Google Analytics (GA) has popularized analytics for folks who hardly know what analytics really are. No longer the domain of deeply technological vendor specialists, analytics can now be implemented by anyone who signs up for a GA account.
For some, it’s really that simple. If you have a small site and need to know the basics, you hardly need anyone to do anything for you at all (from an implementation standpoint). GA gives you a tracking parameter where you add your domain name and you plop this into the header of your page and suddenly, you are part of the grand analytics experiment.
Where mainstream vendors send you expensive proposals, complicated account teams, service level agreements, caveats and contracts, GA sends you the tracking code. And this has proved almost a siren call to many marketers looking (justifiably) to break free of Big Vendor handcuffs.
The problem is, some people don’t know how much GA can actually do. But even learning a few little-known facts and limitations about GA may help dispel the notion that it’s a set-it-and-forget-it kind of tool. The follow items refer specifically to Google Analytics’ free offering, not its more heavyweight GA Premium offering. Many items can be found in Brian Clifton’s book Advanced Metrics with Google Analytics.
1. Google Analytics Ignores Data After a Certain Activity Level is Reached.
After 500 hits during a single visitor session, further activity is ignored. “Hits” is an old-fashioned word that no one wants to think about anymore, but servers deal with nearly everything on a “hit” level, even if analysts think it’s not useful to reference this as a parameter. A hit is generated any time any item is requested from the web server — a tracking code, a GIF file, a PDF, a page element, an interactive module. And depending on how your site is built, getting to 500 hits might not be so far a barrier to bash into. And then the activity is ignored. It’s not counted.
2. It Samples Data After a Certain Activity Level is Reached.
After you reach 1 million unique dimension combinations, GA samples the data. In somewhat plainer language, this means that once you have that many variables in play — and they do stack up fairly rapidly — GA selectively and intelligently ignores some of the data. It deploys sophisticated algorithms that make quick work of understanding overall patterns and dropping out the data least likely to result in a visible difference.
It’s the same principle universal image compression files (like JPG) use today — what you can’t see anyway will never be missed. Again, that is the driving principle. But when acute detail is needed, or where samples are very large and where algorithms may stray very far from true north, then sampling is not so great. It’s certainly something to be aware of if you are running GA on a heavily trafficked site.
3. It Calls Key Performance Indicators “Goals” Allows 20 Per Profile.
This won’t affect smaller implementations, and there are workarounds to minimize the effect it may have on even larger ones. But for very large, multiplex implementations, 20 KPIs per profile may seem puny compared to the nearly limitless ones you can set up in the pay-for tools. Remember that KPIs may be any valuable action you define — from time spent on page, to content downloaded, to transactions, to completing a registration. The list is about as infinite as the amount of clicks on all the sites in all the world.
Again, this issue can be managed and mitigated and for many it will never be a problem. But enterprises beware: You are probably going to need more than 20 defined KPIs and the free GA tool does not allow it.
4. It Allows 10 Steps Per Conversion Funnel.
So, you’ve defined your goals (KPIs, value-triggers, call them what you want), and now you need to track how successful your “paths to conversion” are. These are the pages visitors get to on their way to conversion. The success of these pages (in other words, whether they move the visitor to the next step in conversion) is critical to overall conversion success.
It’s complicated because while you define these, there will always be lots of users who do not follow expected paths to conversion. They may teach you something else about your content, but they won’t teach you the same thing as you will learn by watching what happens inside your conversion funnel. GA lets you define up to 10 steps inside this funnel. But if you are creating funnels with more than 10 steps, you may want to simplify them anyway.
The four limitations above are based on a single guiding principle, and it’s an essential one for a tool that’s free and allows anyone to sign up. That principle can be summed up as “equality.” GA wants to provide everyone with a very good, functioning, accurate set of analytics reports. It does not want those who might greedily gobble up all the bandwidth with their massive traffic to overload the mighty GA servers and slow down your humble reports to meaningless trickle. So it puts some limiters on the engine.
5. Google Analytics Is no Better Than its Implementation.
GA, in this regard, is identical to even the most expensive tools in the market. And we are not addressing the use of the data here — that would be an entirely different and very rich subject. We are talking about building the analytics architecture. About doing more than just putting in the tracking code they give you and looking at the basic reports. This includes ensuring the pages are tagged properly, calls are being made from the page to the analysis engine and that reports are populating accurately and consistently.
Call it “implementation,” or call it “plumbing” — it’s the heart of any analytics project and it needs to be done correctly or the project comes to grief. Try not to leave this job to someone who has 12 other jobs too — nor to your content agency that may or may not really want to be measured quite so fervently as you want to measure them.
- You’ve planned your analytics environment advantageously.
- You’ve gone through a stringent KPI definition exercise and know what your site goals are.
- Your KPIs are logical and match your business needs.
- Your tagging and reporting reflects the choices you’ve made.
This will require mapping business requirements to actual possible reports that can actually be achieved within the tool. It’s just a bit harder than it sounds, and should be placed squarely in the hands of folks who spend lots of time making sure analytics really works.
Perhaps the most important fact about GA is one that shall go unnumbered: It may be free to “get” but not necessarily free to “get right.”