How to Create Actionable Dashboards in Google Analytics


Ryan Battles  •   Content Marketing

How to Create Actionable Dashboards in Google Analytics


This is a guest post by Ruben Ugarte, the founder of Practico Analytics. Ruben helps startups use their analytics data to improve their conversion rates, onboarding funnels and user retention. If you enjoyed this article, get access to a bonus 25-minute video at the end of the post to learn more about how to track important KPIs like CAC & Lifetime Value inside Google Analytics.


Google Analytics is an amazing analytics tool for tracking website traffic and mobile app usage. It is used by more than 10 millions websites and yet, most startups struggle to get value out of it.

I always hear the same comments from these startups. Comments like:

  • “We are overwhelmed by all the data”

  • “We don’t know what to focus on”

  • “There is no easy to figure out what reports will actually help us”

  • “We don’t even know if the data we see in Google Analytics is accurate”

The reason why most companies struggle to use Google Analytics (and most analytics tools) is because they haven’t figured out how to only see the data that is relevant to them. This means sorting through the all noise and being able to track your progress on a handful of key metrics.

The best way to solve these issues is by creating an actionable dashboard that summarizes your most important KPIs in a way that is easy to digest.

A dashboard forces you to prioritize which KPIs to focus on while make it easy to check the latest numbers in just a few clicks. This is also the last step in any successful analytics strategy.

In this post, I will walk you through how to figure out your most important KPIs (if you haven’t done so already) and then display those KPIs in an interactive dashboard within Google Analytics.

Let’s start by figuring out what KPIs will help you grow your startup.

The Step By Step Process to Figuring Out What KPIs You Should Be Tracking In Google Analytics

Before we can cut through all the noise in Google Analytics, we need to get crystal clear on what KPIs matter to our business and how to track them inside of Google Analytics.

This will instantly focus our attention and will help us ignore 95% of the reports that Google Analytics offers. You can always use those reports later on if they become important.

Does this routine sound familiar to you?

  1. You want to improve your marketing so you open Google Analytics to “check some numbers”.

  2. You stumble around through different reports. Some numbers went up while others went down.

  3. You continue this process until you eventually decide to add it to your ever growing to do list. You walk away without getting any useful answers from Google Analytics.

  4. Repeat steps 1-3 until you decide to just get going on whatever marketing plan you have in mind without knowing if your data supports this plan.

You need a better routine that is designed for helping you take action. It looks something like this:

  1. You open your custom Google Analytics dashboard that looks like this:

Screenshot

  1. You then examine the numbers for the last 30 days and compare them against the previous 30 days. You notice some negative changes so you decide to dig deeper to find why this happened and how to fix it.

  2. Based on the data that you see, you come up with a list of actions to improve these numbers. You then use the same dashboard to keep track of any improvements as you start to implement these changes.

Which routine sounds better to you?

The secret behind the second routine is that we decided what KPIs are important to us AHEAD of time and we are simply using our dashboard to keep track of them. We don’t waste time trying to figure out how check them and we don’t stumble around looking at random metrics.

Frontloading the Work by Figuring Your Top 5 KPIs

Before we can get to that beautiful dashboard shown above, we need to do some thinking around what KPIs are important to our business. This is where we will frontload the work by figuring our top 5 KPIs.

To do that, run through the questions below:

  • What are your biggest business challenges right now? Onboarding? More sign ups? Retention?

  • What KPIs will make the difference if improved, 6 months from now?

  • What are common industry specific benchmarks that you should be looking at? e.g. important SaaS Metrics.

  • What goals or targets are you working towards?

  • What will help you better understand your audience or users?

You can also find inspiration by researching common conversion rate problems that apps or websites may experience.

Once you’re done with the above questions, you will most likely have a list of 10-15 KPIs that all seem important. This is perfectly normal.

In the next section, I will help you narrow down this list even further by going over what makes a good KPI and how to avoid vanity metrics.

Understanding What Makes a Good KPI and How to Avoid Vanity Metrics

In the previous section we created a list of 10-15 KPIs that we think are important. We now need to pass each KPI through a few questions to weed out any vanity metrics.

Eric Ries, author of the Lean Startup had this say about vanity metrics (emphasis mine):

“The only metrics that entrepreneurs should invest energy in collecting are those that help them make decisions. Unfortunately, the majority of data available in off-the-shelf analytics packages are what I call Vanity Metrics. They might make you feel good, but they don’t offer clear guidance for what to do.” - Source

Take each KPI from your list and run them through the following questions:

  • Is this KPI tied to a key action?

    • Example: viewing a pricing page is an important step but actually signing up is the key action.
  • Does this KPI require too much inference?

    • Example: pageviews is a common example here where startups will say “we got a 20% increase in pageviews” like it’s a good thing. They assume that more pageviews equals more sales/signups/users.
  • If you improve this KPI by 10x in the next 6-12 months, will it lead to success in your business?

    • Example: Will increasing this KPI lead to more sales, more users, etc? If you can’t confidently answer this question, you may have a vanity metric e.g. pageviews in the above example.

One of the most common issues here is assuming that more is better. I mention pageviews as an example where companies assume that improving this number will translate into more signups or customers.

Avinash Kaushik, Google Analytics Evangelist, had this say about inferring “success” from vanity metrics:

“When you present a large number of Visits or Page Views or Followers, what you are essentially inferring is that more is better. You are inferring something that is not there: success. Or you are hypothesizing, when you report that data, that these large numbers mean that customers are happy and business is successful.” - Source

Now that we have narrowed down our list of KPIs into the most actionable and important ones, it is time to start building dashboards in Google Analytics.

Tips for Creating Great Looking Dashboard Within Google Analytics

Before we jump into the actual dashboard building, let me just say that Google Analytics may not be tracking all of the KPIs that you’re interested in by default.

This doesn’t mean Google Analytics can’t track it, it just means that you might need to make some tweaks to your tracking code e.g. add goals, set up ecommerce tracking, etc.

If there’s a KPI that Google Analytics isn’t tracking right now, then check out the following resources for a few ways in which you could set this up:

  • Calculated metrics - this is good if you have a formula that could take existing Google Analytics data to create a new metric e.g Cost of Acquisition: {{Cost}} / {{Revenue}}.

  • Import Cost Data - this is one of the ways in which you could import marketing cost data from campaigns like Facebook Ads.

  • Custom Dimensions & Metrics - this is the most flexible way of tracking pretty much anything that you want.

  • Goals - goals are good for figuring out conversion rates towards key actions like newsletter sign ups, e-commerce conversion rates, etc.

Once you are done with any custom tracking changes, be sure to check your Google Analytics setup for any technical issues. This is a great implementation checklist by Distilled that I use with my own clients.

A Crash Course on Creating Google Analytics Dashboards & Other Ways to Work With Your Data

Let’s start by creating a new dashboard through the “+New Dashboard” link in the top left of your account.

Screenshot

Give it a name and choose “Starter Dashboard” to help us get familiar with how this tool works.

Screenshot

Google Analytics will then pre-populate some data for us which looks like this:

Screenshot

Each section or box is a called a widget. A widget is able to load a metric or dimension (what Google Analytics calls metrics) while also letting us filter that data.

Let’s add a widget by clicking the “+Add Widget” in the top left corner of the screen. You will get the following screen:

Screenshot

The first thing we see here is that there’s two sections of “widget types”: Standard & Real Time. The second section (Real Time) will show you data as it happens but not all metrics will be able in real time e.g. bounce rate. Some metrics need to be processed by Google Analytics before they are available.

For our purposes, the “Standard” section will be what we will use. The icons for each widget explain what the widget will look like.

For example, the 2.1 Metric is simply showing a number like “100 Users” where 100 is 2.1 and Users is the word “Metric”.

For this walkthrough, I want to see a few KPIs around a content marketing strategy. The first KPI that I want to monitor is Traffic Sources. For this, the “Table” option is the best option to display this data.

Screenshot

If you’re not familiar with all the potential metrics or dimensions, this tool by Google can help you find the ones relevant to your business.

For this example, I want to see the “Default Channel Grouping” in the dimension box and “Users” and “Sessions” in the metric boxes.

Screenshot

I also want to filter this data though. I’m only interested in seeing users from the United States so I will add that in filter section.

Screenshot

I then click “Save” to see what this widget looks like. Google Analytics will then populate this widget with data from your account and show it to you.

Screenshot

And now you have your first widget! You can then tweak the settings in this widget further and instantly see your changes take effect.

Once you are done your dashboard, you can also do the following:

  • Change the time period and compare two time periods e.g. Last 30 Days vs Previous 30 Days

  • Add advanced segments on all your widgets

  • Share this dashboard by exporting a PDF or emailing a PDF file.

  • You can also share this dashboard with other Google Analytics users.

If you want any inspiration for your custom dashboards, be sure to check out the Solutions Gallery which gives you access to pre-existing templates that you can just copy into your own account.

There is also other ways to work with your Google Analytics data to monitor your progress on KPIs:

  1. Custom Reports - custom reports let you limit which dimensions & metrics are shown in a specific report, making them great to share with your colleagues without overwhelming them with too many options.

  2. Data Export API - this lets you export your Google Analytics data into a CSV file which you can then take and manipulate in Excel.

  3. Supermetrics - this lets you export data using the Data Export API while also making it easy to create tables and charts. This tool can help you avoid sampling issues as you get more traffic.

  4. Data Studio - this lets you pull data from different sources and create beautiful dashboards. It was created by Google and works very well with Google products e.g. Adwords, Google Analytics, etc.


About Ruben Ugarte:

Ruben Ugarte is the founder of Practico Analytics where he helps startups use their analytics data to improve their conversion rates, onboarding funnels and user retention. If you enjoyed this article, get access to a bonus 25 minute video where I walk you through how to track important KPIs like CAC & Lifetime Value inside Google Analytics: practicoanalytics.com/custom-KPIs-inside-GA

Enjoyed the article? Share it with your social networks. Thanks!



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