“Redeeming” the “9 Sins” of Google Analytics

March 10, 2011

I’ve been working with Google Analytics since, well, before it was Google Analytics (remember back to the days of Urchin On-Demand?) and I’ve seen the product evolve time and again.  While everyone has their gripes with GA (I certainly have mine), I’ve seen time and again that people take shots at Google Analytics with uninformed ammunition.  There is a long list of myths circulating out there about GA – in this post I hope to dispel a few of them.

This time around, I’m going to use the recent post by Annie Wallace at Search Engine Journal entitled “9 Sins of Google Analytics“.  Now, I don’t know Annie – never met or talked with her – and I believe she meant well in what she wrote.  In fact, I agree with a few points that she makes, however teach of the 9 “sins” pointed out are, I believe, incorrect.  Claims of GA’s failings are common, and I think much of that stems from the assumption that it’s a free tool and can’t be that good, plus a lack of knowledge and expertise in setting things up, so the outcome is sub-par.  Thus, let’s look at each claimed sin and review the facts to see if we can’t bring some redemption to the situation.

Redeeming Sin 1: Data Ownership

Who owns your Google Analytics data?  Do you control it, or can Google use it for other purposes – sell it, mine it, etc…?  I’ve heard concerns and complaints around this day after day.  A common belief is that Google can and does do whatever it wants with your GA data.  But is that true?

First off, let’s look at the terms of service for Google Analytics.  I’m not an attorney, but I don’t think that’s a requirement to read these terms – they are pretty straightforward.  Right at the beginning in section 1 “Custom Data” is defined as “the data concerning the characteristics and activities of visitors to your website…”  I.e. “all your data.”  Reading on in section 9 we see that any 3rd party (yes, that refers to agencies, web developers, etc… who might setup GA on behalf of a client) must have a legal agreement with the company GA will be used for that they (the company, not the agency) “owns any rights to Customer Data in the applicable account…”  So, here in the legal Terms of Service, we have Google defining anything collected by GA as your data and setting the precedent that the data must belong to you.  Now, granted, it would be nice if there was a crystal clear line in here that says “all your data are belong to you” to clear up the misconception that “all your data are belong to us.”

Second on this point, whether or not the TOS is crystal clear, if you’ve Looked at the settings in the last, oh, 4 years, you will see that there is a really nifty feature for controlling data sharing and usage.  If you don’t want your data shared to other Google services then it’s not shared.  If you want to share only to other Google services that you use, so that features like AdWords integration can work, then you may activate that.  The third option opts you into benchmarking reports – but even that doesn’t share anything beyond aggregated, non-site-identifying data points.  Bottom-line, all your data belongs to you and you decide what to do with it.

Now, I’ll end this point with the observation that there is a drawback in all this: while your data belongs to you, you don’t have full control over it since the data resides on Google servers.  For example, the raw tracking hits aren’t available for exporting – just processed report data via the API.  But, even this has a solution: Urchin.  Yes, it is still around and can be used very nicely in conjunction with GA to act as a backup and re-processing sidekick for GA users.

Sin 1 Redeemed: You, not Google, own your data

Redeeming Sin 2: Trouble with Support

I just have to chuckle when I hear this one.  Really?  Serious competitors to GA border on obscenely expensive and still don’t have free support, and people expect Google to provide excellent support to all users free of charge on a product that is free of charge.  The math just doesn’t add up.

gacp_mapWhat would be nice is if there was a paid route to support – at least then you could get help when you need it and the cost would still be far less than the other major web analytics tools.  I have good news: you can do just that through with network of over 200 consulting firms worldwide that Google has vetted, trained, and approved to provide professional services on its behalf!  Ladies and gentlemen: meet your friendly neighborhood GACP.

This is where I should disclose that I work for a GACP, so I recognize I’m inherently biased.  But, in five years of doing this, I’ve met literally hundreds of people who tell me “GA can’t do this” and then I show them that it in fact can, and hass been able to for years.  The response is usually “oh, I didn’t know that, but that’s awesome!”  My point: the capabilities of Google Analytics aren’t limited to your experience with it.

Now that we’ve cleared things on that, let me preach a bit about this.

The GACP network is truly like nothing else in web analytics.  This is a vibrant global organization larger than any other web analytics consultancy filled with people who are fanatic about the Google Analytics product and love to help people.  Where do you have a forum where these partners help each other daily, answering questions and giving free advice to their competitors? We have that in the GACP network.  We love to have people use GA.

Now, we don’t work for free, as I’m sure you don’t either.  I think that’s where a lot of the misunderstanding comes in.  In some weird way, because GA is free, people expect help for it should be free to, but if it were to cost a billion dollars, or even just a thousand, people would probably be less intimidated by the prospect of paying for help.  I don’t understand why… but it is.  Imagine if Airlines suddenly made all seatson their flights free, would you expect a free lunch too?  Actually I think a lot of people would.  But, when we pay hundreds for a seat, paying $10 for a bag of chips and a soggy roll doesn’t seem so bad.  Strange.

If you don’t want to pay for a product or pay for help using it, then you’ll need to become an expert yourself.  Which, in fact, you can do.  There are tons of resources on Google Analytics – you just have to put in the time.  I like the training videos for the GAIQ the best.  Personally, it took me many hundreds of hours working with the product to reach what I look back on as a solid “intermediate” level of expertise.  If you’re there, or working there, more power to you – and send me your resume!

Sin #2 Redeemed: there is help available, and lots of it!

Redeeming Sin 3: Reporting Limitations

This one really gets me going, particularly that the claim here states “for example, the conversion data is provided in percentages instead of numbers.”  Yes, that’s true, if you only look at one report.  Out of the box conversion data is listed in specific counts not just ratios under the Goals report section where it can also be added to the dashboard.

Furthermore, Custom Reports have provided a means of getting conversion counts for years.

But about those limitations…

I do have to say that I partly agree on the general point here of a more rigid box.  I’d love to be able to create “custom dimensions” and “custom metrics” within GA and then build a dashboard that incorporated those custom dimensions and metrics with custom names and annotation data to explain everything.

That said, if I’m going to do all that in-tool, I might as well do it externally in Excel.  Which clears the dust on this one: the data export API is awesome, and the exploding ecosystem of applications that are built atop it provide ample ways to get and report your data, however you like it – flame broiled, with extra cheese and a Coke please.

Sin 3 Redeemed: reporting is only as limited as the box you choose to stay sitting in.

Redeeming Sin 4: Limits to Defined Variables

Claiming this “sin” borders on irresponsible.  Way back in October of 2009 Google released a major feature improvement to user-defined segmentation variables called Custom Variables.  Writing that “Google Analytics allows only one user-defined variable for segmentation” when that feature has been deprecated and surpassed with a new feature that allows 5 variables with 3 scopes and virtually unlimited name/value capabilities is very misleading.

But, Custom Variables are hard

Yes, Custom Variables are hard setup – but that’s the point, they are an advanced, powerful feature and will do exactly what people used to complain the old single-dimension user-defined segmentation couldn’t.  If you take a few steps back and think about what your business needs are before you start implementing things, you’ll be able to plan usage for Custom Variables that will make you dizzy.

Sin 4 Redeemed: There are more than one dimension for user-defined segmentation

Redeeming Sin 5: Slow Data Delivery

I partially agree with this.  First, though, it’s important to note that data usually only runs an hour or two behind in Google Analytics.  Just set your date range to include today’s date and you’ll see what’s current up to about 2 hours prior.

That said, real-time data is indeed absent from Google Analytics.

However, I have to ask: what does real-time do for you?  It’s super interesting, even addicting (I like Woopra – ooh, look at all the pretty dots that are blinking), but is it valuable?  What action will you take based on real-time observation of your data?  If you have any amount of traffic, you can’t watch hundreds, thousands, or tens or thousands of data streams at once.  If you’re a small site and like to watch people as they browse your site because you have nothing else to do, fine.

At the end of the day, real-time doesn’t matter until you can start to do things like content customization, instant trending analysis, and the like.  I’m not sure there are any web analytics tools right now that even do this – if you know of one tell me!

Sin 5 Redeemed, partially: not real-time, but real-time isn’t all it’s cracked up to be

Redeeming Sin 6: A Lack of Log Files

Umm, I really am not sure I know what this point is about in the original post.  It seems to be the issue Annie is taking is that Google Analytics can’t re-process your original raw tracking data, which is true.  But, that is and has always been remedied by adding a simple addition to your GA page tags and sending a copy of tracking hits to your own logs or an external source for collection and processing with Urchin.

If you want to retain your data, you certainly can.

As for the other points here – filtering?  Check.  That’s available.  Filtering retro-actively?  Not on raw data, but the Advanced Segments apply backwards to all your data and for most needs, that will suffice.

Sin 6 Redeemed: you can keep your logs!

Redeeming Sin 7: No Spiders – who likes spiders anyway?!

Right.  Again, this claimed sin leaves me shaking my head.  A lack of spider data is a good thing for web analytics data.  Who wants to pollute your data about people with data generated by robots?  If you do want to know when spiders are crawling your site, sure, get a logfile analysis tool like Urchin or even AW stats.  But, with a tag-based, hosted web analytics solution the point is to avoid data pollution from non-human visitors!

Sin 7 Redeemed: it’s supposed to exclude tracking of spiders

Redeeming Sin 8: Paid Campaigns Showing as Free

This is a problem indeed, if you don’t read the instructions on the label!

I get a lot of questions about this toppic, so I’m going to explain how this works in GA.  Basically, Google Analytics goes through an order of operations when trying to identify traffic sources.  If you don’t tag the traffic sources you control with something that identifies it, GA will do its best to guess at what the traffic is.  Here is the Google Analytics traffic detection methodology, in plain english:

  1. Look for campaign tracking parameters in the URL of the very first pageview.  Those “?utm_source=someplace…” bits are tracking parameters, and GA looks for them every time it runs.  If it finds them in the URL, it will update the __utmz cookie with the information contained in the parameters.  What exists in the cookie is what shows up in reports. 
  2. If no campaign tracking parameters are found, GA resorts to evaluating the “Referrer” – in JavaScript techno-speak this is the document.referrer property.  This is generally set to the page you were on immediately prior to the current page, if you clicks from that page to the current page. There are cases where this doesn’t work, like when a link bounces through a meta redirect or for links going from HTTPS to HTTP pages.  If a Referrer value is found, Google Analytics will use the information to try and determine if the visit is coming from a known search engine, or not.  If the referrer matches the list of known search engines, the “medium” will be set to organic, the “source” to the search engine name, the “campaign” to organic, and the “keyword” to the search query used at the search engine.  If, however, the referrer does not match a known search engine, then the medium will be set to “referral” and the source to the domain of the referring site.
  3. Lastly, if no tracking parameters were found and no referrer was present, GA will set the __utmz cookie to report “direct/(none) for the Source/Medium.  This is essentially a “catch-all” identifier.  If you consistently tag all your campaigns and don’t use redirects that corrupt referrer strings, then “direct” can be trusted to consist primarily of peoplewho typed in your URL directly.

So, will GA mis-attribute paid traffic to “unpaid” sources?  Sure, if you don’t tag it.  But it does this by design – if you don’t name it, the thing won’t have a name.  So, don’t go around believing GA can’t track your ads – it can, and very nicely I might add.

Sin 8 Redeemed: GA can track paid traffic, and do so very well indeed

Redeeming Sin 9: Revenue from Email is unknown

This one is totally random! This last claimed sin again baffles me.  Once again, what wew have here is a failure to follow directions.  If you don’t setup your email to be tagged and you don’t setup Google Analytics to capture revenue, you won’t get revenue attribution for email.  Many things in life work like this.  For example, I just learned (the hard and very expensive way) that if you don’t change the filter in your furnace, really bad things happen to it.

Why in the world would you expect Google Analytics to attribute revenue to email if you don’t (A) record revenue to GA and (B) record traffic from email?  You can’t track what you don’t tag.

Sin 9 Redeemend: what more can I say here?

In Conclusion

I appreciate that people lend a critical eye to Google Analytics – that is what makes the product better, because the team at Google listens to that feedback.  But there is a distinct difference between informed criticism and spreading uninformed assumptions.  So, to all the Google Analytics critics out there, please be diligent in your fact-checking, then bring on the criticisms and we’ll see Google Analytics get even better.

And for those of you who are thinking “but can Google Analytics do ________”, try me!   I bet it can be done.