Designing your new website, creating compelling content, and building out your social platforms is (sigh) the fun part. The sometimes not so fun—but just as important—part? Analytics!

After all, if you don’t know how people are interacting with your brand, you won’t know how to make it better. And while analytics can feel like a whole lot of overwhelming numbers, understanding that data is essential to better engaging your audience, improving your content, and building metrics of success around your PR, marketing, and advertising campaigns.

So, where to begin? If you’re looking for a comprehensive—but free!—analytics tool, Google Analytics is your best bet. But analytics newbies beware: For a free service, Google Analytics packs a punch. Here, we outline three high-level, useful insights you can learn from Google Analytics and what you can do with them.

1. Who is Visiting and When?

Once you’ve installed Google Analytics on your website, you’ll have access to a Google Analytics dashboard. On the left hand navigation, there will be several tabs, including “Audience.” Clicking on “Audience” and then “Overview” will give you a snapshot of useful pieces of data, like the number of people who visited your site in a specific time period, the countries those people are visiting from, and the days of the week and times of day people are spending time on your site.

In addition to being really interesting, these stats can help you make business decisions moving forward. For example, if you are a U.S.-based company but notice that a great deal of traffic is coming from the U.K., it may be the next market you consider expanding into. Or, if you’re updating your blog on Wednesdays but notice that your traffic spikes on Fridays, you may want to re-work your calendar so you’re posting your best content when there are the most people there to see it.

2. Are They New or Coming Back For More? How Long Are They Staying?

Now that you know that (let’s say) 50,000 people are accessing your site each month, how long are those 50,000 visitors staying? Three seconds? Five minutes? Clicking on “Behavior” in the “Overview” tab and looking at “Engagement” will give you a comprehensive breakdown of the amount of time visitors are spending with you.

Remember: The longer, the better! If you find that people are jumping off quickly, it’s likely that they’re not finding what they need. Dig into the look and functionality of your site: Is it easy to navigate? Is it aesthetically pleasing? Are you updating your content consistently? Remember that your website often serves as people’s first impression of your brand, so you want to make it as appealing and intuitive as you can.

Next, taking a look at “New vs. Returning” will tell you how many of those 50,000 people are new to your site compared to how many have visited before—and are coming back for more! It’s important to keep an eye on returning visitors, especially if you’re an e-commerce site, because it means that people value what you offer and want more of it.

Once you start tracking this metric, make a note of when it goes up or down. What did you post that day? When did you post it? If you can identify patterns, you can start to replicate the content and timing that yields the biggest increase in returning visitors.

3. How Did They Find Me?

Google Analytics offers an extremely valuable analytic called “Traffic Sources,” which explains how your visitors ended up on your site. Did they see you on another website and click through? Did they type your name directly into Google?

Google Analytics organize traffic sources in four buckets. If you’re new to the lingo, here’s what they mean:

  • Search Traffic: These are visitors that have landed on your website after clicking on a search result. If someone Googles “yoga pants” and finds your fitness apparel website through the search results, that’s considered search traffic.
  • Referral Traffic: This tracks the pages that have led people to your website. If you’ve just launched a Facebook page, people who visited your Facebook page and then clicked on your site through Facebook are referral traffic. Or, if you’ve just landed a big New York Times story, clicking on “Referrals” under “Sources” will show you how many people clicked on you from the New York Times.
  • Direct Traffic: These are people typing your web address directly into their browser.
  • Campaigns: This tracks how many people are coming to you through your advertising campaigns, including Google’s AdWords. If you’ve just launched an online advertising campaign, you’ll be able to see how many visitors came from the sites where your ad is running by clicking on “Campaigns.”
  • Once you know where your traffic is coming from, you can adjust your marketing, PR, and business strategies based on what you’ve learned. For example, if you’ve invested more in building out your Facebook and Tumblr platforms but find that most social media visitors are accessing your website through Twitter, you’ll want to make Twitter a priority. If you take a look at your direct traffic and find the majority of people visiting your site have bookmarked your video pages, you’ll want to make sure that your video content is front and center on your site.

    Looking at the insights around your search traffic can help you understand what people are actually searching when they look for you, which can inform your branding and SEO strategy. And if you’ve recently launched an online advertising campaign, tracking how many people visit your website from the sites where your ad is running can determine how successful the ad buy was and whether it’s something you should consider doing again.

    While this may seem like a great deal of info, we’ve only just scratched the surface on the insights Google Analytics can offer. Other data points to keep an eye on? The number of pageviews you’re receiving on top performing pages of your website (“Content”), how many people are on your website this second and which parts of your website they’re looking at (“Real-Time”) and whether your website is being accessed from a desktop, tablet, or mobile device (“Mobile”). For a full tutorial on all of the analytics available and how to search, sort, and track them, check out Google’s (very helpful!) Help Section.

    Photo of man using Google Analytics courtesy of Shutterstock.

    Updated 6/19/2020