Building your website and generating a user base is hard work. But it is nothing compared to the effort involved in keeping users coming back day after day. Letting your site rest on its laurels is easily done, but Google is on hand to help you keep an existing site current and on top of its rivals. There are a number of ways of doing this, but the most important is to understand what visitors are doing on the site, and how they are using your content and functionality. Armed with this knowledge, you can tweak bits of your site that are proving less popular and promote and expand those areas that are doing well. That's where Google Analytics comes in.

Google Analytics is a powerful, free tool that will help you analyze the performance of multiple websites, and provides metrics to help monitor how they are being used. It is the most widely used tool of its kind, used by over 50% of the top 10,000 most popular websites. The tool is used by, among others, booking.com, the Huffington Post and Yelp.

Chief Technology Officer at the Huffington Post Paul Berry needed a tool that could compare their various products against each other and chose Google Analytics to do the job:

Our ongoing goal is to keep existing viewers coming back for more and to increase our readership," says Berry. "Google Analytics gives us all the features of a high-end analytics package and delivers the data we need to continuously optimize site performance. And at no charge, the price is right."

To enable the service on your site, you must place some JavaScript code on each page you want to track (see the Getting Started guide for details). The tool itself offers a range of functionality, but the bulk of it is split into the following sections:

Visitors

This section lets you view a host of details about how many visits you have had to your site over time. You can segment users by network location, browser and computer setup and geography. A recent new feature allows you to view mobile visitors, including what devices and carriers they are using.

This data is useful to understand how users are viewing your site. If everyone arrives on an iPad, you may want to think about your Flash content. If your visitors have a strong alliance to older browsers, you may need to think again about your HTML 5 content and those cutting-edge new JavaScript tricks you were planning.

Traffic sources

Here you can view the sources of your visitors. Did they come to your site directly, via referrals or search engines? You can also view details of Google Adwords campaigns in this section. This information can help you understand how your marketing efforts are panning out. Are your Google Adwords paying for themselves? Are the relationships you’ve built up with sister sites worth the effort? How is your ranking on Bing compared with Google?

Content

The content section lets you understand more accurately how the exact content on your site is performing. It will tell you the top five most-viewed pages over a time period. You can also view more detailed information on where people viewing a page came from, how long they spent viewing the page and more.

A useful element of this section is "Content by title." This will let you understand page views, average time on the page and bounce rate for each page on your site side-by-side. This is great for comparing the relative popularity of content, and works well for blogs where you can basically compare individual posts against each other. It is a crude but effective way to judge the popularity of your posts.

Goals

Goals can be created in Google Analytics to measure the success of particular outcomes. A goal can be users finding a certain blog post, or getting to a certain step in a check-out process. Once a goal is created, you can view the number of times a goal is completed, and by defining a funnel, or steps to reach a goal, you can see how many people who start a process actually reach the intended goal.

Conclusions

Google Analytics is not perfect. The provided statistics are not real-time and, as with most Google products, support is limited to basic help pages and a user forum. While this is fine for most users' simple needs, Analytics is such a complex product that you may want to invest in a good book or paid-for training to get the most out of it. But on the whole, especially as a free service, Analytics is an accomplished product, and vital if you want to fine-tune your site and maintain its popularity.