A Comprehensive Guide to Google Analytics and Understanding Your WordPress Site Traffic

A Comprehensive Guide to Google Analytics and Understanding Your WordPress Site Traffic

Google Analytics is a popular, powerful, and free service you can use to track and analyze your website traffic. If you aren’t already using it, getting started is easy. However, if you’ve never used the program before, it can be a bit intimidating to get started. So let’s fix that.

We’ve covered Google Analytics many times on this blog in the past. Our previous articles can teach you how to make your own Analytics plugin, perform A/B testing, track file downloads, and more. However, if you’re brand new to Analytics, all of that is overkill. So in this article, I’ll introduce you to Google Analytics, explain what it is, show you how to start tracking your WordPress website traffic and give you a crash course in interpreting your website traffic data.

So what exactly is Google Analytics and how to does it work?

A lot of first-time WordPress users get their first taste of website traffic analytics through Jetpack’s stats module. Many web hosts offer WordPress auto-installers that include Jetpack by default. It’s one of the most installed and reviewed plugins in the official WordPress plugin directory.

While Jetpack’s stats module is interesting, it doesn’t provide anywhere near the same level of detailed insight that is available from Google Analytics. Jetpack Stats are great when you’re just getting started or for clients who just want some idea of how many people have visited their website, but once you get serious about tracking user acquisition, conversion, audience characteristics, and other details, you’re going to need an upgrade.

Google Analytics is the obvious upgrade.

screenshot of google analytics website

Getting Started with Analytics

To get started with Google Analytics you need to do three things:

  1. Sign up for a free account,
  2. Create a new web property in your Analytics account, and
  3. Add tracking code to your WordPress website.

All three steps are pretty simple and Google provides solid instructions on how to set up your account and create your first property.

Once you’ve created a property, you need to add the tracking code to your website. Thankfully, with the help of a plugin, adding Google Analytics tracking code to a WordPress website couldn’t be simpler.

Google Analytics Plugins for WordPress

There are lots of ways to add Google Analytics tracking code to your WordPress website. Since you’re reading this article I’m going to assume that you’re a regular reader of our blog and maybe even a WPMU DEV member. If that’s the case, there are two options for you to consider.

screenshot from tutorial on creating a google analytics plugin

Your first option would be to create your own Google Analytics plugin.

Now stay with me, and don’t get intimidated.

If you’ve never created a plugin before, this is a great way to get a look at how plugin creation works while simultaneously creating something genuinely useful. Creating your first WordPress plugin is something of a right-of-passage, so this is a great opportunity to check the box.

Our tutorial, How to Add Google Analytics to WordPress With a Simple Plugin, walks you through the process of creating a Google Analytics plugin from scratch and is simple enough that anyone who reads this blog regularly should be able to follow along without any trouble.

Beehive Google Analytics Dashboard Plugin
Beehive Google Analytics Dashboard Plugin

Another option is to install WPMU DEV’s Free Beehive Google Analytics Dashboard Plugin. This plugin makes it as easy as possible to authenticate your website with your Google account, locate the appropriate tracking code, and add it to your site.

In addition, this plugin provides an overview of key traffic statistics right in your Admin dashboard.

If you’re a WPMU DEV member, you have access to Beehive Pro, so there’s no need to install the free version, and the process is made a lot easier if you install the WPMU DEV Dashboard first.

Of course, maybe you aren’t a member yet or aren’t swayed by our invitation to try out Beehive Pro and all the rest of our plugins, plus access blazing fast hosting with our membership at no cost with our free trial offer.

In this case, here are some of the most popular Google Analytics plugins you can get from the WordPress plugin directory:

  • Google Analytics: This straightforward plugin does the same thing as the plugin you would build by completing our tutorial. It adds Analytics tracking code to your WordPress site but does not include any other features.
  • Google Analytics Master: This plugin makes it easy to add Analytics tracking code and displays a limited set of user-friendly traffic statistics.
  • Google Analytics Dashboard for WP: Another option that makes it easy to add tracking code and displays simplified statistics right on your WordPress admin dashboard.

Regardless of which plugin you select, keep in mind that the richest analytics data is accessed by going straight to the source: your Google Analytics account. While the snapshot of traffic information some of these plugins provide is convenient and nice to have, you’ll ultimately want to get used to accessing the data directly to get the most out of Analytics.

Making Sense of Your Site’s Traffic

Once you have Google Analytics set up on your site you’ll have to wait at least a few days to have enough data to analyze. The first time you do try to analyze your site traffic you may feel a bit overwhelmed trying to take it all in.

Let’s take it one term and step at a time and see if I can shed some light on the detailed data provided by the program.

Where are You Reviewing Your Website Traffic Data?

Some of the plugins mentioned in this last section display a simplified view of the most critical website traffic statistics. For example, if you went with our Google Analytics + plugin and navigate to Dashboard > Statistics you’ll have access to a page that looks something like this.

screenshot of limited data displayed in plugin dashboard

Compared to a lot of the other plugins on the list, this plugin provides quite a bit of data in the dashboard. If you used a different plugin it will display data in a different format, and quite possibly display a lot less data. In any case, while the data displayed in the WordPress admin area is interesting and useful, it is not as rich and detailed as what is available directly from Google Analytics.

If you want to get the most detailed information possible – and I’m sure you do – log into to your Google Analytics account and select All Web Site Data for the website whose traffic you wish to analyze.

Ok, I’ll say it. The Google Analytics dashboard is overwhelming.

There are so many options displayed that if you’re anything like me you may be overwhelmed and have second thoughts about how important this whole analytics thing is. The result of this overload, in my case at least, is that it took me much longer than it should have to learn my way around the Analytics dashboard.

Don’t let that happen to you. Take a breath and keep reading.

How to Set a Date Range

First things first, you need to know how to set the date range for the data you are viewing. The menu used to manipulate the data range is located in the upper right-hand portion of the dashboard and looks like this:

screenshot showing the date range menu

Use this menu to display data for any date range you wish, or to compare data from one date range to data from another date range.

Learn About Your Audience

screenshot of google analytics menu showing the location of the audience overview

Once you’ve set a date range, the next thing you’ll want to do is to learn about your website visitors – or to use Google’s terminology, your website Audience.

To view this information, select Audience > Overview from the menu on the lefthand side of the Analytics interface.

The Audience Overview provides some great information about your website traffic: How many times pages were viewed, how many users accessed your site, and a lot more. However, to make any sense of it, you need to understand Google’s terminology.

Here are the terms you need to understand to get the most out of the Audience Overview report.

  • A Session is a single container of time in which all of a visitor’s actions are grouped. For example, if a visitor views 3 pages over the course of 5 minutes and then leaves, that activity will be logged as one session and three pageviews.
  • A User is any computer that accesses your site that Google identifies as a unique visitor. So if someone views your site on a mobile device and on a tablet, or just in two separate browsers on their laptop, Google Analytics will log the activity as coming from two users.
  • A Pageview is logged every time a user views a page of your site.
  • Pages / Session is a measure of the average number of pageviews during a single session.
  • The first time someone visits your site they are classified as a New Visitor. On each subsequent visit, they are classified as a Returning Visitor.

Once you understand those definitions you’ll be able to better understand the data presented in the Audience Overview. The available data is extremely detailed.

Comparing Data to Spot Trends

The graph that appears at the top of the Audience report is a great tool for comparing traffic metrics. Take the following chart for example:

screenshot of charted data from google analytics

This data is from a niche website I own. Here’s how I created this chart:

  • I stretched the date range to include several months of traffic.
  • Then I used the drop-down boxes on the left to display both Pageviews and Users at the same time.
  • Finally, I used the boxes on the right to group data sets into months.

Displaying two metrics at the same time can make it easier to spot relationships between data.

Something that I notice by looking at this chart is that something changed between December 2015 and January of 2016. Throughout 2015, the number of Users and Pageviews was very steady. However, that changed in January of 2016. At that point, both metrics began to climb, but the number of Pageviews grew more rapidly than the number of Users. This suggests that the number of Pages / Session must have increased in January, a suggestion which is confirmed by taking a look at the Pages / Session metric.

However, towards the end of the chart, the Users and Pageviews metrics are coming closer together. Which suggests that Pages / Session is going back down. Once again, this is confirmed by a look at the Pages / Session metric.

What does this data tell me? It just so happens that in late December I launched a redesign of this site and bulked it up with a lot of new content. The data suggests that either the redesign or the new content was pretty effective in getting visitors to view additional pages. However, since the Pages / Session metric is now dropping back down, the data seems to be suggesting that it was the freshness of the content that was boosting the number of Pages / Session.

While I might have been able to figure that out by just looking at the raw data, using the graph to view multiple metrics simultaneously makes it a lot easier to spot relationships between the data sets.

Breaking Down Audience Metrics

Just for practice sake, let’s take a look at some additional data to see what we can learn from it.

The following data was generated by using the date range menu to compare data from two date ranges: July 1, 2015 – August 1, 2015, and Apri 22, 2016 – May 22, 2016. You can see a similar data set just below the chart in the Audience Overview report.

screenshot of audience data from google analytics

Here’s what this data means:

  • The first box tells us that the total number of sessions increased from 1,174 to 2,947.
  • A similar increase is seen in the number of Users: 1,059 to 2,558 users.
  • Pageviews increased at a slightly faster clip, which is a good sign suggesting that each user is viewing more pages now than they did last year.
  • This is confirmed by the increase in the Pages / Session metric.
  • The Average Session Duration has also increased considerably, and
  • The Bounce Rate has gone down by about 5%.
  • Finally, we see that the percentage of New Sessions has gone done a little bit, but this is actually good news. It means that nearly 6% more users are returning to the site for repeat visits than did in the earlier date range.

So what did we learn from this data? Well, all of the metrics for this site are moving in the right direction. However, there are still some things that need to improve.

  • First, 1:44 Average Session Duration is not long enough for this particular site. That metric needs to be above 2 minutes.
  • Second, the Bounce Rate could use some work. I’d really like to see Bounce Rate down under 70%.
  • Finally, the number of Pages / Session should be solidly in 2+ territory.

After reviewing this data I can see that I need to do a better job of recommending related content to site visitors, and I need to do so higher on the page since it doesn’t appear that visitors are spending enough time on each page to get all the way to the bottom of most pages where related content is currently plugged.

This is a very quick breakdown of the sort of actionable information you can glean from Google Analytics data. Reviewing Analytics data regularly will help you catch patterns and come up with plans for improving the performance of your site.

Audience Demographics

The Audience report contains a lot more than just the number of Sessions, Users, and Pageviews.

By scrolling down below the first block of data you can see additional detailed information about your audience including demographic information such as language and country, system information such as operating system and browser, and information about the types of mobile devices that accessed your site.

If you want to drill even deeper into your site’s data, go back to the left-hand menu and take a look at some of the other submenus available in the Audience category.

Devices and Browsers Used to Access Your Site

Two particularly interesting pieces of information you can see by drilling down into the Audience reports are the mobile usage trends and software trends at play in your audience. To access this information, go to Audience > Mobile > Overview or Audience > Technology > Browser & OS.

Use a comparison date range to see how quickly your site visitors are transitioning to mobile devices.

screenshot showing number of users on mobile devices

In the case of this particular site, the transition isn’t very pronounced. In the earlier date range 24.31% of visitors were using mobile devices and today approximately 26.33% of users are on mobile devices. While that is a change, it isn’t too shocking. However, considering that a quarter of this site’s users are on mobile devices, it’s pretty important that this site provides a very good mobile experience.

The browser and operating system information is primarily useful because it lets you know which browsers you need to pay the most attention to. However, when you first view the Browser report, which can be found at Technology > Browser & OS, you are just shown the generic names of the browsers: Chrome, Internet Explorer, Safari, and so forth. To see detailed data about specific browser version, click on one of the browser names.

By clicking on Internet Explorer you’ll see how many users are on IE 11 versus IE 10, IE 9, and earlier versions of Internet Explorer.

What Are Your Best-Performing Pages?

screenshot of top pages in google analytics

Most websites get the majority of their traffic from just a couple of really popular pages. To find out which pages of your site are driving the most traffic, scroll down in the left-hand menu until you see Behavior–you’re not looking for Audience > Behavior right now, so if you see that just keep scrolling.

From the Behavior menu, select Site Content > All Pages.

In the case of the site data you see in the picture, the top four pages–out of a total of 108 pages–account for almost 50% of all website traffic. That makes those pages pretty critical to the success of this particular site and worth spending a lot of time optimizing!

Where Do Your Visitors Come From?

To find out where your website traffic comes from, navigate to Acquisition > Overview. To get the full value out of this part of Google Analytics you’ll want to sign up for Google Search Console (previously known as Google Webmaster Tools). However, even without signing up for Search Console you can learn quite a bit about where your traffic comes from.

Are You Reaching Your Goals?

With a little more study and configuration, you can even use Google Analytics to track how well your site is converting visitors to meet specific goals. For instance, you can track how frequently users sign up for a newsletter or what percentage of visitors play a specific video while visiting your site.

Setting up goals and tracking performance is an advanced topic, but if you’re serious about using Google Analytics to its full potential head to Conversions > Goals > Overview to set up your first goal and start tracking conversions.

Learn More About Google Analytics

Google Analytics expertise is valuable. Whether you want to use that expertise to do a better job running your own WordPress websites or to increase your value as an employee is up to you. In either case, Google has done a good job of making training information available to those who are interested. To learn more about Analytics, check out these resources.

  • Google Analytics Academy: If you really want to learn Analytics, these free courses from Google cover a lot more than just the basics.
  • Get started with Analytics: A great resource if you prefer to learn as you go, but want to have somewhere to go to find quick answers.

Setting up Analytics takes a little doing, and learning how to understand your website traffic takes time and study. However, the payoff for mastering Google Analytics is well worth the effort.

If you're new to Analytics, what sort of value do you hope to get out of the program? If you're already an Analytics pro, what are some insights you gained by using Analytics?

Jon Penland

Jon Penland Jon manages operations for Kinsta, a managed WordPress hosting provider. He enjoys hiking and adventuring in northeast Georgia with his wife and kids when he isn't figuring out the ins and outs of supporting WordPress-powered businesses.