One of the most enduring characters in popular culture is Sherlock Holmes. Between the original books, 1930s movies, the recent blockbusters, the hit TV show, and thousands of other references, everyone is probably at least passingly familiar with the great English detective.

What makes Holmes so fascinating to us (and valuable to Scotland Yard) is his ability to quickly scan a crime scene, see beyond the obvious and, through his famous deductive reasoning, discover the truth of what really occurred.

Wouldn't it be great to have your own Sherlock Holmes at your disposal, ready to be called upon at a moment's notice to help you solve your own mysteries regarding the performance of your search advertising?

Actually, there is.

Only instead of a genius in a checked cap with a curved pipe, analytics applications help you dig deeper into Web visitor behaviors to gain a better understanding of whether your paid search/digital marketing efforts are bringing the right prospects to your site.

The Analytics Solution

To understand the contribution analytics applications can make, first distinguish between the information you get from Google AdWords and what analytics packages add to the mix.

Google AdWords does a great job of quantifying the basic performance of your digital marketing program. You can see performance indicators such as conversion rates, opens, clicks, impressions, etc., all of which are valuable metrics. They show you how effective your digital marketing efforts are in driving traffic to your website or landing pages.

What Google AdWords doesn't show, however, is what happens after those visitors arrive. It essentially leaves them at your doorstop.

That's where an analytics package adds value. It takes that next step, allowing you to track visitor behaviors throughout their visit, providing more clues to how well your paid search campaigns are working.

While myriad quality analytics applications are available to digital marketers, my personal preference is Google Analytics. For one thing, it's free, whereas you have to pay for the others.

More importantly, Google Analytics is already tightly integrated with Google AdWords, giving you a broad and deep view into the performance of your digital marketing campaigns. Other packages will require some work to gain the same, comprehensive view.

Finally, Google is perceived as the undisputed market leader in search engine marketing (SEM). When you are presenting an analysis of your campaign's performance to management, having the Google brand behind it gives instant credibility.

The 100% Solution

At this point, you may be wondering what value tracking visitor behavior on your website brings. With Google Analytics, you can go beyond seeing how many people you're attracting with your digital marketing to understanding whether they are prospective buyers—people who have a need for what you're selling, either now or in the future.

Some of the valuable metrics Google Analytics provides are...

  • Bounce rate
    This metric tells you how many visitors hit your landing page and then left without going anywhere else. A high bounce rate is a likely indicator that you're either attracting the wrong people initially or there is a problem with the messaging on your landing page. If your landing page isn't leading visitors somewhere else, you'll know you should either change it or spend the money elsewhere.
  • Average session duration
    How much time someone spends on your site is another good indicator of the effectiveness of your campaign—especially if what you're selling is more complex or a considered purchase. Higher average session durations usually indicate you are attracting the right visitors and they are becoming engaged with your content.
  • Number of pages visited per session
    This is another good measure of how engaged visitors become with your content or your company. For example, suppose visitors click on a product ad and are taken to its landing page. Once there, they begin looking around at what else you have to offer. Those are high-value prospects worth pursuing heavily.
  • Individual page performance
    You can use Google Analytics to track conversion events, such as the number of times visitors download a whitepaper or click a button to go to a third-party partner's site. It helps you put a dollar value on each page that shows which ones you should be leading visitors to most and which ones are under-performing to the point you should eliminate them.
  • Cross-platform performance
    This is a relatively new but important metric, especially for those involved in omnichannel marketing. With Google's Universal Analytics, you'll be able to measure performance across devices —e.g., you'll have insight into users who start their search on a smartphone or tablet, then move to a PC. This capability will provide a more accurate measure of total campaign performance—especially in the critical conversion phase —providing rich, robust data that can inform future keyword purchases. You can avoid the trap of last-click attribution instead allowing you to see how well your entire digital marketing effort is performing.

The goal is to get visitors engaged with your website. Taking that next step from using Google AdWords to implementing Google Analytics can show you which campaigns are most effective in generating real leads that move visitors to conversion.

In other words, you discover the campaigns that turn browsers into buyers.

Analytics also help you improve your branding campaigns, showing you which words and approaches you should be using based on their production—all the way down to the page level.

Once you understand what is working at this deeper level, you can make more-informed decisions about your budgets, bids, landing pages, ad copy, and other program elements, investing more in the ones that are working and cutting back or removing entirely those that aren't sticky—even if they're driving traffic.

Finally, analytics will help ensure you're relying on data rather than instinct—just as Holmes would do.

Uncovering the Mysteries

That's a lot of upside, especially for something free. But you may be wondering about any downside.

Just one: So much information can be uncovered that it takes study to learn how to use it effectively. In fact, it can be overwhelming.

One of the biggest issues is that organizations try to take in too much rather than setting up dashboards for the metrics they determine are important to their business. However, if you understand exactly which key performance indicators are the ones that drive what you're trying to accomplish, doing so can be extremely valuable.

Fortunately, there are great tutorials, such as these on the Google Analytics site itself, which help elaborate what Google Analytics does, why you need it, and how to implement it correctly.

Taking the time to review the tutorials up-front can help you avoid red herrings and dead ends in the long run.

A Case of Identity

As valuable as Google AdWords can be to paid-search campaigns, it only covers visitors up to the doorstep. Once they've crossed the digital threshold, it's anyone's guess what they do.

A package such as Google Analytics solves that mystery, helping you trace your visitors' steps throughout your website to determine not only how well your digital marketing campaign is working in driving the right traffic to your site but also how well your site is working to turn curious people into interested prospects, and those prospects into customers.

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Five Ways Google Analytics Turns You Into the Sherlock of Paid Search

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image of Mark Smith

Mark Smith is a co-founder of digital marketing agency KeywordFirst. He has worked in digital marketing since its inception and helped lead the first search engine marketing team at W.W. Grainger.

LinkedIn: Mark Smith