Essential web analytics knowledge for journalism students: Understanding key Google Analytics reports for content management

As future content producers or managers, journalism students should learn to analyze relevant Google Analytics reports of key performance indicators (KPIs) such as bounce rate, average time on site, pageviews per visit, new vs returning visitors, and recency.

Be it a news organization, a for-profit corporation or a non-profit organization, a content-driven website needs to constantly adjust its contents to attract and engage target audiences; to that end, content creators (journalists, copywriters, bloggers) need to know what performance indicators to look at, how to interpret them and, more importantly, what actions to take should there be any issues.

What is web analytics, Google Analytics?

Web analytics expertise has been a must-have for marketers, e-commerce managers and webmasters, which is quite logical when we look at one of its many definitions:

Web analytics is the process of analyzing the behavior of visitors to a Web site. The use of Web analytics is said to enable a business to attract more visitors, retain or attract new customers for goods or services, or to increase the dollar volume each customer spends.

Google Analytics is a free tool by Google that analyzes a website’s performance such as visitor volume, traffic sources and much more. It is the most widely used website statistics service. As said in a Wiki entry, this product is aimed at marketers as opposed to webmasters and technologists from which the industry of web analytics originally grew.

Increasingly, however, content creators see the need to use Google Analytics in tracking content performance and making adjustments accordingly. For instance, Google Analytics shows that your site visitors spend an average of five seconds on your site, isn’t that a troubling number? Shouldn’t you look through your contents, figure out the reason, and make appropriate changes?

Key performance indicators for content creators

Google Analytics generates dozens of KPI reports which are daunting and overwhelming even for advanced users. Fortunately, for purpose of content management, other than traffic volume, there are a selected few indicators a content creator needs to focus on.

It should be noted that the KPIs discussed below are not a definitive list, and the real-world analytics is way more complicated. If you are truly interested, search for web analytics or web metrics at and you’ll find thousands of books on this topic.

Bounce rate

Per an Wiki entry, bounce rate represents the percentage of visitors who enter the site and “bounce” (leave the site) rather than continue viewing other pages within the same site. For instance, if 90 percent of the visitors arrive at your site, view only one (any one) page, and leave the site, then you have a 90% bounce rate.

A low bounce rate is always desired – you always want visitors to read more than one page of your site. A high bounce rate may mean two things: the marketing manager is not bringing in the right type of visitors your site targets, or the existing contents are not what the target audiences actually want.

On the web, one can find various tips and advice on how to reduce high bounce rates; some typical practices include: break one-page long articles into a series of pages; add links to other related contents on the site, such as “related posts” at end of a blog post; or maybe special offers and giveaways.

FYI: if you want to know what a “normal” bounce rate is, read a survey of 80 websites, in six categories, for the typical industry bounce rates.

Average time on site/pageviews per visit

Content creators like to see high numbers of these two indicators; a high number means visitors are engaging with your contents. If there are significant differences in these numbers when running campaigns, then chances are the content manager needs to be involved in finding out why and how.

Note that these two numbers may not be positively correlated – visitors may spend more time reading some selected contents, but view fewer pages during their visit, resulting in a high number in time and low number in pageviews.

When analyzing these numbers, the site-wide averages are not as informative as those for subcategories; for instance, you may want to compare the averages for new vs returning visitors, or the averages for visitors coming from different sources (e.g., search engine, social media, direct, referral).

New vs returning visitors

The desired ratio of new vs returning visitors is dependent on the focus of your site. If your organization is proactive in online marketing or promotion, you should expect a higher number of new visitors, otherwise someone needs to take a closer look at either the promotion or the contents. On the other hand, a niche or hyper-local site may expect a larger portion of returning visitors. Also, the new/returning ratio is usually very stable, sudden changes in the ratio demands a careful examination.

Frequency & recency

As explained in the Google Help documents, this report lets you see the level of user interest in your site from the standpoint of how frequently visitors return to your site within a time frame (once, twice, ten times), and how many days go by before they return to your site (do they tend to visit once a week or once a month).

If visitors come once but don’t return, you might infer that you’re marketing your site to the wrong audience, or that your site content and design are not sufficiently engaging or not easily navigable. If visitors return infrequently, e.g., only prior to election season or only prior to the voting date, it is telling content creators that the focus of your contents needs to be expanded.

Guest access to Google Analytics account of my blog

If you are a journalism instructor and want to incorporate Google Analytics in a course, I can provide guest accounts for your students to access analytics stats of my blog. A guest account gives students full access to all the reports, which provide for real-world examples to complement your lectures. My blog averages 11,000 pageviews each month in the past months, and could be a fun “sandbox” for students to play around with; you may want to check About this Blog for more details.

I ask one thing in return: at the end of the course or the segment, I want a guest blog post from you and/or your students sharing your teaching/learning experience with me and my readers. I will be interested in knowing, for instance, how you set up the course/segment, what resources/materials/assignments you use, student learning outcomes, etc; or maybe some insightful suggestions regarding performance of my blog. I believe such information will be of interest and use to many other instructors who have seen, or will see, the importance of incorporating web analytics in journalism curriculum.

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About Mu Lin

Dr. Mu Lin is a digital journalism professional and educator in New Jersey, United States. Dr. Lin manages an online marketing company. He also manages MulinBlog Online J-School (, a free online journalism training program, which offers courses such as Audio Slideshow Storytelling; Introduction to Social Media Marketing; Writing for the Web; Google Mapping for Communicators; Introduction to Data Visualization; Introduction to Web Metrics and Google Analytics.
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