Google Analytics: A guide to confusing terms

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Google Analytics is a hugely useful and in-depth tool for measuring and monitoring your website’s performance, as long as you can learn its language.

After setting up Google Analytics on your site for the first time, it can be hard work to navigate your way through all the different terms referring to parts of your site or the activities users carry out on it – especially when so many of them sound similar.

What’s the difference between a ‘session’ and a ‘pageview’? Are ‘users’ and ‘visitors’ the same thing? How does your site’s ‘bounce rate’ differ from its ‘exit rate’? Does ‘time on page’ really reflect what it says it does?

If you’ve wondered something like this at any point while staring down a mass of analytics for your site, worry not. We’ve put together a handy guide to break down the meanings and uses of some key but confusing terms on Google Analytics, and how they differ from each other.

Quick Links

Bounce Rate

Google’s definition:

Bounce Rate is the percentage of single-page sessions (i.e. sessions in which the person left your site from the entrance page without interacting with the page).

This could be because they lost interest, were confused, or had already found the information they were looking for.

Individual pages have bounce rates as well as the site as a whole. A bounce rate for a page is based on all sessions that begin with that page and end without the user navigating to any other pages on the site.

A high bounce rate can be an indicator of problems, or it can indicate that for whatever reason, visitors aren’t finding anything on the site that entices them to stay longer, read more, or search for more content.

A site that people spend a long time visiting and interacting with is often referred to as ‘sticky’. This article looks at ways to reduce bounce rates.

For more, listen to Avinash Kaushik on the power of bounce rate, or “I came, I puked, I left”:

Not to be confused with: Exit Rate

Clicks

Clicks is a metric that appears on Google’s SEO Reports, which you can set up for your site to monitor your visibility in search results and how that translates into visitors to your site. As it says on the tin, the number of clicks on your SEO report records the number of times that people have clicked on a URL to your website in search results. This does not count clicks on paid AdWords search results, which are recorded separately in AdWords reports.

Clickthrough Rate, or CTR, is a number calculated by dividing the number of clicks to your site by the number of impressions (which records how many times it was seen) and multiplying by 100. This will tell you what proportion of users who see your site in search results actually click through to it.

Not to be confused with: Impressions or Hits

Entrances

Google Analytics records an entrance for each page that a user begins a new session on. So the number of entrances given for a specific page shows how many users began their session with that page.

Not to be confused with: Landing or Entrance Page

Events

An event on Google Analytics is a type of hit which tracks user interactions with content like downloads, mobile ad clicks, Flash elements and video plays.

Events on Google Analytics give insight into a range of user activities that are taking place across your site, and with a little bit of technical know-how, you can set up custom events to track all kinds of user behaviours that aren’t normally visible in Analytics.

Not to be confused with: Hits

Exit Page

The opposite of a landing page, an exit page on Google Analytics refers to the last page a user accesses before their session ends or they leave the site. The Exit Pages section of Google Analytics therefore allows you to see which pages people most frequently end their sessions on or leave the site after viewing.

Google Analytics has difficulty calculating the amount of time users spend on an exit page because there is no next page to help it judge when the user left that page. This issue impacts the accuracy of average time on page and average session duration figures.

Not to be confused with: Landing or Entrance Page or Exit Rate

Exit Rate (shown on Google Analytics as % Exit)

This figure shows how often users end their session or leave the site after viewing that particular page. The exit rate is calculated by dividing the number of ‘exits’ made from the page by the number of pageviews it has, to determine what proportion of visitors to that page leave it after visiting.

A page with a high exit rate may not necessarily have a high bounce rate, since users might be coming to that page from elsewhere in the site before exiting. However, a page with a low exit rate is likely to also have a low bounce rate, since users must be going on to other pages on the site before they leave.

Not to be confused with: Bounce Rate or Exit Page

Hits

In web terms, a hit is a request to a web server for a file like a webpage, image or JavaScript. In Google Analytics, hits are an overarching term for a variety of website interactions. Page views and events, for example, are both types of hit. A session is simply a collection of hits from one user, grouped together.

Google Analytics uses hits to determine when and how a user is interacting with a webpage. So if no hits are sent, the user is assumed to be inactive. The countdown to the end of a user’s session begins from their last hit. After thirty minutes with no new hits, the session automatically ends.

Not to be confused with: Clicks, Page Views or Events

Impressions

In Google’s SEO Reports, impressions records how many times a URL to your site was viewed by a user in search results. This does not count impressions by paid AdWords search results, which are recorded separately in AdWords reports.

By calculating clicks on those URLs as a percentage of impressions, Google Analytics can tell you the Click-Through Rate of your URLs that appear in search results. This appears in your SEO Report under CTR.

Not to be confused with: Page Views

Landing or Entrance Page

Landing Page’ and ‘Entrance Page’ are both used by Google to refer to the first page a user accesses (or ‘lands’ on) at the beginning of a session. The Landing Pages section of Google Analytics therefore allows you to view the pages through which users most often arrive on the site, and their statistics.

Not to be confused with: Exit Page or Entrances

Page Views

Page Views (also called screen views for mobile) are the total count of how many times any user lands on an individual page on your website. This includes repeatedly landing on the same page during one session, so if a user refreshes the page, this counts as an additional page view on your site.

Unique page views’ is a number that will tell you how many times a page was accessed at least once during a session. In other words, it doesn’t count multiple views of a page by the same user in the same session, instead treating them as a single view.

Pages per session, also called Average Page Depth, is the average number of pages viewed by each user during one session. On Google Analytics, this metric includes repeated views of a single page by the same user.

Not to be confused with: Hits or Impressions

Session(s)

A session is a measure of the amount of time a user spends actively engaging with your website. Session length is calculated from the moment a user arrives on your site until 30 minutes of inactivity have elapsed. Every new action that a user performs will reset the clock on when that session will ‘expire’.

The only exception to this is at midnight, at which point all sessions for that day are considered to have ended and a fresh session will begin, even if that user has been active throughout.

Average Session Duration calculates the average length of a user’s session by dividing the session duration by the number of sessions. However, there is a problem with this calculation: Google cannot calculate the time spent on an exit page because there is no next page for it to use as a marker. This can drastically throw off the accuracy of the average session duration, especially in the case of bounces where the session consists of a single page, and no session duration can be calculated at all.

Not to be confused with: Time on Page

Time on Page

If you look at the Google Analytics for individual pages on your site, you can see the average amount of time that a user spent on that page, as well as the amount of time that users spend, on average, on any one page of your site. This figure can be deceptive, however.

Google has no way of measuring the time a user spent on the last page of your website that they viewed, because it uses the next page they access to calculate how long they spent on the previous one. On the last page of a session, there is no next page and so the time on that page is recorded as 0.

Google does correct for this issue somewhat, calculating average time on page by dividing the time on page by the number of page views minus the number of exits from the site. The problem is, this still means the time on the exit page isn’t accounted for, so bear that in mind when looking at these figures.

Not to be confused with: Session Duration

Users, Visitors or Traffic?

These three terms are all ways of referring to the people who access your site. Google uses the words user and visitor interchangeably in different places, both to refer to an individual person who comes to your site. A new visitor is someone who comes to your site without having been there before, while a returning visitor is someone who has been to your site previously.

Traffic is an overall term to refer to the volume of users accessing your website. A traffic source is any place from which people are directed to your site, such as a search engine, social network or other website.

Types of traffic:

Direct traffic

Visitors to your site are classed as direct traffic when they access your site via a bookmark, or by entering its URL straight into their browser’s address bar. When viewing Traffic Sources on Google Analytics, the source for direct traffic is shown as ‘(direct)’.

Organic Search Traffic

Organic traffic is the name given to the amount of users who find your website ‘organically’ through search results, as opposed to via a paid ad, clicking a link on another site, or from a bookmark they already have saved. Organic search keywords can allow you to see which search terms are helping users to find your site, as well as the kind of things they are looking for when they access it.

Paid Search Traffic

Paid traffic is the amount of visitors to your site who came there via Google Adwords ads, paid search keywords and other online ad campaigns. With Paid Traffic on Google Analytics, you can track all traffic from paid sources in one place, analyse user behaviour and gauge the effectiveness of your campaigns.

Referral Traffic

A referral is a visitor to your site who is sent there, or referred, from a direct link on another site. Referral traffic is therefore the general term for the amount of people who are referred to your site from elsewhere on the web.

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