Google Analytics cannot determine a source also get automatically assigned as direct).

Referral traffic is when a user has landed on your site by clicking on a link from somewhere else; this could be another site, a social media profile, or a search engine. 

Search Traffic: Organic vs. Paid

Google Analytics also lets you see what percentage of your traffic came from search engines, and this is further broken down into organic and paid search.

Organic search shows the users who came to your site by clicking on the organic links on the search engine results page (SERP); these results appear below that adverts and are determined by how well the page is optimised for search engines.

The paid search results show users who clicked on one of your paid search engine adverts; these typically appear at the top and side of the SERPs and are managed via an advertising account such as Google AdWords or Bing Ads.
 Google Analytics Paid vs Organic Search
Organic and paid search results on Google

Keyword

For both organic and paid search channels, Google Analytics records the keyword: the word or phrase a user entered into the search box that led them to click on one of your links. 

Keyword: (not provided) 

 If a user is searching via Google Secure Search over SSL (ie. using https://www.google.com instead of http://www.google.com), their keywords are not passed on to your Google Analytics account; instead, a (not provided) result is displayed. Some browsers, such as FireFox, have the https:// version of Google set as a default, and Google itself caused controversy last year when it revealed that users signed in to a Google account will also be automatically redirected to this URL. It’s worth noting that keywords are still provided when users click on paid search results, even if they are using the secure search (a move that has led some commentators to accuse Google of bias towards those clients who advertise with them). 

Custom information

Events

Events can be set up within Google Analytics to help you measure activity that may not otherwise be recorded by the tracking code; these may include when a user plays a video, downloads a factsheet, uses an embedded tool, or other on-site interactions.

Goals

For critical site objectives, such as getting users to fill in a contact form, complete an online transaction or spend a certain amount of time engaging with your site, goals can be set up to monitor the conversion rate of these activities. There are four types of goals available in Google Analytics: URL Destination, Visit Duration, Pages (or Screens)/Visit and goals tied to existing events. You can also assign a monetary value to each goal completion, to help determine the return on investment from your website or application. 

Google Analytics Goals
Report showing goal completion

Conclusion

It’s important to note that the above is not meant to be a comprehensive list of all Google Analytics definitions, but instead provides a handy quick-start guide for new users, or a refresher for those with more experience. However, if there are any vital terms you think I have missed, or you want to know more about understanding Google Analytics, please get in touch using the comments box below.

Additionally, the following resources provide useful advice for all levels of user, from first-timers to analytical experts:

http://support.google.com/analytics/

http://www.google.com/intl/en/analytics/iq.html?

http://analytics.blogspot.co.uk/

http://econsultancy.com/uk/blog/8479-10-great-google-analytics-walkthroughs

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