Tools of the Trade: Google Analytics

One of the most critical tools for running any kind of website is analytics. The most popular tool for tracking stats also happens to be free: Google Analytics boasts powerful features that can help you understand your site traffic and determine how to increase the site’s performance.

Basically, analytics tools track visitor activity and help you understand how your site’s being used. Some of the things you can monitor include:

  • the number of visitors your site gets
  • how your visitors find you
  • where your visitors are from
  • how well your site converts (or, in plain language: leads users to complete certain actions, such signing up for a newsletter or purchasing a product)
  • what keywords people search on to find your site

Christopher Butler of Newfangled will dig deeper into the role of analytics in the web design process during the HOW Interactive Design Conference or download his on-demand tutorial: Google Analytics for Designers from

Goals for any site

Not using analytics is like ignoring how much traffic your (hypothetical) restaurant gets. You need to know how many people are peeking at the menu outside and leaving, how many come in for a drink, and how many order a full dinner with dessert. Goal tracking is about understanding how people use your site. On e-commerce sites, the desired goal is clear: You want people to buy stuff. But there are many specific goals you can set for your site—here are some examples:

  • purchasing an item
  • signing up for a newsletter
  • sending a message on the contact page
  • downloading a document
  • registering on the site
  • watching a video
  • visiting a critical page

Most fundamentally, goals are tracked by pageviews. It might be a purchase completion page, or email signup confirmation page. These goals should directly correlate to the business. If the website’s for a service-oriented company, getting people on the contact page and to send a message is your best bet for tracking conversion. Carefully consider the business needs of your client, and from there create trackable goals.

Once you start tracking goals, you’ll be able to track the effectiveness your site in producing conversions. A great example might be written content on the company blog. The content seems to generate traffic and attract visitors, but does it result in more customers? You need to set a goal you can track, such as sending people from the blog to your online store. Some examples of things you can figure out using goals include:

  • Does social media lead to conversions?
  • Does the blog content produce new leads?
  • What type of content produces the most leads?
  • Do white papers and case studies produce new clients?
  • What types of content lead people to join the mailing list?

Goals can transform how you view your own site. Here’s a great in-depth tutorial on setting up Google Analytics Goals and Funnels.

Content monitoring

More Resources

Another feature in Google Analytics (and pretty much any analytics package) is the ability to monitor the use of your content. I realized the importance of this when I first plugged in analytics to a site a decade ago, when I was an internal developer for an IT company. I was surprised to find that the About Us page was the No. 2 most-visited page on the site after the home page. We had assumed most people would want to see our project history or our articles on popular technologies. Nope, people wanted to see who we were.

You never know what people come to your site for until you run the numbers, and the results can be surprising. (I especially love looking at the largest timeframe possible, summing up all the traffic the site’s received in one view.) You will find areas you need to improve, and you can save money by not investing more energy and money in undervisited areas of your site.

And more

If you want to make the most of Google Analytics I suggest you check out Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics by Brian Clifton, who built an entire company on implementing the tool for his clients.

The true power of Google Analytics lies in its ability to inform your design decisions and help you improve performance. If you focus on addressing your client’s needs and measure the results with analytics, your clients will love you. The best part is that you can still design beautiful sites; you’re just adding a layer of strategy to them.

The web is the most trackable medium ever. No other media—radio? newspapers? direct-to-fax marketing?—offer the possibilities of tracking results that the web does, so why not put it to work for you? Besides, did I mention Google Analytics is free? There’s no reason not to try it out.