Basic analytics terms for understanding digital audiences

When someone reads or listens to our stories, we use a few different methods to keep track of them. These metrics are the baseline for what we measure when we look at our audience. We do this with Google Analytics, which is a good tool for understanding the fundamentals of your site. It provides general traffic trends over the long term and helps you understand traffic over time.


Unique visitor: Your unique visitor is the person that comes to your site.  This metric gives you an idea of your audience size. We also use the term “uniques” to talk about unique visitors. This gives you an idea of your audience size.

New visitor: Someone who has not come to your site before. Keep in mind that visitors are counted more than once if they use different devices, different browsers or clear their cookies (things that track us online) from their browsers. We want to convert these new visitors into returning visitors so they keep coming back.

Returning visitor: Someone who has come to your site before. A growth in returning visitors is a good sign of a growth in loyalty to your work.

Page views: When a user visits a page, that makes a pageview. If I visit five stories on, that would equal five page views.

Bounce rate: First thing to know: Bounce rate isn’t the most important metric you need to know. A bounce rate is the percentage of visitors who come to your site, look at one page, and then leave. While you don’t want a high bounce rate, it is important to remember that it is common among users of news sites to get what they want from one story and leave.

Sessions: According to Google Analytics, a session is a group of interactions that take place on your website within a given time frame (30 minutes). For example a single session can contain multiple screen or page views, comments, and more. Sometimes sessions are also called visits

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In one week, this unique visitor gave you six pageviews, three sessions and one bounce.

Questions to ask about your metrics numbers

Knowing analytics terms is great but that’s only the beginning. There are many different ways to interpret the data that you can get about your audience and your stories. Try to think of it as an interview: what questions do you need to ask, what information are you looking for, and what’s the best way to get there? There are two questions we suggest starting with that give you a foundation and understanding of what is happening with your online audience.

Brett Sayer/Flickr/CC

Brett Sayer/Flickr/CC

Is my audience growing?

This question is pretty straightforward. Is my online audience growing? Measure this using unique visitors.

Usually, we compare these numbers within a specific time period, such as month to month, week to week, and year to year.

Take a few minutes now to compare your unique visitors from last year to this year. Does the chart show a number going up and to the right? That’s a good sign.

Is my audience engaged?

There are many ways to measure engagement (and many ways to define what we even mean by engagement in the first place).

But for the purposes of measuring engagement with our site, we commonly answer this question by looking at pageviews per visitor. We find this number by dividing pageviews by unique visitors within a certain time frame.

You might be wondering — what about time on site? Time on site isn’t the most reliable metric, so we often steer clear of using that as a definitive way to measure audience engagement.

Say you left this page up in a separate tab while doing other work. Ten minutes later, you come back. Did you spend 10 minutes on our site? Nope. For that reason, and a few others, we stick with pageviews per visitor.

Get to know your real-time audience

Looking at analytics over time gives a better understanding of our audience. But looking at our real-time audience is also important.

All real-time analytics dashboards don’t look exactly like this example above since you can customize to your newsroom. But the components that tell you about the audience that is on your site right now will be very similar. A quick summary of what these different components are:

  1.  Concurrent Visits: The number of people on your site right now. This constantly changes – and can get a little addicting to watch.
  2. Concurrent Visits Today: The blue line shows you your concurrent visits over the day. The gray line shows you how your site performed a week ago. This can help you see if you’re having a good or bad day, traffic-wise.
  3. Top Pages: The pages on your site that are seeing the most traffic right now.
  4. Traffic Sources: Where all that traffic is coming from. You can see more detailed information about this by clicking the arrow icon on the left.
  5. Top Links and Top Search Terms: Top links show the websites that are sending the most traffic your way.  Top search shows the search terms that are sending the most traffic to your site.

What to do with this real-time information

Check out this post for more information on how you can use analytics to inform your editorial decisions. 

Having all of this information can help us make decisions about our stories and learn about our audience. Here are a few things you can do to utilize this information in useful ways:

Know when something is popular: If you waited for information from Google Analytics, you wouldn’t know a story was doing really well online until 24 hours after it was popular. Chartbeat allows you to note when something is doing very well, and to find out why. This is important for a number of reasons, including if you need to update a story, add more information, want to add related links to drive this big audience to more of your work or if there is a mistake or error that needs to be fixed.

Know when something is NOT doing well: Is that big investigation or feature you’ve worked on forever not reaching many people? Its good to know right away so you can brainstorm possible changes. Perhaps a headline change will make the story more shareable.

Prioritize what to build out more or add to: WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show looks at what the audience is already interested in using social media and Chartbeat to get a better idea of what segments could use more of a build-out or more information.

Teresa Gorman is a former member of the NPR Training team.