Cohort: More just than a group of Roman soldiers
Before we get into analyzing Google Analytics Cohort Report, let’s have a quick definition of what cohorts are and what they’re used for.
If you search “cohort,” the first definition you’ll see is “an ancient Roman military unit”.
Since you’re probably not concerned with the army structures of defunct empires, this isn’t the meaning you were looking for.
But just look at the second bullet under definition #2: “A group of people with a common statistical characteristic”.
Since web analysis is all about statistics, this is the definition we need. In fact, you can think of a “cohort” as just another name for a segment — since “segment” also denotes a group of observations sharing the same characteristic(s).
Need to understand segments better? Take a minute to read our article on segmentation in Google Analytics.
The anatomy of the Google Analytics Cohort Report — where to find it & what it can do
Cohort Reports can be found under the Audience Reports section of your Google Analytics dashboard.
Note the tiny “Beta” sign signaling that this feature is still in progress — so additional features could materialize within this report even as you read this post. Make no mistake, though, the beta feature is functional and provides accurate data.
In its present form, the Cohort Report shows the number of visitors acquired and retained over a given time period. Cohort analysis begins at the start date you select, and can range from one day to 12 weeks.
The report consists of two sections. One is a chart showing the time period on the Y axis, and number of visitors on the X axis.
The second part is a sheet, which shows the percentage of visitors retained within each day or week from the initial day or week.
The purpose of this report is to analyze visitor engagement based on the acquisition date of each group of customers. In other words, it should help you measure the number of visitors still coming back to your website after their initial acquisition.
Choosing a cohort type
The drop-down “cohort type” menu determines the primary criterion for sorting a cohort. For now, the only cohort type available is Acquisition Date.
As this feature develops, you can expect more Type criteria to be added — like “Transaction” or “Event”.
Acquisition tells you how interesting your website is to your customers. If a large proportion of your customers continues to be engaged with your site for a long period of time, it means that your website provides useful information and draws repeat visits. (Well done!)
However, if most of your customers are barely engaged over a period of time, this indicates that your website needs to increase the amount of engaging and new content it creates, and make better use of its traffic.
Engaged visitors convert better — so use cohort analysis to help determine what makes your visitors engage, and who the most engaged visitors are.
Choosing a cohort size
To better analyze your visitors’ behavior, you can select different sizes of cohorts you want to analyze. This enables you to observe the behavior of cohorts across days, weeks, or months.
The size of cohort you select should depend upon the intensity of your website activity. If you post new content every day, than you should observe the daily cohort — but if you publish new content on more of a weekly basis, look at weekly cohorts.
Choosing a metric
The cohort analysis default view uses retention as the primary metric to show the behavior of a given cohort.
However, you can select different metrics (such as conversions, revenue, session duration, or pageviews). To select a metric, ask yourself what visitor activity you want to analyze.
For example, by observing conversions, you can use cohorts to determine how long the average purchase cycle of your customers is.
Analyzing cohorts with metrics can improve your website in many ways. You can identify the days when it’s best to publish new content, or when to start product offers or deals. It can even help you formulate your own attribution model and analyze your acquisition strategy.
Choosing a date range
Use the date range menu to select the length of the period that your cohort reflects. The increments here will depend on the cohort size you chose.
If you decided to view your cohort by days, the time increments available in “Date Range” will be displayed in days. You can select up to 30 days; up to 12 weeks; or up to 12 months.
The date range helps you analyze cohort data with greater granularity (using days), and to analyze long-term retention and conversion (using weeks or even months).
Acquisition date selection
Another useful option in cohort analysis is the ability to select a particular date range for display in the chart. This option is very useful for comparing different cohorts.
Date selection can determine which day or week was most effective in retaining visitors. You can even match this data up with content published at that time, or other changes made to the site, to identify WHY that date range was more effective.
Cohort analytics sheet
The final part of the cohort analysis report is the sheet, which displays the total number of visitors and the percentage that returned to your site after being acquired.
This sheet provides a detailed and complete view of returning visitors:
As you can see from the example sheet above, deeper shades of blue represent the better-performing cohorts according to the metric selected (in this case, User Retention).
This means that more of the visitors from that particular cohort returned to the website within the given amount of time — ergo, they are more-engaged visitors.
Turn cohorts into segments for advanced analysis
Cohort analysis can be used to gain insights about your user engagement and retention, and to identify the reasons why users return to visit your website.
Using your defined cohort, you can create a specific segment of users. The cohort analytics screen makes this very easy to do. Just click on a cohort that seems interesting, and you’ll immediately create a segment.
In our previous example, we can see that the cohort of visitors from November 12 to November 18 had a higher retention rate than previous or subsequent weeks. By creating a segment of these visitors, we can determine what makes them different compared to other visitors.
Once you create this segment, you can check it against other reports in Google Analytics, such as:
- Audience reports: See who these visitors are, and if they differ significantly from other visitors
- Acquisition reports: See what channel these visitors came from, and if that channel is more effective in acquiring more engaged visitors
- Behavior reports: See landing pages and all other pages to which these visitors navigated
- Conversion reports: See if these visitors converted better than your average visitors
Let’s go through what to look for in each of those comparisons.
Find out who your cohort is by using Audience Reports
By analyzing audience reports on our sample site, we found out the following:
The segment we created from our November 12-18 cohort was more engaged overall than the average visitor, with a lower bounce rate, more pageviews, and longer sessions.
Most of the retained visitors used desktop computers to visit the site.
All of the most engaged visitors were males belonging to the 25-34 age group.
According to the In-Market Segment report, the selected cohort was predominantly comprised of people in Business Services, including Web Design and Advertising-related services.
These are just a few examples of the kinds of reports that can provide valuable insights and allow you to further improve and adapt your website to better match the audience it engages.
See how your cohorts arrived at your site by using Acquisition Reports
By using acquisition reports in conjunction with your cohort segment, you can see what the most effective channel is to acquire the most engaged audience — so you can double down on that channel.
In our example above, there is no significant difference between the cohort segment and all users, meriting no further deeper analysis using acquisition reports.
However, if you detect that there’s a significant difference, and one channel brings in far more engaged visitors, you can open up the Source/Medium Channel Report and do a detailed investigation.
Of course, before using the above reports, make sure you’ve properly configured your channel grouping.
See how your cohort navigated the site by using Behavior Reports
Using behavior reports, you can observe how your cohort segment navigated the website and what their most popular content was.
There are three reports in the Behavior section that are very useful for this purpose. The first is Landing Pages Reports (found under the Site Content subsection).
Using this report, you can figure out which of your landing pages were more popular with your engaged audience.
Once you know that, you can provide more content similar to that page, or promote more popular products to a similar audience using PPC. You can also use your mailing list to address similar prospects and offer them a popular product.
See how your cohort navigated your site using Behavior Flow
Behavior flow reports can’t be segmented, so you can’t compare the behavior of your cohort segment to the behavior of all your other users.
Regardless, you already know that these visitors are more engaged. By using the Behavior Flow report, you can identify the sequence of their navigation. That way, you can personalize your website or improve your promotional activities by pointing the visitors to more interesting content or products.
Discover whether your cohort converts well or not by using Conversion Reports
When used with your cohort segment, conversion reports can help reveal whether a more engaged cohort converts better, and how.
Depending on your website’s goal, you can analyze conversions made by a given cohort and identify the content most likely to engage that audience. You can also identify the most popular products.
Why Cohort Reports are superior to Audience Reports
Use cohorts to effectively segment your visitors and detect those who are most likely to make return visits and engage more with your website.
Although you can see return visitors using Analytics’ Audience Reports feature, cohorts offer you more granularity. Plus, you can use them to uncover visitor behavior even after significant events or changes to your website. For example, if you redesign your website, you can create a cohort to see how the change in design impacted visitors.
You can also, as we’ve seen, use cohorts to analyze how new content affects your visitors, and if you’re addressing the right visitors in the right way.
When analyzing cohorts, you need to take care of a few things first.
The first thing to do is to compare your cohort with the behavior of users over the same time period. For example, if you segment your cohort to a single week, compare that weeklong segment with all the visitors who browsed your website during another full week. Otherwise, the results may not be comparable.
As Cohort Reports are still being developed, you can expect Google to add more functionality and make the tool even more useful in the future.