4 Commonly Misunderstood Google Analytics Metrics


Google Analytics is a free tool that delivers data straight to marketers and company decision makers — in other words, it’s a marketer’s best friend. It allows you to evaluate the effectiveness of your digital marketing efforts by aggregating data on the demographics of your visitors, their behavior on your site, and more.  

Learning how to leverage Google Analytics will make your marketing efforts stronger — according to Google, leading companies are twice as likely to make decisions based on insights gained from their Google Analytics data.

There are some things to note before diving into your data:

  1. Any time you’re talking about customer data, a solid marketing strategy is needed to guide the way you interpret and use the information you get from Google Analytics. Without the right strategy, it’s far too easy to get caught up in a cycle of trying to “improve” a certain metric without really understanding why you want to focus on that metric, or how it will benefit your company. 
  2. There are a handful of commonly misunderstood Google Analytics metrics that you should make sure you have a good grasp on before you move forward. This will help you apply your strategy in meaningful ways.

Below are four metrics that are often misunderstood. In this post, we’ll shed light on why these are easily misinterpreted and offer a different perspective on how to look at data surrounding these metrics.

1. Bounce Rate

Bounce rate = a measure of how many people leave your website after viewing just one page. 

Bounce rate is by far the most misunderstood metric in the Google Analytics offering. Many marketers mistakenly believe that seeing a high bounce rate in Google Analytics is a sign of failure. This is because marketers tend to view bounce rate as a sign of how engaged our customers are — after all, if they came to our website and left quickly, that’s bad, right? Don’t we want them to stay longer? 

Well, not necessarily.

Thinking about bounce rate in a black-and-white framework isn’t valuable, because the amount of time someone spends on a page will vary depending on what that page is intended to do. A high bounce rate might actually indicate that your webpage is more than delivering: Perhaps your customers are coming to your webpage, learning exactly what they need on that page, and moving on to the next thing on their list. Score! In this case, a high bounce rate is great. 

Of course, the opposite could be true: Maybe people are landing on your site, not finding what they’re looking for, and moving on. In this instance, a high bounce rate is undesirable.

Here’s where context and strategy is important to interpret the data you see in Google Analytics. You’ll have to determine whether the bounce rates you’re seeing are appropriate for your company and for each specific page of your site. The bounce rate on a “Service” page may look very different from the bounce rate on a “Frequently Asked Questions” (FAQ) page, or on your company’s “About Us” page. 

Beware of relying on quoted industry averages — while it’s tempting to grab on to an average so you have something to use as a benchmark, these may not make sense for your company. 

If you find it useful to do so, there’s an option in Google Analytics to use Google Tag Manager to define what “engagement” means for your site. For example, say you want to start excluding people from your bounce rate if they’re on your page for more than a few minutes. This is what’s called an “adjusted bounce rate” and allows you to get more meaningful information from your bounce rates.

2. Exit Rate

Exit rate = # of page exits / # of page views

It’s common to confuse exit rate and bounce rate, which makes sense because they both measure users leaving your website — these two metrics are calculated differently and give you separate insights. While bounce rate tells you how often people have landed on a page and then left from that same page (without going anywhere else on your site), exit rate illustrates how often people leave your site after being on a particular page (whether they visited other pages on your site beforehand or not).

In other words, exit rate looks at the total number of people leaving your site from a particular page, while bounce rate only looks at the people who landed on that page directly.

A page with a high exit rate may also have a high bounce rate, if it’s the first place people land and they leave your site from there. A page with a high exit rate could also have a low bounce rate, if traffic is mostly coming from somewhere else on your website first and then leaving from that page. For example, your “Checkout” page might have a high exit rate if people are leaving from that page without committing to a purchase, but most visitors have likely arrived at this page from somewhere else on your site, which would give it a low bounce rate.

Here again, it’s tempting to fall into the same trap as you might with bounce rates, and assume that you should always strive to lower the exit rates of your pages. It’s important to take a step back and think about what these exit rates actually mean for each page. What is the purpose of this specific page? How many people should ideally be leaving the site after viewing it? If you see a high exit rate on your “Confirmation” page that users arrive at after completing a purchase, there is likely no need to worry. The purpose of a “Confirmation” page is generally an end to the user’s interaction with your brand, so this is a sign the page is doing its job.

If you’re seeing a high exit rate on a landing page where you intend to engage users with a strong call to action (such as to fill out a form or click a link), that may be a warning sign. A high exit rate shows that most users are leaving from this page, and not taking the action you want them to take. You may want to strategize ways to redesign the page, or A/B test elements of the page, to encourage more users to take the desired action.

3. Average Time on Page 

Average Time on Page = time on page / (# page views - # exits)

The average time on page is not a true average, because people who left from that page are excluded from the numbers. The formula Google uses for this metric attempts to correct for this shortcoming, but it’s not a perfect solution.

A major flaw with this metric is that you could have people spending a lot of time on a certain page before leaving, but you won’t see this in the average — and if most people exit after viewing the page, the viable sample size for this metric’s calculation will be fairly small. Therefore, for pages with a high exit rate, the Average Time on Page metric will be less valuable.

For pages with a low exit rate, this is a useful metric to look at. It’s important to beware of the common trap of assuming that a longer duration of time on page is best. As with bounce rate and exit rate, this depends on the context of the page and its intended purpose. We challenge you to ask these questions to gain clarification: Could users be spending more time on a page because it’s unclear what you’re asking them to do? Do users have to dig for information? 

For example, let’s say your website has a search functionality where users can search for products. The “Search Results” page is one where a short average time on page is a good sign — this would indicate that people are quickly finding what they’re looking for in the results of their search. If a particular “Search Results” page has a long average time on page, it may mean users are having to spend more time scrolling through results before they find what they want; in other words, your search feature isn’t meeting user needs.

For a long-form blog post, on the other hand, you likely want to see a longer average time on page as this content is meant to hold the attention of visitors. A short time on page may indicate that people aren’t finding the content engaging enough to read the full blog post.

4. Direct traffic 

Direct traffic = website visits that arrived on your site either by typing your website URL into a browser, through browser bookmarks, or from an unrecognizable source 

In the marketing world, we typically think of direct traffic as people who know about our brand and website. These are people who have either bookmarked our website or are typing the URL directly in their browser to visit us. A high amount of direct traffic makes marketers happy, as it indicates strong brand awareness. 

And yet — the direct traffic metric actually includes a lot of visitors that Google Analytics just isn’t sure where to place. It doesn’t necessarily mean that your brand awareness is high; it could be that these visitors clicked on a link in an email client and ended up on your page. We’re still happy to see them, of course — but they’re not exactly what we think of as direct traffic. 

That said, in general, a high direct traffic rate does mean you have a decent amount of brand awareness — but be aware that this is never a precise measure. If you’re looking to get really accurate numbers, look into UTM tracking, which allows you to most efficiently nail down where traffic is coming from.

Context is Everything

There you have it: the four most commonly misunderstood Google Analytics metrics we’ve come across in our digital marketing engagements. Hopefully, this has cleared up any confusion you had surrounding these metrics and given you guidance on how to make meaningful decisions with your data.

In the end, there’s a reason we need the human mind to make sense of data — true data analysis all comes down to context. Google Analytics is a powerful tool that can collect a wealth of useful data about your audience; but without context, data means nothing. 

Always make sure you take into account your marketing goals and the purpose of each page of your website when interpreting the data you receive from Google Analytics. Only you understand the full context of your business and the ideal way that customers will move through your funnel and engage with content. If you’re feeling stuck or want advice on how to get started, reach out to the digital marketing experts at RelationEdge. We are Google Analytics certified and will partner with you to evaluate your analytics and data, and use those insights to guide your marketing efforts.