How to Use Google Analytics to Tell Where Your Website Traffic Comes From

how to use google analytics

The Google Analytics Dashboard can be scary and confusing.  I am going to break down how to use Google Analytics to tell where your traffic is coming from, and how to isolate one source from another to understand whether traffic from certain sources is growing.

How to Use Google Analytics

How to Get to Your Traffic Report

When you log into Google Analytics, you see something like this.  Click “Traffic Sources” near the bottom on the left:

how to use google analytics

That will expand the “Traffic Sources” accordion.

Next Click “Overview” and you will get a screen that looks like this:

how to use google analytics

Different Types of Traffic

In the overview, you will see a pie chart that highlights 4 traffic sources: Search Traffic, Referral Traffic, Direct Traffic and Campaigns.

  • Search Traffic: Traffic that comes from a Web search.
  • Referral Traffic: Traffic that comes from someone clicking a link to your site from another site.
  • Direct Traffic: Traffic where the “referrer is unknown,” such as directly typing a URL into the navigation window or clicking on a link in an email newsletter.
  • Campaigns: Traffic from an adwords campaign.

Diving Deeper Into the Sources

To dive deeper into a particular traffic source, click “Sources” just under “Overview:”

This will take you to another set of menus where you can take a closer look at a particular source.  You will see a chart that looks very much like the overview chart, except it will be a chart for only the traffic source you choose.

In this case, I am going to click “Search Traffic… Overview:”

how to use google analytics

This gives me a closer look into my search traffic, how it is trending.  In this case, my traffic is bumping along with no major trend up or down.  If I were embarking on an SEO project for this site, this is where I would go to see the fruit of my labor.  After all, if I am optimizing for search, then my traffic from search should increase.

Where to Look in Specific Scenarios

The first few paragraphs were a basic overview of the structure of Google Analytics and where to go to see traffic breakdowns.  Now I am going to talk about specific scenarios related to web traffic and where you would go to see the associated traffic trends.

Scenario 1:  I Just Guest Posted on a Popular Site

When you guest post on a popular site, provided your profile/bio at the bottom of the post contains a link to your site, the expected increase is in the “Referrals” category.

Scenario 2:  I Just Put Out a Press Release

A press release is a wonderful way to get publicity for your company, product, or service.  It is also one of the best-kept secrets (if not controversial) of SEO.  When you distribute a press release over the wire, you should see an increase in the “Referrals” category.

Scenario 3:  I just Spent $1M on Google Adwords

If you have your customer lifetime value calculation down to a science, that is a good time to embark on a paid search campaign.  You can track the results of this campaign in the “Paid Search” section of Google Analytics.

Scenario 4:  I Just Revamped my Content Strategy

You just finished a refresh of the copy on your website and put together a load of new, exciting and insightful content on your blog based on long-tail keyword search terms.

You should see an increase in the “Organic Search” section of Google Analytics.

Scenario 5:  I just Got Featured on Oprah

Congratulations – Oprah is about to melt your servers.  Its a nice problem to have.

When oprah says, “Go to www DOT yourwebsite DOT com” and 1 billion people hit your site at the same time, you will see an increase in the “Direct Traffic” section of your website.

Google Analytics is a powerful tool that has become more useful and more complicated over the years.  For a free tool its awesome, but don’t expect Google to hold your hand and explain to you how to use Google Analytics.

Understanding, measuring and tracking your traffic sources should be a fundamental part of your SEO strategy and hopefully this guide on how to use Google Analytics gave you some help.

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Tirrell Payton Tirrell Payton is a marketer and technologist with more than 15 years of experience in the digital world. He is a former executive at Accenture, a global technology and consulting firm, where he helped companies transition from "industrial speed" to "Web speed." Prior to Accenture, he worked in the digital media division of Yahoo.

41 Reactions
  1. Analytics provide so many insights. Glad to see a post that walks through such practical situations.

  2. Thanks for the compliment Robert.

  3. Thanks for the tutorial Tirrell! Do you have any recommendations on other practical Google Analytics tutorials a person can read to learn more?

  4. Hi John, I am actually working on a “Missing Manual” type of e-course to help people use google analytics more effectively. Stay tuned.

    • Hi Tirrell, Thanks for a great inaugural post here at Small Business Trends. As the partner of a long-time contributor, Susan, we are glad to keep it all in the family.

      – Anita

  5. I cannot figure out how to get to the first screen featured in this post.

    How does one get to that first screen?

  6. Hi Tirrell,
    Thanks for sharing nice post. Though I am Old Analytics user, I’ve learnt some new thing from your post.

  7. Hey Tirrell,

    Love the post. I think your plain-spoken approach to web analytics is a refreshing take and I hope others will adopt. To respond specifically to Jon’s comment above, to access the first page Tirrell has shown, you have to select the reporting profile under the accounts list. If your reporting for one website, it should be listed with a folder icon. You may have to drill down a few layers, until you see some reporting profiles. The default profile is called “All Web Site Data”. Hope this helps Jon, and thanks again Tirrell.

  8. Hi Tirrell,
    Thank you for sharing this piece of your experience as it clears a lot of doubts of mine.
    Really grateful to you!

  9. Nice breakdown, thanks!

    Quick question, should I add analytics to my blog site, or will it be tracked automatically via adSense?
    .. I somehow understood those two are separate things and added it myself, but wasn’t sure if that’s needed.. Wanted to document all steps how to get ir all up and running, hence wanted to double check?

    Anyway, good summary of analytics for a rookie.. 🙂

  10. Hi Tirrell,

    This is a nice introduction for people who are new to Google analytics. I think that the last section about what to look for in specific scenarios will be quite helpful for new users in particular. Thanks for sharing this.


  11. I just signed up for G- Analytics and much appreciate the summary on traffic sources!!

  12. When I downloaded the “Audience Overview” you sent me two days ago for the month of June for my website, the page was blank. Please send me a new report and/or tell me what I should do. Richard Thomas

  13. This is a very useful blog to learn the use of Google Analytics in the blink of an eye. Carry on your good work in the future!

  14. Can’t see option 🙁

  15. When i signed up for Google analytics account, i saw an upgrade option. Do we have to upgrade our Google analytics account to get more detailed traffic report about our website.
    Thank you for detailed information on Google Analytics

  16. Informative,

    can i track page views for individual day, in Google analytics, i spent my hour but didnt find it yet.

  17. Thanks for the summary. I have been using google analytics for a while, but don’t really understand much of what it is telling me. This helps a lot! I with there was a way to get more info from the direct traffic sources!

  18. Even though the information above is somewhat outdated and located in a different spot now, I didn’t know about traffic source reports and was able to locate it for my website. Very useful tip. Thank you! -Joe

  19. Thanks for sharing this information. Now I need to figure out how to add google analytics to my blog. The good news is that I’m getting folks signing up on my blog. The bad news is I have no idea where they are coming from.

  20. I am using google analytics for a long time. But I am not an expert in analytics. Thank you very much for sharing the pros and cons of analytics. I have learnt a lot from here.

  21. We use GA 2 years. In the last several month it stopped to give any meaningful results regarding keywords, that converted.
    In 96% of conversion cases (sign up form filling) from organic traffic GA informs us, that keyword is (not provided).

  22. Great article on GA. If you need an easy way to look at your google analytic stats, check out Easy way to see your stats for the non-pros.

  23. Great article. I’d also like to recommend Google Analytic Counters Tracker
    Plugin. This plugin, analyses the visitors hits on your websites and displays it
    graphically. It is also simple and easy to use.

  24. This is awesome! I would like to suggest Google Analytics Counter Tracker plugin on WordPress. it is one of the best you can use this days. It is very easy to use and it is compatible with almost every version of WordPress. You get detailed and concise analysis of your website guest and a graphical representation.

  25. For active and precise details of your blog or website guest, try using Google Analytics Counter Tracker plugin on wordpress. It is Very simple and easy to use. Once you Connect your Google Analytics account, you get Google Analytics stats, Group stats by hour, day, month and year.

  26. Though I use google analytics daily, but I don’t know the deep like that. Really fantastic post and worth tips for all web master.
    Thanks a lot @Tirrell Payton.
    I’ll come back soon to take your valuable tips. 🙂

  27. Brilliant article! but my advice will be to update your article and correct some things because google have changed them in google analytics, so this may be cause of some missunderstanding

  28. A brilliant guide from you that helped me to use and understand the whole analytics game.
    Before I was using analytics for only checking traffic or user behavior but after reading your post I can do more.
    Thanks! for sharing the guide on analytics


    Thanks for sharing such a amazing article…. Loved the way the article is written..perfect.This is a nice introduction for people who are new to Google analytics. I think that the last section about what to look for in specific scenarios will be quite helpful for new users in particular.