Posted: June 18, 2018
Wouldn’t it be great if you could read the minds of all the visitors to your website? If you could know what interests them? If you could figure out what part of your website is turning them off or which pages are encouraging them to engage with your higher ed institution? You can. Google Analytics lets you do just that — and more.
Wait. Did I just hear you groan? Does the word ‘analytics’ instantly make you want to run like Forrest Gump? It’s not an uncommon reaction.
But there’s an excellent reason to stop running: Mastering analytics, specifically Google Analytics, is the key to successful marketing for a higher ed institution.
By understanding and using the knowledge gained through Google Analytics, you can learn much more about how people interact with your website and how effective your marketing initiatives are. You can get insight into who is looking at your institution, why they are looking, what they are looking at (or not) and even where they began their search. Analytics are key to developing an actionable strategy: they fuel data-driven decision making, allow you to see where resources should be invested and help you determine the ROI of any marketing initiative. Analytics shine a light on whether your goals, strategies and tactics are working together and as effectively as they could be. What’s not to love?
In reality, there are a lot of barriers that can keep you from accessing the power of analytics and tempt you to run whenever you see a Google dashboard. The always-evolving nature of Google, a lack of understanding of terminology and concepts, maybe even a misconception that you are just not cut out for numbers — any of these reasons (or all of them) can keep you from using a very powerful tool. And that can make the difference between successful marketing or just a stab in the dark.
It’s true that analytics have their own language. And it’s also true that understanding advanced analytics is not something you are going to accomplish overnight. But you need to start somewhere. Understanding the vocabulary of Google Analytics is a great first step.
This blog will give you a foundation for understanding the terminology that is used in web analytics. Mastery of the terminology and other concepts takes time and practice. Keep this blog post as a handy reminder and refer to it whenever you have questions about the meaning and application of analytics terms you may encounter.
We’ve included some of the most important and common terms. Although these terms are not higher education-specific, knowing the benchmark vocabulary of Google Analytics is going to be essential to understanding higher-ed marketing in a deeper way.
Time to Learn the Language: Metric versus Dimension
In God we trust,
all others must bring data.
W. Edwards Deming
When it comes to analytics, two terms are especially important: metric and dimension.
A metric is a quantitative measurement. For example, the metric "users" indicates the number of website users. The metric "bounce rate" is used to indicate the percentage of sessions that contain only one pageview on the website before exiting.
Metric and Google Analytics
We'll begin with the vocabulary of metrics. Here are some essential website metric terms you need to understand to master Google Analytics.
A user is someone who visits a website. In Google Analytics, a user is identified based on a specific browser cookie. (A cookie is a little data file sent from a website and stored on a user's computer by the browser; it’s like a digital ID badge. The same person visiting from two browsers is considered as one user or browser cookie.)
When a user visits your website, that’s considered a session. A session is defined by Google as, “a container for the actions a user takes on your site” within a given time frame. These actions could include, for instance, submitting a form, clicking to other pages, watching a video, or downloading content. If the same user (browser cookie) makes a future visit to your website, that’s considered a new session, but not a new user.
Like any other visit, sessions don’t last forever. Generally, a session expires after 30 minutes of inactivity, at midnight, or after a user re-enters the website through a different link that has tracking parameters. (Google, however, lets you adjust the time limit so that a session lasts anywhere from a few seconds to even several hours.)
Let’s do some session math. For instance, say a visitor comes to your website and pokes around for 25 minutes. He leaves to go grab some lunch and returns 38 minutes later. That’s considered two sessions because there have been more than 30 minutes of inactivity. Another user arrives at your website, stays 10 minutes and then leaves. She returns 10 minutes later to look around some more. That counts as one session because she is still within that 30-minute window of activity.
What happens when two browsers are involved? The session math changes. For instance, a user arrives at your website using the Firefox browser and stays 8 minutes. The same user then gets on his Chrome browser and spends 22 minutes on your website. In this case, it’s counted as two users and two sessions — each user or browser cookie, represents a single session.
Pageviews are defined as the total number of pages that are visited during a session. You’ll also hear it referred to as the number of times a page is loaded by a user’s browser.
Unique pageviews counts each page only once. For example, if a user visits the home page, the admissions page, a program page, and returns to the admissions page during a single session, it will be counted as three unique pageviews. Specifically, the admissions page would only be counted once (hence, unique) in that example.
A bounce is defined as a single page session. It indicates that a user exits a website from the same page through which they entered, and did not visit another page or interact with the website. That could be because a user is looking for very specific information and found it. The flip side is that it can also indicate that the content is irrelevant and did not engage the user’s interest, or that a website page is not loading fast enough, or even that the aesthetic experience is not pleasing.
The bounce rate is the percentage of sessions that include single page visits. The goal is to maintain a low bounce rate to ensure that users visit multiple pages and interact with your website. You want to grab a user’s interest and keep them awhile. That said, bounce rate on its own won’t give you the most accurate view of user engagement; it should be considered along with other metrics like average session duration and pages visited to get a clearer picture of overall user engagement and interest in your website content.
Average Session Duration
Average session duration is the average amount of time a user spends on the website (excluding the time spent on the last page).
Average Time on Page
Average time on page is the average amount of time a user spends on a particular page, excluding the sessions that exited from that page. Why exclude exit pages? For a very good reason: on an exit page, there’s no further engagement (a click to another page on your website), so Google doesn’t get the timestamp necessary to measure the amount of time spent on the exit page. So, for the sake of more accurate measurement, Google removes exit page visits from the time on page calculation.
The entrances metric shows the number of sessions that began on a specific page, for instance, your homepage. Why is something like this important? If you have a high bounce rate for a particular entrance, like your homepage, it means people are coming in but not going anywhere else on your website. That could indicate that your homepage isn’t compelling or relevant enough to engage their interest, or that it’s not loading quickly enough and it needs some work.
The exits metric shows the number of sessions that ended on a specific page. For instance, a valuable exit is through a “Thank you” page form because that’s an indication that your user successfully completed whatever action you wanted them to take.
Pages per Session
Pages/Session is the average number of pages that a user visits during their session. If your goal is for a user to visit a lot of different pages during a session, a high number for this metric is a good result. One caveat, though: a high number of pages per session can also signal user confusion — a user can’t find what they need and they are looking all over the place for it. A thorough analysis of this metric will also take into account the goals you have defined for user action.
Google allows you to put a certain value on specific user actions so you can track them, for instance, you could define goals for brochure downloads, program applications, or video views if you want to measure the performance of those types of content. A goal completion is the number of times users completed a specific action that has been designated a goal within Google Analytics. Note that if a user completed the action multiple times, each will be counted as a separate goal completion.
Goal Conversion Rate
The goal conversion rate is the percentage of goals completed during user sessions. As we mentioned above, these goals can be any activity that is important to you, whether that’s a newsletter sign-up, a download of an e-book or a purchase on an e-commerce site. The formula for goal conversion rate is:
Number of times a goal is completed/ Number of sessions (user visits)
For instance, say you have a landing page on your website with a goal of getting users to fill out a form for email newsletter subscriptions. Seventy-five users sign up in 350 sessions — if you do the math, that means you have a goal conversion rate of 21%. There’s no one-size-fits-all benchmark when it comes to conversion rate. The rate will vary according to the specific goal you are setting, your industry, or just what it is you are tracking (for instance, downloads of an ebook or a paid social advertising campaign on Facebook).
Page Load Time
Page load time measures the site speed for particular pages. It states how long (in milliseconds) it takes for the pages to load. Speed really matters. Page speed is one of the factors that the Google algorithm takes into account to rank pages. It’s also critical to delivering a good user experience — your website users simply won’t stick around if your pages take too long to load. Google research shows that the longer the load time, the higher the bounce rate. In fact, if a page load time goes up from one second to three seconds, Google found that the probability of a user bouncing increases 32%. An increase in load time from one second to six seconds raises your bounce probability to 106%!
Dimension and Google Analytics
It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man's fears and the summit of his knowledge.
The Twilight Zone
Fortunately, understanding dimension in the context of Google Analytics is much less intimidating than a trip through the dimension of the Twilight Zone. You’ve already learned that a metric is a quantitative measurement. When it comes to analytics, a dimension is an attribute or characteristic. It essentially describes something.
For example, the dimension "browser" is used to describe the type of website browser, such as “Firefox” or “Chrome,” a user employs to visit your website. The "city" dimension describes the geographical city (“Boston” or “Chicago,” for example) from which a user initiates a session on a website.
Let’s tackle the vocabulary you will need to understand dimension.
The term medium indicates the marketing channel from which a user visits the website. This includes direct, referral, organic, social media and other channels. By the way, in digital marketing “organic” doesn’t have anything to do with product purity; it means the traffic (users) that comes to your site naturally (for instance, as a result of a web search, instead of through paid advertising).
The source is the specific marketing source from which a user visits the website. Think of it this way: the medium is the category where a source resides. For example, if a user comes from the organic medium, the source could be listed as Google or Bing, indicating the result of a query from that specific search engine.
Campaign dimension refers to a marketing campaign that drove a user to visit the website. In Google Analytics, you use campaign tracking to accurately track the performance of digital advertising campaigns to your website, whether from AdWords or another source such as paid social media advertising.
The keyword is the query that a user typed into a search engine to get to the website (e.g., “what’s the best college in Missouri” or “how to choose a degree”). Unfortunately for marketers, to protect user privacy, Google is encrypting all organic (non-paid) searches; this means every organic search shows as (not provided) in your Google Analytics. They are still providing the data for paid searches (Google AdWords). And it’s likely that this focus on privacy will only grow over time as the result of measures like the EU’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). (VisionPoint Marketing provides keyword research, analysis and SEO optimization services, so we can help you with this!)
If you want to learn more about the importance of SEO and keywords, check out this blog post.)
The content dimension is specified to differentiate links within a marketing campaign. For instance, if you have a video link and a text link in one email, you can use different content labels to track which one performs better. You can use content labels to test which marketing effort is working better: for instance, you could split test ads using different headlines, calls to action, or photos to see which one drives more traffic.
A page is a particular page URI (e.g.,“/admissions”) that a user visits. A URI (Uniform Resource Identifier), is a sequence of characters that identify a resource. A URL (Uniform Resource Locator) is a type of URI, which in addition to identifying a resource, is used to locate the resource. Basically, the URI contains everything after the domain and the URL contains everything including the domain.
The easiest way to understand this is to look in your browser address bar right now; you’ll see the URL of this blog post.
A landing page is a specific page through which a user enters the website. Any tracked page on your website could potentially be a landing page if a user enters through that page. Tracking landing pages helps you determine which points of entry may be most effective for your website. In Google Analytics, the landing page dimension is used (primarily) for the landing page report or as a secondary dimension in other reports.
Google Analytics provides several geographical dimensions so you can track where your website visitors are originating geographically. The country dimension is the geographic country from which a user visits the website.
The region is the geographic state or province from which a user visits the website. The values for all these geographical dimensions are automatically derived from a user’s IP address, although Google also gives you an option to create your own custom region to help you track a specific area that might be of interest.
This one's easy! The city is the geographic city from which a user visits the website.
This term refers to the internet browser that a visitor uses to access the website. Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Internet Explorer are all examples of frequently used browsers.
The device category will specify if a user accesses the website through a desktop, tablet or mobile device. Increasingly, users are turning to mobile to access digital content. It has become critically important to be aware of user device because you want to make sure your content is accessible, aesthetically pleasing and responsive for all your users, whatever device they may prefer.
The user type denotes whether the user is a new (first-time) visitor or a returning visitor to the website. This can be helpful for assessing your website’s “stickiness” factor, in other words, how engaging your site is.
The service provider is the internet service provider through which a website user accesses the website. This can be helpful when segmenting internal vs. external website users, for example, when you want to differentiate the traffic that is coming from your staff vs. the traffic coming from the external audiences you want to reach.
That’s the First Lesson Learned
Now that you have a basic understanding of the vocabulary, remember that no one piece of data is enough to give you a true measure of the performance of your site or content. Context is key, and relying on any one measurement to tell the story can result in a very skewed perception. The data all work together like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle to give you a bigger and more accurate picture of what you are doing right and what can use some improvement.
But once you understand the basics, you’ll be better equipped to take your analytics education to the next level and more deeply understand user behavior and page level analysis. Stay tuned to our blog; we’ll be exploring additional topics to help you learn more about the benefits of analytics in higher ed marketing. You may even find yourself running toward your analytics dashboard instead of away from it!
VisionPoint Marketing has extensive experience in higher education consulting, digital analytics, and developing integrated marketing plans for higher ed organizations. If you have questions about digital marketing or want to start a conversation about how we can help, please visit our website or reach out to our team. We’re on a mission to help higher ed institutions succeed.