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Google Analytics: New vs Returning Visitors

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Come Back Soon

Photo: “Come Back Soon” by Omar Omar on Flickr

I’m looking at the Audience tab of Google Analytics. In particular, the simple pie chart over at the right of the Audience Overview page that has a key showing ‘New Visitor’ and ‘Returning Visitor’.

This may seem like so simple a metric that I can almost hear you sigh and say “well, duh! A new visitor is someone who hasn’t been before and a returning visitor is someone who has!” – and you would be right.

However, this isn’t the whole story. Being a machine, Google has to put a system in place to determine who is new and who is coming round again. And once it’s worked that out, what does that mean for how your site is performing?

In its simplest form, Google Analytics creates a cookie (a small text file) on a visitor’s computer when they visit your site. They will only do this with the visitor’s permission. Then when that visitor returns, Analytics reads the cookie and says “AHA! Returning visitor!”. But if the visitor has not given permission for a cookie to be stored, or is on a different computer, or on their phone, or is using a different browser on their computer, or if they had a problem deleted all their cookies… or… or… or… then Google won’t find the cookie and will nod sagely to itself and say “Welcome, new visitor” and put a mark in the ‘New’ column.

So it is almost guaranteed that these figures will be at least a little inaccurate, and always weighted on the side of having too many New rather than too many Returning Visitors listed.

How does this help you then? Well, even if the exact numbers are a little off, the New vs Returning chart can still alert you to the success of a campaign or potential problems in your site.

If, for example, you have a really high number of New Visitors this month, it could be because you have been publicising heavily – or it could mean that you’ve been linked to by another source that’s sending you a lot of traffic, or that some content on your site is performing particularly well in search engines at the moment.

To work out what’s causing this, you need to explore the other reports in Google Analytics because no one report in Analytics gives the whole story. You can see a detailed report of New vs Returning under Audience > Behaviour > New vs Returning – but you might also want to…

  • look at your Bounce Rate – how many of those new visitors were arriving and then going away again immediately?
  • check how long visitors stayed on the site for if they looked at more than one page. Have a look at the report you’ll find at Audience > Behaviour > Engagement
  • review location-specific numbers – you can find these under Demographics > Location (or Language) then use the Secondary Dimension dropdown to choose Visitors > Visitor Type which will show you how many new and returning visitors are coming from each country.

Secondary Dimension - Visitor Type

You can use the Secondary Dimension dropdown on other reports too.

Mostly you’ll be happy to get more visitors, of course. However, a flood of new visitors who aren’t returning might indicate that you need to look at:

    • are the search terms bringing in visitors appropriate to the content? Review the report at Traffic Sources > Sources > Search > Organic + Secondary Dimension

has someone linked to your content in a misleading way that you might need to ask them to adjust? Traffic Sources > Sources > Referrals + Secondary Dimensionare you making the most of opportunities to send visitors on to other relevant content on your site – whether that’s other blog posts, or highlighting related products and services you offer?

Did this post help you? Have you got questions? Please leave a comment so all readers can benefit from the answer!

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Finding your own path

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Jonathan Fields interviews Ann Rea for Good Life Project

Video still: Jonathan Fields interviews Ann Rea for Good Life Project

As you possibly know, I am deeply fascinated by the ways that artists of all sorts are making their way in the world – not following traditional paths, but by coming up with crazy ideas and following them through. ‘Arts Marketing’ shouldn’t be a depressing concept, but a chance to take our creativity into areas that will help us be creative in our primary channel too.

I occasionally watch episodes from Jonathan Fields’ Good Life Project series, and today’s episode, with painter Ann Rea, struck me in particular. Possibly it’s because to a certain extent her story mirrors my own – early training, followed by ‘sensible’, unrelated jobs, ultimately resulting in pulling her away from her art, and then a rediscovery that what she wanted to do was what she needed to do, for her own health and sanity. The way she did it too, rejecting the traditional visual-arts gallery model, is very interesting indeed. She came up with ideas, sought out people to work with and made her own business model, which appears to be working very well for her!

The video is 40 minutes long, but I think it’s an interesting 40 minutes. It’s certainly given me a few ideas and started me thinking about how I need to be carrying on work now to ensure that I can keep composing once my degree finishes next September. I hope you’ll find it just as inspiring!

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On not freaking out when updating WordPress

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wind-up fish on a blue crepe sea

Photo: “wind-up fish on a blue crepe sea” by saintbob on Flickr

So you’ve got your lovely shiny and new WordPress site up and running, you’ve been chucking content into it left, right and centre, your blog’s up and running and you’re starting to get great traffic. All in all, things are going really well. And then it’s telling you “WordPress 3.4.1 is available! Please update now!”. What to do?

The first thing to note is: Don’t rush in! Take a breath, step back and read the instructions! While updating is not difficult, occasionally it can go wrong, so you need to just take a few sensible precautions before you hit that button.

Why update?

Your site looks great, it works well, so why update it? The short answer is that – like a lot of software – WordPress isn’t perfect, they’re working on improving it all the time, so each update will fix bugs from earlier versions, improve speed and stability and close security holes. By updating, you’ll get the fastest, most secure and reliable version of the system there is. And it’s free. So why wouldn’t you?

Things to update

There are a clutch of things around WordPress that periodically need updating:

  1. WordPress itself – this is the big one – it’s going to make changes to the structure of your content management system, possibly to the databases that hold your content, and while WordPress tests their updates really carefully, there is always the possibility that something won’t be quite right with your setup and it’ll go kablooey (yes, that’s a technical term)
  2. Plugins – while these are unlikely to affect your whole site, something going wrong with a plugin update can break the thing that the plugin does – your events calendar, for example, or your contact form
  3. Themes – WordPress will periodically tell you you have updates to your themes. These updates won’t destroy your content, but there is the possibility of them changing the way your site looks, or breaking a customised version of a theme, so you need to be aware of what it is you’re updating

Now for the principal warning:
DON’T PANIC
in large friendly letters 🙂

Take that breath. Get yourself a cup of tea and click into the Plugins area of your site (in the left column) and find your backup tool. I usually use one called BackWPUp, which allows for regular backups to be scheduled as well as run on command. If you don’t have a backup plugin, you can search for “backup” after clicking on the Add New up by the heading on the Plugins page and pick one you like (try to get one that will do an easy restore as well as a backup!). Once it’s set up, run it and then check to make sure that you got the backup 🙂 This will ensure that you can restore your site if everything does, indeed, go kablooey.

Instances of kablooey are rare, but they will inevitably happen on that one day you skipped the backup step… so don’t take a shortcut on this one!

Once you’re backed up, you can start updating stuff – just click the update button and WordPress will do all the heavy lifting for you.

Updating plugins

Plugins you will have to update one by one. They’ll generally include a link to describe what the update includes, so you can read that if you want. Or just click Update automatically and it’ll run away and do its thing.

Updating themes

If WordPress finds updates for any of the themes that are on your system, it’ll prompt you to update them – this includes all themes that you’re not actually using. In particular, even if you’ve only ever used one theme on your site, WP ships with two themes – Twenty Ten and Twenty Eleven – which it will want to periodically update. Feel free to forge ahead with these updates.

The ones to pay particular attention to are updates either to the theme you’re currently using (you can see this on the Appearance > Themes page in WordPress – it’s the one right at the top of the page) or to the theme that the one you’re currently using is based on – for example, if your current theme is an adaptation of Manifest, if you see updates to Manifest appearing, you’re going to want to be extra-careful in case it overwrites your current theme. If you’re not sure what to do, get in touch with your designer/developer and ask them to confirm that it’s not going to break your beautiful theme.

A final recommendation of caution

If the update to WordPress is a major one (e.g. you’ve been on WordPress 3.4 but now you’re offered 3.5 or 4), then I’d recommend that you don’t update immediately. Major updates are rarely hassle-free and if you’re not super-confident about restoring your site after a kablooey incident, then it’s best to hold off for a little. Give it a week or two and you’ll probably see a 3.5.1 update, or a 4.0.1 which will contain fixes for bugs reported by early upgraders. Your site won’t cease to function if you don’t update immediately, but once the first bugs are ironed out, you should take advantage of the improvements made to the new version.

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Google Analytics: What’s the “bounce rate”?

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street soccer

Photo: “street soccer” by phlubdr on Flickr

If you’re using Google Analytics, you probably already know that it’s an incredibly powerful tool – and not all the metrics it offers are instantly comprehensible. In this post I’m going to talk about “Bounce Rate” and how it can help you find and fix problems with your site.

Google’s help page describes the bounce rate as:

The Bounce Rate is the percentage of bounced visits to your site.

A bounce is calculated as a single-page view or single-event trigger in a session or visit.

Yuh. OK… In English, this means that someone came to your site and went away again without clicking through to anything else on your site – it’s a one-page visit. There are only two real explanations for a bounce:

  1. They found exactly what they were looking for and felt no need to look further
  2. They found nothing of interest or were put off by some aspect of the content approach, design or implementation (anything from garish colours, slow-loading pages to poor content could do this)

Obviously, the first scenario is a pretty good one and the second scenario indicates a problem you need to fix.

You can see the Bounce Rate on your Content > Overview page – this is the rate for the whole site you’re tracking so it’ll give a vague idea of how your site’s going, but where the Bounce Rate becomes useful is when you look at individual pages. Hop over to Content > Site Content > Pages and you’ll be able to see the Bounce Rate for each page – this will show you what content is encouraging users to move on to other pages in the site, and which ones aren’t.

You can also use the Bounce Rate data under Traffic Sources > Sources > All Traffic to identify whether visitors from a particular source might not be having their expectations met.

Once you’ve identified a page that you think should have a lower bounce rate, what can you do to improve it? There are three main areas to look at:

  1. Is the content clear, succinct and easily scannable (our free Writing for the Web Quick-Start Guide can help you tailor your content to be web-friendly)
  2. Have you actually got any links to other parts of the site on the page? Usually there’ll be navigation links, but relevant links in the content itself are more likely to encourage users to explore.
  3. If you’re seeing a high bounce rate for visits from Google, what are the keywords that are being used? If they’re not relevant, you should be able to fix your content so your page only shows up for relevant searches (yes, in this case, fewer hits is a good thing!)
  4. Is your design getting in the way of your message? If the page is cluttered, hard on the eyes, there are prominent animated images, auto-play audio, your fonts are too small… any of these may scare away visitors who may never even see your carefully crafted and incredibly helpful content. Simplify your design, remove things that aren’t necessary and put your content centre-stage.

Once you’ve considered these, you probably have some idea of what to change. Now for the hard part: Just change ONE thing. Just one. Add calls to action in the text OR declutter the design OR improve the search engine optimisation, but only do one – if you change the entire page, you won’t be able to tell what was causing the problem – slow changes will pinpoint where the real issue is and help you understand your audience better.

Don’t know where to start? Get our Writing for the Web ebook for free when you join our email list – or contact us for a free site review and quote!

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