Tapping into Google Analytics: What's Your View of the Truth? By Sigrid Tehrani on August 09, 2016

Google Analytics

Join us in this cautionary tale about website metrics where what looked to be a red flag was only a red herring. 

It’s what any practice dreams of: 50 percent more prospective patients contacting them from their website as compared to the same period the year before. 

We can cheer now, but in this cautionary tale, it's not what was first revealed when we dove into the website numbers. Our first view showed a website tanking with a 20 percent decline in sessions.

Welcome to the Google Analytics Dashboard, a confusing sea of numbers, red flags, and red herrings for the uninitiated.

The analytics dashboard is the mystical place where all your metrics live: New vs. Returning Users; Organic and Direct Traffic; Social Traffic; Bounce Rate; and Goals, to name a few. 

Blinded by Science

If you are among the many flummoxed when your website manager starts talking about impressions, position, and clicks, then Google's new document — aptly titled "What are impressions, position, and clicks?" — offers some information to start you on the journey of understanding.

The search engine's new document clarifies the ins and outs of these three core metrics for search engine optimization (SEO), delving into topics such as: 

  • What is an impression?
  • What is the value of your position in organic results versus the Knowledge Panel?
  • When is a click really a click?

Even if you eschew the minutiae of SEO, the document gives you insight into two important points in the world of Google that are valuable whether you manage your own site or hand it off to a third party. 

#1: It's Gonna Change

Front and center Google tells you the document is a "living" document, i.e. it's not written in stone.

"The heuristics described here — such as the visibility requirement for an item in a carousel, or the position numbering — are subject to change."

The fact that evolution is built into the document should come as no surprise to old hands in the world of websites. We all know that, when it comes to Google, nothing is so sure as change.

But this one fact also highlights why SEO should remain at the top of your priority list. Just as you update the apps on your cell phone, your SEO needs regular updates to stay current with evolving standards in the online environment.

Managing SEO is an ongoing process, which if ignored, allows your website to fall out of step with Google and other search engines. That's a problem because they rule the Internet when it comes to determining who gets seen and how high they rank in search results, which in turns determines your own visibility online.

Of course, as more and more consumer activity moves online, the visibility of your practice in the digital realm only grows in importance for one simple reason: If your practice can't be found online, it can't be chosen.  

On the plus side, investing in ongoing SEO is like investing in your retirement account. Just like money in the bank, SEO accrues in value, building and strengthening your website's position over time. 

#2: Don't Make Simple Assumptions

Google also points out another overarching fact in their primer on impressions and clicks: "… you should not make simple assumptions."

Though referencing a comment about "position" in Google search results, the concept applies across the board, from the Search Analytics Report to the more comprehensive Google Analytics dashboard. And it was just this scenario that proved to be the red herring in our website and could have led us astray. 

A Warped View

"Simple assumptions" correlates with "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Put them together and you can end up with faulty conclusions.

Take for example what looked like a red flag in our website example. When we first dove into the numbers we looked at "sessions" for the website. A session is a group of interactions that take place on your website within a given time frame. Over a six-month period, sessions for the website we were monitoring tumbled 20 percent when compared with the corresponding period the year before, as this chart shows. 

Sessions Statistics

Was this a catastrophe in the making?

No. But it is an example of what Google warns against: A simplistic view that leads to erroneous conclusions.

When we took a closer look, we realized these sessions included a lot of false positives, such as bot traffic. Bots are web robots that crawl websites, scooping up website information and leaving a trail of activity behind. That activity may mimic human behavior, but we can all agree, it's not the same thing. Bots will never evolve into a patient.

Not only did the bots mask the activity of real people, when these virtual automatons wandered off, they skewed the traffic on the website and left the erroneous impression that site traffic had taken a nosedive and the website was failing.

A New View of the Truth

The reality was, as Google had warned, our view of the truth was simplistic. What we needed was a more sophisticated analysis that would clear the clutter.

To understand what was really happening, we needed to get rid of the "footprints" left by the bots. To do that, we created a filter in Google Analytics that focused on organic traffic from the client's market area, the logical place most of the practice's clients would originate: Oregon and Washington. Since most of the bot traffic was coming out of Asia, the filters cleared the clutter.

Now look at the "sessions" metrics showing three views of the truth: 

  1. Organic traffic restricted to Oregon
  2. Organic traffic for Oregon and Washington
  3. All users, the unwashed masses from around the globe.

Sessions with filters applied

The results were better. But still not as illuminating as we wanted.

We didn't want to look at just foot traffic on the website, we wanted to see buying signals: Real people contacting the practice via the online "contact us" form, which is the digital equivalent of having a prospective patient call your practice.

So we took our analysis a step further by diving into two valuable metrics for each group: Goal Completions and Goal Conversion Rate, where the goal was defined as filling out the contact form.

Here's what we found, again using our three views:

Goal Completions and Goal Conversion Rate

By looking at the right metrics filtered to the correct audiences, the new numbers completely reversed our view of what was true. As the chart above shows, Goal Completions and Goal Conversion Rate all showed —  dare we say? —  explosive growth.

What do these numbers mean in the real world?

In this case, the numbers show that 48 percent more prospective clients reached out to the practice from Oregon as compared to the same period the year before. And, if looking at both Oregon and Washington, 60 percent more clients contacted the practice.

Lesson Learned

Any way you slice it, these are numbers every practice wants. What appeared to be red warning flags turned into winning checkered flags when we filtered out the statistical clutter and focused on buying signals.

Google Analytics 101: Do you know what you are looking at when you dive into Google Analytics? Are you seeing red flags or red herrings?

The Takeaway: If after looking at your Google Analytics account you see alarming numbers, don't panic. Pick up the phone and call your service provider. It's possible that statistical noise is clouding the important metrics. Or, maybe you actually do have a problem that your provider needs to fix. Either way, your provider should be ready to answer your questions. 

No Access to Google Analytics?

Well, if your service provider doesn't grant access to your Google Analytics, that is a problem.

If you don't have access to your dashboard, then you can't vet the numbers your SEO expert provides. For us, that's a red flag because transparency is the ultimate litmus test in the world of SEO. 

You should have access to your dashboard because it functions as the neutral third party for your website's performance. True, you may not initially understand all the nuances of Google Analytics, but your SEO expert should be able and willing to walk you through the information.

Over time, these conversations will build your confidence in how your website is managed. And that will build trust in your Internet partner.

Trust, not blind trust.

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