Misleading Google Analytics: Why It Pays Off to Read Between the Lines

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April 29, 2019

Introduction: Are Agencies Out to Mislead?

In my experience, it’s rare to come across a digital agency that makes deliberate attempts to deceive with misleading analytics. That said, this doesn’t mean that misleading analytics in a general sense aren’t rife. Agencies sometimes fall into the trap of presenting inaccurate findings and voicing misguided suggestions without even realizing it.
As is the case with many things in life, the key to successful use of web analytics lies in interpretation.

With growing regularity, I’m approached by clients looking for clarification of data that appears to paint an inaccurate picture. If you’ve been operating a website for more than a day or so, it’s likely you’ll already be familiar with Google Analytics. It’s also probable you’ve got to grips with the basics of GA and appreciate the significance of the data produced.
Nevertheless, I felt it prudent to present a few facts and findings on the subject of misleading analytics, which I believe could help almost any online business. Or at least, any business owner who takes a proactive interest in the performance and prosperity of their organization.

Table of Contents:
• Introduction: Are Agencies Out to Mislead?
• Not All Bounce Rates Are the Same
• On Page Time: More = Better…Right?
• What vs. Why
• Digging Deeper…

What vs. Why

In terms of keyword use and optimization, let’s consider another everyday example. You stock both tennis balls and footballs in your online store, only to find that tennis balls are converting 200% better. You’ve focused heavily on both keywords – ‘tennis balls’ just seems to be delivering better results.

On the surface, this would seem to suggest that ‘tennis balls’ is not only the better keyword but also the product you should be investing your time, effort and money in. The problem being that by placing your decisions purely on basic analytics alone, you could be making a big mistake.

For example, it could be that there’s a major tennis tournament taking place at the time and generating unusual interest in tennis balls. It could also simply be that the pictures and product descriptions you have accompanying your footballs aren’t nearly as impressive as those accompanying your tennis balls. Long story short, there are endless plausible explanations as to why you’re selling more tennis balls than footballs.

Explanations you won’t find in the most basic Google Analytics data.

It’s the classic case of focusing on what is happening as opposed to why it is happening. With Google Analytics, you’re provided with a detailed snapshot of what’s going on with your website at the time. Nevertheless, Google Analytics itself cannot be relied upon to accurately and effectively interpret its own data.

Ultimately, it’s down to you or your digital marketing partner to make sense of the data and optimize your campaigns accordingly.

Not All Bounce Rates Are the Same

For example, thousands (maybe even millions) of online businesses gauge their success or otherwise predominantly on bounce rates. The way they see it, the greater the proportion of people ‘bouncing’ from their website without taking action, the more urgent the action that needs to be taken. Bounce rates are calculated by way of a percentage of the total number of visitors who visit your website – those who fail to convert or interact.

But here’s the thing, not all bounce rates are created equally.

Think of it this way – how many times have you visited a website or a restaurant, in order to check out its menus and perhaps take its phone number? Or for that matter, looked up a product or service you’re definitely going to buy, but chose not to buy online at the time? Given the fact that you didn’t convert or take action, your visit is classified as a bounce…aka, a failure with the standard interpretation of bounce rates.

Hence, having a bounce rate as high as even 80% or so doesn’t necessarily mean everyone is bailing on your site dissatisfied or disillusioned. With bounce rates, it’s of critical importance to read between the lines and determine what your customers are doing when they pay you a visit.

On Page Time: More = Better…Right?

Another common metric used to gauge the quality and effectiveness of a website is on-page time. That being, the amount of time the average user spends on your website. For obvious reasons, it’s naturally assumed that more is better.

As with the example above, however, this again isn’t necessarily the case. If you’re running a relatively simple e-commerce business, an individual spending a good 5 minutes browsing your products or services is great. That’s more than enough time for them to see what you’ve got to offer, check out your products and maybe even make a purchase.

By contrast, individual spending more than 5 minutes on the website of a doctor or dentist could suggest they’re struggling to find the information they need. It’s a tricky yet important balancing act to pull off – you need to retain the attention of the visitor, but you also need to ensure they get what they need as quickly as possible.

So once again, you cannot base your judgments or decisions on on-page time alone. At both ends of the scale, you could end up reading into data that paints a wholly misleading picture.

Digging Deeper…

Over the last couple of years in particular, I’ve noted a distinct uptick in the number of clients I work with who’ve taken an active interest in analytics. The problem is that in the vast majority of instances, it’s only a passing interest. Unfortunately, a fleeting glance at the most basic analytics from time to time is the perfect recipe for misinterpretation.

Personally, I recommend investing a minimum of 15-30 minutes every week in Google Analytics, Google Ads Manager and Google Search Console observation and analysis. Irrespective of your experience with GA/GSC to date, this is the minimum amount of time required to dig deeper than the surface and figure out what’s really going on.

Once again, the key to effective and efficient use of analytical data lies in separating the ‘what’ from the ‘why’. GA can present all the factual data in the world, but it can’t tell you what to do with it or how to interpret it.

If you struggle to make sense of GA, it’s worth considering third-party involvement for the benefit of your business.

Author: Dennis Dubner, CEO of SONDORA MARKETING