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Google Analytics Academy: How Google Analytics Works

Have you heard about Google’s new Analytics Academy? It offers extensive training in Google Analytics and data analysis and helps you to prepare for the Google Analytics Individual Qualification. The first class in the academy, Digital Analytics Fundamentals, wrapped up on October 30th.  We’ll be covering each unit for those who missed the deadline, and Unit 3 of the Analytics Academy is called “Understanding and Using Google Analytics Data.

How Google Analytics Works

In order to fully understand Google Analytics and get the most out of it, you must first understand how it works. There are four components to the Google Analytics system and they include data collection, data processing, data configuration and reportingGoogle Analytics uses a java script to collect user-interaction data from websites, mobile applications, kiosks, and more. That script will most likely look like this:

<script type=”text/javascript”>

  var _gaq = _gaq || [];

  _gaq.push(['_setAccount', 'UA-XXXXXXX-X']);


  (function() {

    var ga = document.createElement(‘script’); ga.type = ‘text/javascript’; ga.async = true;

    ga.src = (‘https:’ == document.location.protocol ? ‘https://ssl&#8217; : ‘http://www&#8217;) + ‘’;

    var s = document.getElementsByTagName(‘script’)[0]; s.parentNode.insertBefore(ga, s);



In order to collect this data, the java script above must be inserted on every single page of your site. An easy was to do this is to insert it on your website header file which is automatically included on every page. It can then collect information about how users engage with your site, the site itself, and even information from you users’ browsers. Each time a user visits a new page on your site, that same java script will collect, update and store information about that user.

After data collection, comes data processing. This is the transformation of raw data into something useful. This is also the step where your configuration settings, such as your filters, are applied to the raw data collected. One of the most common filters would be excluding internal users. It can be hard to gauge traffic when you don’t know how much of it is coming from inside your. Keep in mind that once data is processed into the database, it cannot be changed.

The final component is reporting. This is the part most of you will see when you access your analytics account from the Google Analytics web interface at

Key Metrics and Dimensions

Inside Google Analytics reports, you will see two types of data:

  1. Dimensions
  2. Metrics

Dimensions are descriptive attributes that tell you about the characteristics of your users and metrics are individual elements of a dimension displayed as numerical data that shows quantitative measurements of your users. Dimensions and metrics are most commonly reported in a table like the one seen below.

The first column includes the dimensions and the following three columns include the metrics.

There are three different types of dimension:

  1. User dimension
  2. Session dimension
  3. Interaction dimension

User dimensions could include your visitors’ geographic location. Session dimensions could be the traffic source such as visitors coming from and Organic Google search or visitors who clicked on a paid Google ad. An interaction dimension is based on an action a user takes on your site like the title of the page they viewed.

Metrics help us understand our users and tell us how often things happen. Like dimensions, there are three different types of metrics:

  1. Audience metrics (ex: visitors)
  2. Behavior metrics (ex: pages per visit)
  3. Conversion metrics (ex: conversion rate)

Some examples of commonly used metrics would be visits, screenviews, pages per visit, and average visit duration. A visit is counted until the user times out or leaves. Once a user has been inactive for at least 30 minutes, their session is timed out. By default, the timeout length is 30 minutes, but this can be customized based on the content being viewed on your site.

Time based metrics require a stream of user activity in order to be calculated. For instance, in order for visit duration to be calculated, the visitor must take an action such as clicking over to another page within your site. Visit duration is calculated by taking the time they let your site or timed out and subtracting it from the time they entered your site.

visit duration = last interaction – first interaction

Time on page is taking the time the landed on their second page on your site and subtracting it from the time they entered on the first page.

time on page = next pageview – landed

Bounce rate is another important metric. The bounce rate is the percentage of sessions with only one user interaction. Remember, Google Analytics can only collect data based on your actions. In order to calculate time on page, pageviews, etc. your user must take an action on your site like clicking over to a second page. If they don’t, there isn’t any data for Google Analytics to compare in order to come up with these metrics. So, if someone lands on your page but then leaves your site after visiting that page, it doesn’t matter how long they stay there, it is considered a bounce and visit duration is counted as 0.

When getting started, try to narrow down the number of metrics and dimensions you’re looking. There is so much information inside of Google Analytics, that is can be very easy to get lost or overwhelmed. Here at ASPE, We try to look at the source and mediums bringing in our visitors and the content they’re viewing on a regular basis. We then look at the number of visits from those sources, the amount of time they’re spending on those pages, the bounce rate, and the exit rate. From there, we like to dive in to the navigation summary, or rather the actual path our visitors take through our site in order to understand how they interact with our site. But that is for another post on another day.

Stay tuned because next we’ll be getting into the nitty gritty of creating your account, understanding your account structure, and setting up goals and filter within your account.


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