How To Use Google Analytics Cohort Analysis

Google Analytics recently released its new Cohort Analysis feature. Justin Cutroni did a huge, full writeup on his blog, which is well worth reading. Today, I’d like to dig into a couple of basic use cases for this new report so that you can turn the analysis into something useful.

If you’re unfamiliar with cohort analysis, it’s a method of analyzing different groups of people – cohorts – to see if they behave differently.

Cohort analysis is located under the Audience menu:


Fire it up. What you’ll see to start is something like this:

Cohort_Analysis_-_Google_Analytics 3.jpg

This is the daily view of people who’ve entered your site over the last 7 days and what percentage of them you’ve retained. We’ll focus on retention in this walkthrough, but you can change the metric to things like conversions, total traffic, and more.

I’ve annotated cohort analysis below so that you can see how it works. If we begin at February 10, we see 100% of the people who visited that day.

Cohort_Analysis_-_Google_Analytics 2.jpg

At [1] above, we see the number of people who came back on February 11 who originally came in on 2/10, 1.02%. At [2] above, we see the number of people who originally came in on 2/10 who have come back on 2/12, 0.51%.

What does this tell me? It says that my audience rapidly declines day after day very drastically. What might I want to test from that knowledge? If my audience falls off that rapidly, perhaps I need to do paid promotion of my content to ensure that people come back and see it. Perhaps I need to test re-posting to my social channels the content I’ve created recently so as to win back eyeballs at a greater amount. I could test either of these ideas and then come back to this cohort analysis in a few days to see if there’s a significant change.

Out of curiosity, does social media get people to come back? I’ll turn on my social media audience segment and compare everyone vs. just people who visit from social media, and I’ll change the timeframe from daily to weekly:

Cohort_Analysis_-_Google_Analytics 4.jpg

Wow, look at the difference in the percentage of people who come back from social versus all marketing methods! My social media audience may not be the largest audience I have, but it sure is a loyal one compared to the general population.

Suppose I question whether my email marketing is working or not. I can load an email marketing segment into this:

Cohort_Analysis_-_Google_Analytics 5.jpg

That’s dynamite. Look at how many people return week after week from email compared to social media. Email by far is my strongest channel so far for retaining my audience.

How about organic search – how does that cohort compare?

Cohort_Analysis_-_Google_Analytics 6.jpg

Organic search, shown above, performs badly compared to other channels. That’s a piece of analysis that demands I go find some insights. Why does organic search traffic behave differently and less loyally than other channels? The first place I’d look is in Webmaster Tools:


Above, we see that people are finding my site for terms that really aren’t as relevant to most of the content. No wonder organic search’s cohort performs less well on retention – people are finding me for things I don’t write about, and of course there’s no reason for them to come back.

This is the power of cohort analysis, to be able to understand how your different audiences perform over time, as groups. You’ll be able to answer all kinds of questions with the information in cohort analysis.

How often should you blog? Look in your cohort analysis for when people stop coming back, and blog often enough that they don’t lose interest and forget to come back.

How often can you send email? Look in your email segment to find where retention drops off.

What products sell best at what times of year? Look to see if a cohort in your eCommerce analytics behaves significantly differently than others.

Try out cohort analysis and let it inspire you to ask better questions about your audience!

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Social Media SEO Signals are Drowning in Ice Cream

Social media does not drive SEO.

At a recent PR News SEO and Google Tools Conference, several of the presenters made reference to studies done by SEO tool vendors about social media driving search results. These studies are surveys of SEO professionals; SEO folks are asked what they believe are the most important contributing factors to a site’s organic search performance.

By itself, there’s nothing wrong with the data. Here’s one example from SearchMetrics, in which 7 of the 10 top ranking signals are social media-based:


What conclusion might you draw from this? At the conference, presenters on stage and members of the audience drew the conclusion that social media drives search traffic. They drew the conclusion that to rank well in search, you must post your content on social media.


Yet Google’s head of web spam, Matt Cutts, openly said that social media signals are not taken into account in Google’s search algorithm.

So why the confusion?

This is a clear case of marketers not understanding correlation. All these studies are correlations only. Before we dig into why the conclusion is wrong, let’s revisit ice cream and drowning. If you were to look in any public health database, you’d notice a strong correlation between the amount of ice cream people eat and the number of people who drown. The surface conclusion you might jump to is that ice cream causes drowning, right?

Of course not. Common sense says there’s an underlying variable: temperature.

As temperatures go up, people go swimming.
People eat ice cream.
The more people swim, the more people drown.

Very few drowning deaths occur in the middle of winter.

You could likely find similar data that shows a strong relationship between deaths due to hypothermia and hot cocoa consumption.

Let’s revisit social media ranking signals. What might be the underlying variable that we’re forgetting? The currencies of SEO are inbound links. The more high quality links you get to your website, the better you rank. Is it reasonable to assume that high quality content gets great links? Yes! Is it also reasonable to assume that high quality content gets shared? Yes! Does that mean social sharing drives SEO? Absolutely not. It’s just an indicator of quality content.

The lesson that attendees at the conference should have taken away was to create content so great that people can’t help but link to it and share it vigorously. Disabuse yourself of the notion that social drives SEO in any way until we hear the official word from search engines to the contrary.

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Do influencer lists and awards matter?

As happens every time another “influencers” list appears, reactions in the marketing community range from “OMG GRATS” to “This is BS”. The better question is, do these sorts of things matter?

The short answer is: only you can tell from your data.

If you’re looking for someone to hire or someone to read, then ask how often you consult lists of award winners or power user lists. If the answer is never, then lists don’t matter. If the answer is often, or as often as they come out, then lists matter.

If you’re a recipient of an award or listed in a directory of names, then check your marketing analytics. Did your data significantly change above and beyond normal activity?

For example, here’s what the average increase/decrease numbers of Twitter followers (the very, very top of the social funnel) look like for my account over the last 60 days, plotted with a 7 day moving average:


Note that the last couple of days, when a new award came out, are noted with the giant red arrow. The variance of new followers hasn’t substantially increased compared to what early January looked like. Thus, it would appear that for the top of my marketing funnel, new awards and lists don’t provide a huge bump.

Dig into your marketing automation system. If you’ve won an award, check the input field where people can tell you how they heard about you. Review your inbound email notifications. If no one ever mentions lists or awards, then you know that for your business, it doesn’t matter. If people mention awards you’ve won frequently, then you know they matter.

Only you can make the determination whether awards matter to you and your business. If they do, pursue them with vigor! If they don’t, then just smile, politely say your thanks, and move onto the next thing.

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