Google Analytics Guide: Goals, Conversions, and Campaign Tracking

Who this guide is for

This guide is written for publications currently using the Universal Analytics version of Google Analytics (analytics.js). If you are currently using the original (old) version of Google Analytics (ga.js), you should upgrade to analytics.js.

If you have implemented Google Analytics using Google Tag Manager (not very common among INN sites), the guide should still be accurate. In addition, you may want to explore approaches to campaign tracking using Google Tag Manager that go beyond the scope of this guide. 


It almost goes without saying, but from a publisher’s perspective, one of the best things about digital media is the measurability of your audience’s (users’) behavior. In traditional media, it was impossible to know what people were doing with your content. You could tell, say, how many copies of a magazine were sold or distributed, but you couldn’t tell what stories people actually read. Measurement was done after the fact, via surveys or diaries, and many questions you might have had were simply not answerable.

By comparison, in digital media, you can measure many aspects of engagement – and the measurements are generated and viewable in real time. But for a publisher, it can feel like you’re drowning in data. For instance, there are tens of thousands of data points in Google Analytics – which of them are most important to pay attention to?

Most publishers focus on a few metrics: users, sessions, page views, session duration, pages per session. These are useful measures of user behavior. But they aren’t enough, because they tell you only about behavior ON your website. 

They don’t tell you: 

  • what brought users TO your site
  • which efforts to build your audience are most effective
  • or what kinds of users are most valuable to your organization 

These metrics – and how to generate them – are the focus of this guide produced by Medill/Northwestern Prof. Rich Gordon for INN.

We are focusing on Google Analytics because it’s used by just about every website that we know of. It’s an amazingly powerful tool – especially when you consider that it’s free to publishers. 

But if you just set up Google Analytics in its “vanilla” configuration, you’ll be missing out on some of the metrics that should be most important to you.

These other metrics are important because the Web is not just a publishing channel. It’s also a direct-marketing channel. To build a successful publishing business, it is increasingly necessary to (1) think like a marketer and (2) measure like a marketer.

Marketers often use the metaphor of a funnel to describe the process through which a user engages with a product. At the top of the funnel, they become aware of the product (awareness). Then they learn more about it (consideration), then they buy (conversion), then they buy again (loyalty). The more people move through the funnel, and the faster they move, the stronger the business.

Publishers today have to do all of these: make people aware that your website exists, get them to visit, get them to come back and then, ideally, get them to pay you – whether via a donation, a subscription or a membership.

What this guide focuses on 

This guide focuses on how to monitor and measure the behavior of people who:

  • start off your site
  • click on a button or link and become a site visitor
  • and then, if possible, become a donor, member or subscriber

Armed with these metrics, publishers can make better decisions on how to build their audience – and their businesses.

It’s critical that you set up and configure Google Analytics properly. This guide will also help you tackle setup and configuration issues. It also provides advice on how to annotate your Google Analytics timeline, how to recognize inadvertent duplication of Google Analytics code on your web pages, and how to segment your audience based on visit frequency.  

by Medill/Northwestern Prof. Rich Gordon for INN

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