The Executive’s Guide to Google Analytics

The debate whether Google Analytics is enterprise ready is more or less dead. People have finally figured out that they should use a tool that fits their needs regardless if they have 5 employees or 50,000. If that’s a paid solution fine. If it’s a free solution fine.

With that said, I’ve seen the number of inquiries from larger organizations dramatically increase in the past two years (ever since Google released the API, Custom Reporting and Advanced segmentation in 2008).

That brings me to the point of this post. With more and more inquiries, more executives are asking some interesting questions about Google Analytics. Here is my humble attempt to answer some of the most common questions I’ve heard about Google Analytics.

Is Google Analytics really free?

In reality GA is far from free. While you don’t have to pay for the tool you do need to invest in people. First and foremost you’ll need people to use the tool. This can be an analytics team or a marketing team. It depends on your organization and how you choose to tackle analysis.

In addition to people to use the tool you’ll also need IT resources to maintain the tool. You need someone that will be able to maintain and modify the implementation and configuration. Obviously this can be a huge investment depending on the size of your organization.

This is where most organizations fail. They do not commit to maintaining their data collection infrastructure, resulting in bad data and a loss of confidence in the resulting analysis.

But remember, spending less on the tool frees up more money to spend on resources to use and maintain the tool.

So I get that the GA is free (from a product perspective). But how good can it really be? Free stuff usually has some limitations.

This is a classic question. I’m going to be bold here: Google Analytics will fill at least 85% of your analytics needs. Probably 90%. Yes, I know that’s a bold statement, but I believe it’s true.

Now some of these features may not be very elegant (I still think Campaign Tracking sucks in certain ways) but GA does a hell of a lot. Here are some of the standard features in GA:

  • Campaign tracking (ppc, email, display, social, seo)
  • Conversion tracking
  • Ecommerce tracking
  • Event Tracking
  • Custom variables
  • Mobile site tracking
  • App Tracking (Android and iPhone)
  • Automated data monitoring and alerts
  • Automated analysis via Intelligence
  • Advanced analysis using Motion Charts
  • A formal data export API
  • Custom reporting
  • On-the-fly segmentation
  • Integrated AdWords reporting with pre-click / cost data
  • Automated report distribution

Not too bad, huh? That’s not to say it does everything (more on this later), but that’s a pretty impressive list of features that cover a majority of analysis tasks.

I heard there is no support for Google Analytics. Is that true?

This one really gets me fired up! In case you’ve been living under a rock for the last 5 years there is a fairly substantial network of Google Analytics Certified partners (GACPs). I’m partial to the company I work for, WebShare. We’re located on almost every continent (anyone want to send me to Antartica :) ) and we work with some of the biggest companies in the world.

While Google does not directly support GA they lean heavily on the partner network and, if I may say so, I think we do a pretty good job of helping people out. We’ve seen almost every implementation possible and have compiled a slew of solutions to almost any implementation issue.

We also offer flexible ways to engage us. You can talk to us for an hour or engage us for a year. It’s up to you.

And, with the data API, we provide a huge assortment of add-ons and tools that can be used to extend Google Analytics.

So, to say that there is no support for GA, in my opinion, is just plain nuts.

That’s nice, Google has partners. But I need to call someone in case my people can’t get access to GA or the data collection isn’t working. Google needs to put some skin in the game and guarantee this thing will work.

Ah yes, the SLA question. This one comes up quite a bit. There is no SLA for Google Analytics. But let’s look at GA’s performance over the last 5 years:

  • The UI has almost never gone down. It has been down for maintenance before, but those service interruptions are announced. On occasion, and this happens VERY rarely, the reporting interface is unavailable. But this has hardly been widespread or lasted more than an hour.
  • The data collection process has had less than 5 issues over the last 5 years. And those outages have been very obscure. For example, there was a recent issue with GA collecting data from sites displayed in Google Chrome that use an iFrame. And there was an issue with ecommerce data collection on an extremely old version of IE 3.5 years ago. But the data collection system has never experienced a catastrophic collection issue. And let’s be realistic, how many companies in the world can put together a global data-center infrastructure like Google?

What about the data ownership? What is Google going to do with all that data and specifically mine?

Privacy. This is a big issue for Google, and not just the their analytics product. Your analytics data is your data and Google will not use it for anything unless you give them permission. There is a setting in the admin interface that explains how Google will use your data if you give them permission.

If you do let Google use your data, it will be used in aggregate, for things like benchmarking industry trends or providing unique visitor counts (i.e. a cookie count) for other tools like DoubleClick Ad planner.

If you ever want to take your data and permanently delete your GA account you can. Ultimately, you have control over your data.

I heard Google Analytics uses third party cookies and this guy Avinash told me third party cookies suck.

Yes, I’ve Seriously gotten this question from Director level people. Google Analytics uses first party cookies. End of story.

We’ve got a BI team, what can they do with Google Analytics?

BI teams can use Google Analytics too!
Great question. There’s lots of debate re: web analytics and its relationship to business intelligence. It’s taken some time but web analytics is moving in a BI direction.

Right now, Google Analytics has an official data export API. That means you can programmatically suck the data out and add it to a data warehouse and do more advanced analysis.

However, and this is a pretty big caveat, it’s difficult to find a primary key in your analytics data that can link GA data to other data sources, which is usually customer level data. Basically there is no individual visitor tracking inside Google Analytics, and this means no individual customer profiling or analysis. Section 7 of the Google Analytics Terms of Service states that you can not track any personally identifiable information with Google Analytics, which means you can’t go and push someone’s email address into the GA data set. If you choose to use an identifier that is not personally identifiable, however, whatever you choose to do with that in your own systems is up to you.

For those that need to work with individual user profiling within their analytics tool, I know, this is a fairly big drawback. But there are workarounds that can link Google Analytics data to other data sets once it has been extracted from GA.

If all this is true, then how come I never see Google Analytics metrics quoted in the Wall Street Journal or other publications?

Good observation. Honestly, no one wants to be the first to step up and say, “We use Google Analytics to measure our site and here is our data.” It’s going to take someone who has a kick-ass implementation of GA to step up and say that they have complete confidence in it. Then they’ll be confident enough to quote their metrics.

So there you have it. That’s what people have been asking me. What’s ironic is a large number of these organizations already have a “rogue” implementation of Google Analytics. It’s not unusual for small teams to install GA to track a specific campaign. It’s also very common to see GA installed along side of other paid solutions as a backup or a test.

From a features perspective there is very little reason for any executive to be scared of Google Analytics. If you still have questions, install it and start using it. The product itself won’t cost you anything. But please take the time to educate your team on how to configure the tool and how to use it correctly. Work with a Google Analytics Certified Partner to resolve any issues you have and answer any lingering questions.

Now it’s your turn. What kinds of questions do you get about Google Analytics?

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    1. says

      Great post and agree with it all. I think another point to be made is that if the organisation is not properly investing in web analytics with a proper team behind it, they are likely to get more value from GA than most paid solutions, simply because it will be more accessible to more people within their organisation. While GA can be used effectively by any sized organisation, other tools are limited to who can afford to get real value from them.

      • says

        @didier – GA does require an AdWords account for unlimited tracking. If you don’t have AW they limit you to 5MM PV/month. Honestly, almost all of the client’s I’ve worked with have had an AW account. And the few that did not have an AW account did not come close to generating 5 MM pv. So I think this is a complete non-issue.

        @Peter – Totally agree, analytics is all about people. Use the money saved from GA and spend it on people.

        @AGraphics – Sure, I’d love to see a report. You can use the contact form on the blog to get in touch with me

        Thanks to everyone for the comments!

    2. didier says

      You forgot to mention that Google Analytics can shut down your account when they want if you have to much data.
      It happens to us… SO yes it’s free but don’t rely on it because you can wake up one morning with no analytics

    3. says

      Hi Justin,

      I found your article very interesting. As you mentioned that using with the data API, GA reports can be extended further. I am also in process to develop an report generation application which will pull up the data from GA and create very detailed report. I can send you sample report which is generated using this application. Would you be interested to review this report once? I am confident that you will find it very interesting. Please let me know if I can send you this sample report and where?


    4. Jeroen Bouserie says

      Hi Justin,
      as far as I know Google Analytics as a free service is limited to sites which have a traffic of fewer than 5 million pageviews per month (roughly 2 pageviews per second), unless the site is linked to an AdWords campaign.


    5. says

      Fantastic overview. I especially like that you pointed out the importance of investing in people and a process to review the data. If you’re only collecting the data and not doing standardized analysis/review, then doing nothing at all is a lot cheaper and just as effective.

      I’ve subscribed to your blog in my reader and look forward to more of your posts.

    6. says

      @Jeroen: Yes, there is that limit. But almost every org I’ve worked with has an AW account. I don’t see this as a drawback to the product at all.

      @Shane: Thanks for the feedback. It’s impossible for any organization to succeed if they don’t invest in people. And people need process for regularity and standardization. Thanks for subscribing.

    7. says

      Hi Justin:

      Really nice post, clearly you addressed most of the concerns coming from C-level executives about GA.

      I have up to 3 years working as Webanalytics pro in LatinAmerica, though here GA is the market leader among analytics platforms (just because it is for free) most of the companies aren’t aware of maintenance importance, an more frequently they don’t have any analytics person within their organization.

      So, they believe that analytics is just “cut and paste” the tracking code into the pages, and occasionally to take a look into the dashboard data.

      The most sophisticated use is to track online campaigns, Adwords in particular, because it is automated and easy to integrate.

      I think there is a long way to walk, until they step out and stands that they trust into GA for measuring their sites. Anyway, where are doing our little contribution in order to achieve it.


    8. Gary Scruggs says

      Hey Justin,
      Excellent post. I am constantly amazed when I see clients that continue to expend resources churning out report after report, period after period without an action plan in place. You’re not going to move the needle without a plan so spend some time taking a step back, identify what your goals are, then start moving in the right direction. Until you do that, you’re going to be stuck in a vicious cycle that I can guarantee is frustrating to everyone involved in the churn. Looking forward to getting a chance to read the next book.

    9. says

      Great post, Justin

      Regarding the limit of pageviews: I have never experienced a client using Google Analytics who have reached this limit (5 mill pageview), without having an AdWords account.

    10. says

      I still prefer Google Analytics other than paid traffic analysis tools out there. First, it’s free and second they have very cool tool and they never stop developing to adjust to the needs of the webmaster.

    11. says

      Great post Justin, and I couldn’t agree more.

      We have been seeing more and more large companies wanting to run GA along side their paid tool since Sept 2008 (remember Lehman Brothers). When budgets get tight you have to do more with less. You could layoff your analysts and keep your expensive tool. But then you have no one to use your expensive tool. Or you could use a tool that has no fee and keep investing in the people in your organization who drive change.

      If as you say (and I agree) that GA can give you 85-90% of what the paid tools do, then the entire fee for the paid tool has to justify the 10-15% of the reporting that the paid tool provides that GA doesn’t. That means these must be some very valuable reports for the business. Don’t get me wrong, there are situations that exist where paid tools are completely justified, but less often than most large firms think.

    12. says

      Google Analytics only picks up 60-65% of our sales. It’s helpful, but hardly the full picture. Is this common, or do you think our implementation needs some work?

      • says

        Hi Brad,

        While it is common to miss some sales, GA should be collecting about 90% of your transactions. If you’re only getting 65% then I think you need some implementation work.

        Good luck and thanks for the comment!

    13. says

      Hi Justin:

      In my previous comment I stated that: “I think there is a long way to walk, until they step out and stands that they trust into GA for measuring their sites.”

      Fortunately, time proves that I was wrong on the point, last week one of the largest link sharing sites here in Latinamerica published their traffic statistics by using GA API, in order to provide anouncers with compeling data about their astounding grew.

      You could take a look into their data

      I think this will encourage another sites to do the same, and sharing their internal data with publishers.



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