When I first started blogging, I had no idea what I was doing.
My background is in database development, and I have next to no web development experience. I actually thought that I had to write HTML code for every blog post I was going to do. This was what deterred me from getting into blogging earlier.
Another major deterrent was the nagging question in the back of my head: “How will I even know if I'm doing it right?”. After all, it's not like a blog about a guy standing in a cow pasture with a telescope is going to draw the crowds that the latest celebrity gossip blog tends to draw.
There has to be a way to track user hits. As it turns out, there is an incredibly powerful set of free tools provided by Google that allow you to do so much more than track website hits. I'm talking about Google Analytics.
Google Analytics provides you with all the fat juicy details about everyone who browses your website.
- Do you want to know how many people are visiting you each day?
- How about how many of those users are using Google Chrome versus Microsoft Internet Explorer?
- Have you ever wanted to know how long someone using an iPhone stays on your site before exiting?
- Do you think it would help you made layout decisions if you knew which pages your readers landed on, and then browsed to?
If you answered “Yes”, or even “Maybe” to any of those questions, you need to use Google Analytics.
Setting up Google analytics is very easy and straight forward. There are dozens of sites out there that can do a better job of showing you how to start using the analytics than I ever could. Do a Google search for “Setup Google Analytics” and any of the results on the first page will give you all the info you would ever need.
Instead, let me tell you my story about how I used the tools within Google Analytics to make some pretty important decisions early on that quite literally changed the game for me.
Once upon a time…
When I started my blog back in August of 2014, I was on the blogger platform. I turned Google Analytics on after my first few weeks and found the Users Flow tool found in the Audience tool box most handy at first.
I made several layout changes the first few weeks, and noticed my bounce rate went from 90% to the 50% range. Knowing which pages lead to other pages and how my readers were using the links to find content allowed me to build a more intuitive layout.
Another feature I found very useful was the percentage of new sessions versus returning sessions. I was curious to know if people were stopping by and reading my content, and then never returning. As I produced more content and linked it out on social media, I found that my new visitor versus returning visitor rate was about 60%/40% respectively.
I also saw a growth in the number of sessions each week. This growth over time was validation that I was gaining a bigger reach. Seeing the ratio of new versus returning users change was validation that my readers were coming back to see what was new.
When you're just starting out and you feel like a little island in the whole sea of information, knowing that a reader comes back is a reassurance that you cannot put a price on.
Knowledge is power!
As many of us know, and I was about to find out, Google likes to rank our pages based on loading speed. Google Analytics provides us with a suite of tools called Site Speed. Here, your pages are listed with useful information, such as page views, Average page load time, page speed suggestions, and page speed score.
These last two items come directly from Google Page Speed Insights. In fact, from this tool, you can open up the page speed insights for that page directly! No more need to go and copy/paste the URLs into a separate browser window.
I've since decided that I should move off of the Blogger platform, and went with a hosted WordPress account. My decision for doing this was largely influenced by data I gleaned from my Google Analytics, particularly the Site Speed tools.
Since using these tools, I noticed that my page loading times and page speed scores were below where I wanted them on the blogger platform. My highest page speed score was in the 60's and average page load time in seconds was approaching 8 seconds for that page.
I knew that I could get better with WordPress on a self-hosted site. I was correct. I now enjoy less than 1 second page load speeds, and my page speed scores are in the high 80's through mid 90's depending on the number of images I used.
And for the first time, I'm getting clicks from Google search result pages! This is where the money is. Ranking high in a Google search result and not having to pay for it is the best exposure you can hope to get.
As your blog grows, and more people start clicking through and browsing your blog, the likelihood of your content being shared or linked to will increase. That translates into free advertising, and it doesn't get much sweeter than that!
These tools are the tools any new blogger should focus on first. I cannot stress how important it is to do this very early on.
I started doing this with only 18 posts. That may not sound like much, but going page by page optimizing as many as 10 images (I write reviews, and how-to articles) takes a long time. My optimizations took me 3 weeks for 18 posts.
If you're just starting out, and have fewer posts, and a lot fewer images, this will take a lot less time – but it pays off in the long run. Everything you do at this stage while using Google Analytics to validate your changes may take a few days. However, if you do what I did, and wait 6 months, it will cost you weeks.
Imagine if you didn't use the Analytics for over a year, and had hundreds of blog posts? How much time would be lost then?
Once your fledgling blog is tuned for fast page load speeds, and optimized for easy navigation for a better user experience it's time to grow. Grow your content, and by extension, your users.
Study, Evolve, Grow, Repeat.
Now that I have a fast site, and I'm happy with the user experience so far I'm focusing more on the users, and less on the site itself. I am using the Audience tool suite a lot now. I've come to rely on my New vs Returning metric, as well as the Users Flow.
Recently, I've started getting into more of the advanced analytics, and are tracking more of what my users are doing.
By studying the Audience tools, and drilling down to interests, I can see that I have particular user categories that are frequently browsing my blog. My top three categories are Technophiles, Shutterbugs, and Movie Lovers. They make up over 35% of all my traffic.
The other interesting metric available here is the Other Category. I have Science/Astronomy making up 40.5% of all of my traffic. This information is now what I use to develop new content and evolve the topicality of my writing.
I'm able to write for my audience, and in turn, my audience will start spreading the word. I know that I'm on the right track because my bounce rates are below 40% in my niche categories, and my pages viewed per session is 5.5 on average.
How about you? Tell me about your experience with Google Analytics.
Mitchell Tubbs is a database developer by day, and amateur astronomer by night. He began writing the East of Jupiter blog to spread his knowledge and passion for astronomy to the world.