Google Analytics

  • Editors' rating
    8.0 Excellent


  • Free
  • Integrates with Google AdWords
  • Provides essential data for most web sites


  • Not the prettiest interface or reports

Formerly known as Urchin from Google, Google Analytics is now a leading, and free, tool to help businesses and individuals use performance data to improve their online marketing campaigns and web sites. As well as delivering critical information such as unique visitors, page views, visitor location and time spent on site, Google Analytics allows marketers to determine what keywords attract the most visitors to their site and which email campaigns create more customers.

Google Analytics gives online marketers and publishers access to powerful web analytics to help them better understand what their customers or readers want. Although its features are pretty standard (you can pretty much get the same results using OneStat or SiteTracker), Google Analytics is astraightforward to use and is totally free. The only downside is that — as with all Google software — Google Analytics doesn't have the prettiest of interfaces.

Google Analytics provides a useful (and free) toolset for analysing traffic to your web site, but it's interface is typically workmanlike.

To get the software working on your web site you simply need to place unique tracking code immediately before the tag of each page you're planning to track. Life is a lot simpler if your site uses a main template, as you can simply insert the code once to cover your whole site. If your site is database-driven, you'll have to insert the tracking code on your index.php page or equivalent (default.php, index.cfm, for example).

You should also note that a web page containing frames will generate multiple page views — one for the framing page (containing either a FRAMESET or IFRAME tag within its HTML code) and one for each page shown in a frame. As a result, page views may be somewhat inflated. Even if a page on your site only appears as a frame for another page, you should still tag it with the entire tracking code. If a visitor reaches the page through a search engine or a direct link from another site and the page does not contain the tracking code, the referral, keyword and/or campaign information from the source will be lost.

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The only modification you need to make to the code is to update the 'xxxx-x' with your own Google Analytics account number, which then personalises your tracking code. Once you've completed this step, Google Analytics will begin collecting traffic data and useful information should be displayed in your reports within 24 hours. Having said that, there are a few scenarios that require more updates to the tracking code on each of your pages. These include tracking multiple domains in one profile (for example, a main site as well as a secure store site), tracking more than one sub-domain in one profile, and tracking multiple domain aliases. For these instances, you may need the need the help of a web developer.

For AdWords advertisers, Google Analytics can currently import cost data from AdWords campaigns. Google Analytics also allows you to create Goals and Funnels — useful features if your web site is designed to drive visitors to a particular page, such as a purchase or email signup page. A Goal is a web page that a visitor reaches once he or she has made a purchase or completed another desired action, such as a registration or download; a Funnel represents the path you expect visitors to take in order to reach the goal. Defining these pages allows you to see how frequently visitors abandon goals (and where they go instead) and the value of the goal — that is, access conversion rates and the monetary value of the traffic you receive. Each profile can have up to four Goals, with a defined Funnel for each. Incidentally, you can officially add up to 50 site profiles. Each profile generally corresponds to one web site.

Google Analytics can help you enhance most aspects of online marketing — from selecting and bidding on effective keywords, to determining the most relevant offers in email campaigns, to optimising web site design. By acting on this information, businesses of all sizes can attract more visitors, convert more prospects to customers, and improve the overall return on their marketing investment. Google Analytics is simple enough for businesses new to web analytics to get started quickly, and sophisticated enough for the most advanced online marketers. All reports, charts and graphs are viewable directly through Google's site, but you can also download your data in XML, CSV, PDF or TSV formats — perfect for firing off important data to your marketing director or boss. Of course, you can also email reports.

Integration with Google AdWords means users of Google's all-pervading ad platform can access web analytics from a new interface within their AdWords account. Google Analytics automatically tags keyword destination URLs (which saves time and reduces the potential for errors), and imports cost data for ROI reports (for fast set-up and ease-of-use). Google Analytics can also track the results of any online marketing campaign, including banner ads, referral links, email newsletters and organic and paid search.

Google Analytics runs on the same computing infrastructure that powers, so it can support the traffic demands of any site, from those with a few visitors a week to many millions. Much as it did with web search, Google has made web analytics simpler and more accessible. Free online support is available and businesses can obtain customisation or advanced integration from Google representatives and select Google service partners. You can't really go wrong.

Google Analytics is not perfect, however. A lot of ad filtering programs and extensions (such as Firefox's Adblock and NoScript) can block its tracking code, preventing traffic and users from being tracked. In addition, some privacy networks will mask a user's actual location and present inaccurate geographical data. Some users do not have JavaScript-enabled/capable browsers, or turn this feature off. However, these limitations affect only a small percentage of visits. The largest impact on data accuracy comes from blocking Google Analytics cookies. If cookies are not set in a user's browser, Google Analytics cannot collect data. To be fair, these limitations affect all web analytics tools that collect on-site visitor data using page tags.

Google Analytics isn't designed to replace the giants in the web analytics industry like WebTrends. But what it does do is give smaller e-commerce and other web sites a much-needed insight into how a site is — or isn't — working. Even the ability to discover the keywords that are driving users to your site is priceless. If you're wary of Google knowing everything about your business and your web site, then Google Analytics is not for you. But for most, it's a useful ally in a challenging business climate.