Google Analytics is an incredibly powerful tool for understanding and improving websites. It’s also free and fairly easy to use, but there are a few traps that should be avoided. Here are a few tips that will help you get the best out of GA:

1. Don’t assume perfect accuracy

Compare the stats from Google Analytics with the stats from another analytics package and the results will almost certainly be significantly different. The way sessions are counted varies from package to package, and so does the way data is collected. Google Analytics is a ‘tag-based solution’. In theory, each person that loads a page fires a piece of Java code which collects usage data. This works well unless the load is interrupted before the code is executed (no so much of a problem these days) or the person is browsing with Java disabled.

In truth, Google Analytics often underestimates visitor numbers by a considerable margin, but this doesn’t mean it’s not useful. You may not be able to have complete faith in a figure of 12749 visitors, but a 20% rise is still a 20% rise or pretty close to it. In most cases comparisons in time and across different sections of a website are valid.

Set up goals and funnels in advance

GA provides easy ways of examining the traffic flow towards conversion goals- sales on an online retail site for example, but these do need to be set up in advance as you can’t apply funnels retroactively. If you’ll want information on a particular type of conversion next month, make sure you set up the goals and funnels this month. Keep an eye on them for a few days to make sure the data is coming through as you think it should. The same goes for URL tagging- always check that each new set of campaign tags is working after implementation. Don’t leave it to the end of the reporting period.

3. Avoid code conflicts

If you need to re-install GA tracking code for any reason, make sure to remove all the old code first. Otherwise your data might look very strange indeed! It’s also worth taking particular care when installing and tracking Flash objects, as these can artificially break sessions and inflate visit numbers. Whenever you put in new HTML pages, be sure to add the tracking code.

4. Filter out staff traffic

This isn’t much of a problem for large sites that see a huge number of visits, but for smaller or newer sites, your own staff visits and those from web developers can really skew the numbers. The easiest way to get rid of them is to filter traffic out by IP address. It’s pretty simple, but remember that GA’s filters use regular expressions so take care to enter the IP address in a way it can process. Follow the official guidance carefully.

5. Integrate offline information:

If you’re running a print advertising campaign that will be driving people towards your website, set up a special landing page and advertise with that URL rather than your main page. That way you’ll be able to get a better idea of the effectiveness of the offline campaign.

6. Log your changes

The Annotations feature is often neglected but well worth using. By recording when you made changes to the website (new graphics, changed checkout process, etc) you can figure out their impact. GA lets you attached annotations to a timeline so they can be viewed with plotted data. Finding out which changes worked well and which ones didn’t is crucial for long-term improvement.

About the Author
Jess Spate is a web analytics professional and an SEO consultant based in Cardiff, UK.

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