What Google Analytics cannot tell you

Google's free web analysis tool may have a lot going for it, but it is worth knowing its limits, says Darren Guarnaccia
Written by Darren Guarnaccia, Contributor

Google Analytics may be free and widely used, but you should be aware of its limitations, says Darren Guarnaccia.

Google caused a stir when it launched a free web analytics service in 2005. Since then, the search giant has steadily improved the service and expanded its capabilities to include features such as customised reporting, advanced segmentation and API-based access to its data repository.

Google Analytics offers valuable reporting on overall website traffic and tracking, but suffers from issues common to many of the page tag-based hosted services — it is also a victim of its own success and design.

So, there are several things to be aware of when considering Google Analytics, and it is important to know not only what the service will tell you, but what it cannot.

Browser blocking
The first thing to understand about page-tagging services like Google Analytics is that they rely on three things: JavaScript, first-party cookies and third-party images. Google Analytics depends on being able to trigger an image on its servers to transmit information back, and this technique is increasingly being blocked by browsers by default.

In addition, more browsers and anti-spyware plug-ins are beginning to block analytics cookies from Google, Webtrends, Omniture and others. The net effect is that your reports from Google Analytics could be missing more and more traffic. So, is this statistically significant?

At an aggregate level, 10 to 20 percent is not too much of a problem, but things are changing in the web world. As today's websites shift away from being passive brochureware to active marketing and sales platforms, the devil lies in those very details missed by Google.

Modern marketers and site managers are beginning to delve into the sort of detail that Google cannot provide. It is a question of scale. Google Analytics cannot possibly be expected to record and store comprehensive details of each and every browser session, over many years, for every single site it handles. The sheer volume of data would be unmanageable.

Yet it is that very level of detail that today's web marketers need to give them a competitive advantage. New emerging solutions now allow marketers to record all the intimate nuances of user behaviour on each page of their website. Details are much more in-depth and may include anything from what site content visitors read, their user profile and how they respond to a poll question to what company they are from to how they completed a web form.

That new level of tracking allows companies to go far beyond looking at macro traffic patterns; now they can follow individual visitor sessions, learn what is working, or not, and pass that real-time customer intelligence to sales.

Imagine your website being able to provide your salespeople with information that will help them to win business. Today, Google Analytics cannot give you that, as there is just too much information to handle.

Interpreting behaviour
Beyond obtaining a detailed knowledge of visitors and their interests, marketers also want the ability to interpret visitors' online behaviour accurately and spot telltale signs that indicate they are ready for a sales contact. The practice of rating leads based on their behaviour, known as lead scoring, allows you to prioritise the ones that are most ready to engage.

On the web, this prioritisation is done by assigning values to website content and activity to show a visitor's propensity to buy, or at least engage with sales. Today, Google does not allow you to weight or score your content in this way, or even to prioritise visitors as leads and prospects.

Google Analytics does provide some good, advanced segmentation features, allowing you to understand smaller cross-sections of your visitor base by geography, returning visit or visit duration, for example. Unfortunately, you cannot drill into some of the most important segmentation categories that marketers are used to doing with other media, such as personality type or industry background.

Overall, Google Analytics is an excellent tool for understanding high-level traffic patterns for your website. But the requirements for demand-generation websites are changing the game.

Darren Guarnaccia is vice president of product marketing at content management system firm Sitecore. A regular speaker, panellist and moderator at industry events, Guarnaccia started his career as director of technology for a large financial company and subsequently ran e-commerce operations for a big regional consulting organisation.

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