November 08 2021

10 Tips for Maximizing your Google Analytics for Beginners

Google Analytics has become the most popular way to track website activity since it first debuted in 2005. By some accounts, more than half of the most visited sites on the web are using Google Analytics to monitor where their visitors are coming from and what they’re engaging with. There are many ways to customize your Google Analytics data such as tracking events, establishing conversions and logging custom dimensions, but not everyone has the time or resources to do that custom setup.

1.Filtering Internal IP Addresses

It’s frequently asked how much of a website’s traffic is made up of employee visits. Some companies or institutions may have the public-facing website set as the default homepage, or the website might house important documentation needed for employees to do their jobs. Whatever the case may be, filtering out internal IP addresses is relatively easy to accomplish - even for analytics beginners.

First, you should always have an Unfiltered View of your data if you’re going to being removing any visits via a filter. If you only have one View in your Google Analytics property you can add another simply by clicking +View  at the top of that column in your GA Admin settings. We recommend applying the IP filter to the existing View that has historical data in it, and having the new View be your Unfiltered View.

  1. Click Filters under the View column in Google Analytics Admin Settings

  2. Click the red Add Filter button

  3. Choose Create New Filter

    1. Call it “Exclude Internal IP”

    2. From the dropdowns choose ‘Predefined’ instead of ‘Custom’ Filter

    3. Choose ‘Exclude’ ‘Traffic from the IP Addresses’ ‘that are equal to’

    4. Paste in your IP address

  4. You can do this for multiple IP addresses as needed

You can compare data in your filtered View moving forward against the new Unfiltered View to see how internal traffic affects the overall site data. Generally when viewing reports, you will want to refer to the View that doesn’t include internal IP addresses.

google analytics add filter to view

2.Tracking Popular On-Site Searches

Monitoring on-site search is a great way to understand the content that is most important to your website visitors, but isn’t front and center when the site loads. Luckily, Google Analytics makes it easy to set up reporting to see what your top searched queries are on your website. Many people don’t know that this doesn’t just happen automatically, and may be disappointed that there isn’t data in the Search Queries report. Since every content management system tracks site search differently this is something that needs to be customized for your site. When search results are shown, a unique query string appears in the URL (i.e. an on-site search for “customer service” takes you to /search-results?searchtext=careers). You will want to follow the steps below to tell Google what constitutes a search on your site:google analytics search results url
google analytics site search

  1. Click View Settings under the View column in Google Analytics Admin Settings

  2. Under Site Search Tracking change the indicator to ON

  3. Under ‘Query parameter’ enter the string that is added to the URL after the question mark (you don’t need the question mark or the equals sign) 

google analytics search terms
Once the above steps are taken, it might take a day or so for the information to populate in Google Analytics, so be patient. However, if your website has been live for years without site search enabled or you’re just impatient, you can still see what users were searching. Just look at your Top Pages report under Behavior > Site Content and search for pages with the query string shown in the URL for search results.

3. Enable Additional Helpful Reports

While Google Analytics has dozens of reports that show you where your traffic is arriving from and which pages they’re viewing, you might be surprised to know that there are additional reports you can unlock that give you even more insight. If you agree to their terms and conditions, you can enable benchmark reports that show how your website traffic compares to similar websites, observe demographic and interest-based behavioral trends, and see how users visit your website across multiple devices.

Benchmark data becomes available when you opt in to share your Google Analytics data for other websites to use. Note that this data is anonymous, so your competition won’t know exactly how your traffic breaks down.

  1. Click on Account Settings in the Google Analytics Admin settings

  2. Check the Benchmarking box under Data Sharing Settings

    1. If you don’t have full admin access to the Account, someone at a higher level will need to enable this

  3. View Benchmark data under Audience > Benchmarking 
    google analytics benchmarking
    google analytics channel grouping

Demographic and interest-based reports are unlocked in a similarly easy fashion, but aren’t enabled by default.

  1. Click on Property Settings in the Google Analytics Admin settings

  2. Under ‘Advertising Features – Enable Demographics and Interest Reports’ change the indicator to On

  3. View Demographic Reports under Audience > Demographics and Interests 
    google analytics demographics interest
    google analytics demographics report

It can be helpful to understand how visitors access your site across multiple devices, since by default someone visiting on mobile and desktop would be counted as two separate users. Activating Google Signals reporting unlocks new reports that track users who are logged into the same Google account on multiple devices, and displays visits by device overlap. If you’re using Google Ads and are taking advantage of Location Extensions this will also unlock Store Visits which show how website sessions can lead to visits to your physical locations.

  1. Click on Audience > Cross Device > Device Overlap in the left hand navigation of Google Analytics

  2. You’ll be given information about Google Signals, with the option to click Continue to enable 
    google signals google analytics
    google analytics device breakdown
    google analytics channel grouping

Many of these reports won’t show historical data, meaning you’ll need to wait for metrics to populate before you can start using them.

4. Exclude High-Referral Traffic Sources

Google Analytics is great at showing you the traffic source of your website visits. Whether it’s someone arriving via a popular search engine, or clicking to your website from a social media platform, you can compare the quantity and quality of that traffic. Two of the top drivers of traffic for most websites are Direct Traffic and Organic Search.

  • Direct traffic refers to any visits where Google Analytics can’t tell where the user is being referred from. Typically this is understood as being people manually typing in your domain or clicking a bookmark, but could also be someone who arrived from an encrypted third-party app or website.
  • Organic Search refers to any visit that resulted from an unpaid (organic) click on a search engine like Google, Yahoo or Bing.

Another top driver of visits for some websites is Referrals. This is any traffic where Google Analytics can see that the visitor clicked a link from a third-party site and that site wasn’t a search engine or social media platform. If your user experience relies on another website for account access or ecommerce, this other website might make up a large chunk of your overall website traffic. Google Analytics gives you the ability to set certain domains as Referral Exclusions, meaning that instead of seeing in your reporting these visits will show as Direct. If a visitor leaves your website to log into this third-party and then is brought back to your website after their transaction is complete, they will be counted as part of the original session instead of a new visit which is a referral.

  1. Click on Tracking Info under the Property column in your Admin settings

  2. Click Referral Exclusion List

  3. Click +Add Referral Exclusion

  4. Enter the domain you’d like to exclude from showing as a referral

    1. Note that this will include any subdomains, so entering will also exclude and 

google analytics referral exclusion
After adding a Referral Exclusion you may continue to see these domains show up as referrals in your Google Analytics traffic. Visits will still be attributed to this traffic source until a user either clears their cookies or arrives on the site from another non-Direct traffic source.

5.Link to Your Other Google Platforms

Using Google Analytics is a great way to observe traffic patterns on your website, but it’s not the only tool in Google’s arsenal. You can get more detail on your organic performance using Google Search Console (formerly Webmaster Tools) and you can manage and monitor your paid search campaigns using Google Ads (formerly AdWords). Both of these platforms will give you information related to how your website is showing up in the organic and paid results on the Search Engine Results Page, and by linking these platforms to your Google Analytics you can see even more.

Linking these platforms to Google Analytics gives you more insight into the overall visitor journey and ideally ROI, both off and on your website, and as long as you have admin rights to them it’s easy to connect them.

  1. Click on All Products under Product Linking in the Property column of Admin settings

  2. Click the Link button under the platform you’d like to link 
    google ads google analytics

    google ads search query google analytics

While you won’t be able to see historical data, this will unlock new reports moving forward which provide meaningful search data. For organic searches you can now access reporting under Acquisition > Search Console which shows specific queries and how many impressions and clicks they received, as well as the average position of an organic listing on the search engine result page (SERP). For paid search you can now access reports under Acquisition > Google Ads which shows metrics broken out by campaign, keyword and search query, which can help you optimize ongoing campaigns based on the quality of website traffic you’re receiving.

6.Create Custom Audience Segments

Google Analytics can be overwhelming, especially if you’re trying to answer very specific questions based on website data. You might be looking for engagement with a specific campaign, or interest over time related to a certain product you offer. Google Analytics allows us to use built-in audiences, as well as create custom audiences, based on user actions and attributes. This makes it easier to get more detailed information about a very specific audience. When you look at reports in Google Analytics, you’re looking at the default Segment of All Users. If you’ve noticed a blue circle at the top of your reports, that is indicating you’re seeing 100% of pageviews, sessions or events. Clicking where it says All Users, or clicking +Add Segment allows you to either choose from the list of built-in System segments or create a +New Segment.

System segments includes many high-level audiences that you might want to view on their own. This includes Mobile visitors, Organic Search visitors, Non-bounce sessions and New Users. Without any additional setup you can select up to 4 segments at a time to compare how different audiences interact with your website. You may want to compare Bounces vs Non-Bounces, Direct vs Organic, or New vs Returning to see how these audiences differ. Using system segments allows you to easily see comparisons in almost every report in Google Analytics.
 google analytics segment
google analytics segment reporting

Building custom segments requires a few additional steps but only requires that you can identify the common actions or attributes that you want to include in your audience. In the custom segment builder, you have the option to include or exclude values from every Dimension available in Google Analytics.

  • This means you could create a segment showing Users on Apple devices by creating a rule where “Mobile Device Branding contains Apple”.
  • You could create a segment showing Sessions where a visitor viewed your /contest page by creating a rule where “Page contains /contest”.
  • If you have a form on that page which takes users to a /thank-you URL, you can create a segment showing Sessions where a user saw the page but didn’t convert by creating rules where you include “Page contains /contest” and exclude “Page contains /thank-you”.
  • Google Analytics allows you to create up to 100 segments within a View, so you’ve got plenty of room to break out different audiences.
google analytics segment conditions

7.Remove Query Strings From Showing in URLs

If you’ve ever looked at a report showing your top pages in Google Analytics, you may notice that some pages show up multiple times due to query strings being added. When someone clicks from Facebook for example, the string ?fbclid= gets added to the end of the URL. Often this shows up with a unique identifier for every click from Facebook which can make your reports overwhelming if you’re getting a lot of these clicks. There are other platforms that add query strings to URLs, as well as on-site elements that might be adding query strings to your pages, all of which will add another variation of your page in reports.

Google Analytics admin settings has an area where you can choose which query strings you want to exclude from reporting. For example, if you exclude the string ‘fbclid’, then the page /contest?fbclid=12345 will just show as /contest. One easy way to find all of the query strings is to look at your Behavior > Site Content > All Pages report and search for “Page contains ?” which will return any page captured by GA that has a query string in it.

To exclude these query strings:

  1. Click on View Settings under the View column in your admin settings

  2. In the ‘Exclude URL Query Parameters’ box, enter a comma separated list of the queries you want to exclude. Do not include the question mark or equals sign. 
    exclude query parameters google analytics

Moving forward, this portion of the URL will no longer be captured. Since this is set at the View level, the query strings will need to be manually added to any additional Views if you want them to be reflected there as well. If you are using multiple Views, we recommend not filtering query strings on your Unfiltered View.

8.Add Annotations To Identify Major Website Changes

Your website undergoes many changes over its lifetime. You may add a new section of content which would increase the number of pages a visitor could view. You might launch a mobile app which reduces the amount of mobile website traffic you’re receiving. Or, you could kick off a large digital marketing initiative that causes a spike in views to a specific product page. If someone is looking at your data without the context of these changes, it can be confusing why your data sees sudden shifts upwards or downwards. Thankfully Google Analytics allows you to add annotations aligned with specific dates which can help explain why these changes happened.

  1. Click on Annotations under the View column in your admin settings

  2. Click New Annotation

  3. Select the appropriate date and add text indicating the change that was made 
    annotation google analytics

An annotation can be Shared, meaning anyone accessing your Google Analytics can see them, or Private, meaning only the person who added them can see them. Once added, you will see annotations in an expandable dropdown below the time series charts in Google Analytics. 
shared annotation google analytics

9.Create Custom Alerts to Monitor Changes in Traffic

Google Analytics might not be something you’re checking every day, but sometimes there are issues that require immediate attention. Someone could have made a website update and accidentally removed your tracking code. Or maybe one of your digital marketing campaigns stops running and traffic stops flowing to a promoted page. If you’re infrequently viewing your data, it could be weeks before you’re even aware there’s anything wrong. Thankfully, Google Analytics lets you set Custom Alerts that send an automated email based on rules you set. This means you can set an alert to email you if overall Pageviews drop a certain percentage from one day to the next.
custom alert google analytics

While you can’t set an alert for a specific page, you can create an alert for a Segment like those we discussed earlier. If you create a Custom Segment that includes Sessions where a promoted page is viewed, or traffic from a specific campaign. 

  1. Click on Custom Alerts under the View column in your admin settings

  2. Click New Alert

  3. Example: Alert me when Sessions decrease by more than 90% compared to the previous day
    sample custom alert google analytics

These alerts can be set to go to multiple email addresses, allowing for the appropriate team member to investigate and fix whatever issue caused the alert.

10.Track Important Actions as Conversions

Even if you’re driving a large quantity of traffic to your website it can be difficult to understand the quality of those visits. While qualitative metrics like Bounce Rate, Average Session Duration and Pages per Session can give you an idea of how your website is performing, they don’t give you any information on how visitors are engaging with key touchpoints on your website. Thankfully Google Analytics allows you to create up to twenty custom Goals per View that let you know when important actions are taken.

While Google Analytics lets you create Goals based on the duration of time a visitor stays on your website, or the number of pages they view during a visit, we recommend you focus the creation of Goals more on specific pages viewed or events triggered on your website. When creating a Goal based on a Destination, you can tell Google Analytics to track a conversion every time a specific page is seen. This works best when a visitor is taken to a specific page after a form is filled, such as /contest-confirmation after completing the form on /contest. You would not want to set /contest as the Destination Goal URL, as a conversion would be counted whether the KPI was triggered or not.

  1. Click Goals under the View column in your admin settings

  2. Click New Goal, select a template or choose Custom

  3. Name your Goal and choose Destination

  4. Enter the URL that should trigger your Goal (do not include the domain) 
    google analytics goal setup
    google analytics goal details

Event-based Goals are more advanced and require some additional setup, but are very helpful in understanding engagement. An Event in Google Analytics is any custom interaction you record that isn’t a pageview. This could be clicks to a third-party website, interactions with homepage promotions, downloads of PDFs or views of embedded videos. While none of these are tracked by default in Google Analytics, adding this customization will allow for much more meaningful Goals to be created. 
google analytics event based goals

Ready to upgrade your Google Analytics strategy?

The tips we’ve outlined above are just some of the ways you can improve your overall understanding of your website traffic. Tracking interactions as events, following visitors across multiple domains and building custom interactive reporting are some additional ways we’ve helped our clients enhance their analytics knowledge. If you’re ready to take the next step in upgrading your analytics strategy and your general understanding of Google Analytics, contact us to discuss specific opportunities that can take you from the beginner to the advanced level of tracking the visitor journey.

  • Analytics
  • Website

posted by
Patrick Trayes
Patrick Trayes
Associate Director of Client Analytics

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.
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