How to make the most of Google's new approach to analytics

Inman News

Google Analytics is changing. And it is changing in very significant ways. It's such a significant change that they're taking the word "Google" out of the name and calling it Universal Analytics.

For those who find it valuable to understand the behavior of people online, Google Analytics has been the go-to analytics package for many years. The combination of tracking capabilities, reporting options and cost has been a three-pronged fork stuck into the side of any other tracking package out there.

Before anyone gets too excited about all this it's worth noting that these changes are rolling out in beta to enterprise and premium customers. This means those who are dabbling in analytics won't see these features in their free Google Analytics accounts for awhile, if at all.

The change to Google Analytics starts with a conceptual shift which then leads to significantly new reporting capabilities. Let's do a quick overview of two of the bigger changes (there are quite a few more, but I will spare you from a discussion of some of the more esoteric subjects, such as using your own anonymous sessionization keys).

A conceptual shift from visits to visitors

One of the things that is hard for first time Web analytics users to wrap their heads around is the difference between a "visit" and a "visitor." I sometimes joke that this is the hardest concept to understand in all of Web analytics. Let's review.

A "visitor" is a unique machine accessing your website. Every individual machine that goes to your website increases your visitor count.

A "visit" occurs each time any machine accesses your website. Your visit count is increased whenever any machine shows up on your website. One "visitor" can generate multiple "visits."

An example usually helps makes this clearer: If I use my laptop to go to your website, that will generate one visitor and one visit in your Google Analytics reports. If I use my laptop to go to your website once in the morning, once in the afternoon and once before I go to bed that will generate one visitor (my laptop) and three visits (morning, afternoon and before I go to bed).

Note that these things are discussed in terms of "machine" and not "person." For example, if I visit your site from my iPhone, my iPad, my laptop and a computer at work that will generate four visitors (one for each device) and four visits.

A final, nerdy way to describe the relationship between visit and visitor is: a visit is attached to only one visitor, but a visitor can have many visits.

Why is it important to understand this? Well to make reports for understanding what people are doing on your site we need a sort of common denominator. Most businesses would like to use something closer to their actual customer (in this case "visitor") as the common denominator across reports.

We want to know how many people clicked on an ad and then arrived on our website and did stuff. We're not as happy with knowing how many visits resulted from people clicking and and then doing stuff on our site. It could be the same person clicking the ad over and over again, and that makes us anxious.

But for many years now the level of reporting that Google Analytics has given us has been different for visits and visitors. In fact, the reports available for visitors have really only been very high level stuff and not as useful for understanding specific things about our website. Google Analytics wasn't alone in this -- everyone in the analytics vendor space has had this issue.

The common denominator of Google Analytics is visits, not visitors.

The big change is that the newly renamed Universal Analytics will use visitors as the common denominator. This means that all of your reporting will align much better with how you view your business: something that helps customers.

Bullet list version of what this will mean for users of Universal Analytics:

  • The numbers in your Universal Analytics report will more closely align with the numbers in your CRM.
  • All of the measures you've been using so far to measure performance will look significantly larger than the new visitor-based versions.
  • Integrity of leadership will be tested with the opportunity to present small, more useful visitor-based numbers instead of larger, more vanity-based visit numbers.

What does "Universal" mean?

The new Universal Analytics will now accept data from other sources than just a Web page. Sure there have been ways to torture the Google tracker into different code bases before. But now there's going to be an accepted and useful way.

This means all of the ways of distributing content and interactions digitally can now talk to Universal Analytics. For example, your call center can register interaction, or your CRM tool can register interaction.

This, like the switch to a visitor-centric reporting model, is a big deal. Up until now Google Analytics has been very useful for understanding a specific slice of your interactions with customers: starting after they heard about your site and arrived and ending as soon as they left or did the thing you wanted them to do on the Web. This has left a gaping hole of information about things people are doing before they get to your site and, even more importantly, what they do after they fill out the lead form or call you.

You'll be able to import conversion data as well. So when your Web gal tells you about how many "conversions" the Web is generating, you won't have to translate the difference between a Web conversion and someone that made it through your qualification systems and actually bought something.

This shift is really what the name change is about. It changes Google Analytics from a good but limited tool -- a Web analysis tool -- into a broader and more capable tool, a business analysis tool. This is the shift from Web intelligence to business intelligence. And that's awesome.

The bullet list of what this stuff means:

  • Universal Analytics will be able to perform as a business analytics and reporting tool for customer behavior on platforms beyond the Web.
  • The difference in quality of interactions and leads from a variety of sources will no longer be opaque and will thus present a risk to some businesses (I'm looking at you social media gurus and garbage vendors).

The downside

You didn't think this was going to be all unicorns and rainbows did you? Even though I'm a proponent of analytics tools like Google Analytics, there are always some trade-offs when major shifts like this happen.

You'll need to add some tracking code to use Universal Analytics. I know. No one likes doing this. It's always scary and confusing. Sorry, I don't make the rules.

The new code handles almost everything the Google Analytics code does. But one thing it doesn't enable is Experiments nee Google website Optimizer. This is, of course, a crushing loss. I'm not sure if this is a short-term thing or not. But there are other great tools for A/B and multivariate testing.

My friends of the tinfoil hat persuasion will likely raise their eyebrow at the idea of Google knowing the deep dark secrets of how a business truly operates once people start uploading conversion data. I also expect a few privacy-related issues with the visitor-based reporting.

And, of course, Google Premium isn't free. But it wasn't free before these changes either.

The bottom line

For businesses that either already are or are working towards becoming more data-driven the adjustment in approach from Google Analytics to Universal Analytics will be very useful.

There will be some hiccups as the reporting style is changed from visit-based to visitor-based. These hiccups will provide an opportunity for leadership to demonstrate their value to the organization, analytics practitioners to demonstrate leadership or both.

A technology that increases your ability to observe customer behavior and increases the relevant data sets available for you to discover insights should result in better decision-making and results for you, your technology partners and your customers.

Gahlord Dewald is the president and janitor of Thoughtfaucet, a strategic creative services company in Burlington, Vt.

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