Thoughts on New Google Analytics Functionality
16/11/2011 | Written by | Categories: Analytics Tools

View of Google Analytics intro screen

Google has rolling out the changes since the release of Google Analytics v5, continuing to push the limits of what some still persist in calling a non enterprise web analytics tool.  While others are providing detailed summaries of each of these new features, here are my brief thoughts on each.

Custom Reports

Custom reports are a very important feature for using Google Analytics to anywhere near to its full capability.  I think it is fair to say that if you are not using custom reports, you have no right looking at the multi-channel funnel or flow visualisation reports. The Flat reports are useful for data extracts and were the method I recently used to answer a client’s business question.  Primarily though, I stick with the explorer custom reports.  The key feature is the ability to apply a filter to each report view, predefining exactly what data appears in the report.

Custom reports are ideal for use by non analysts within a company where they eliminate the need for these users to apply filters or switch between reports.  Instead an internal web analyst or consultant can set up custom reports that display the exact information required by these non analysts.

Dashboards

I have had frustrating experiences with the dashboards within all the web analytics tools I have used (Digital Analytix, HBX, Google Analytics and SiteCatalyst).  They just could not meet my requirements for a certain level of information in an easy to digest manner.  But recently, a contact, Tim Leighton Boyles, urged me to give the GA dashboards another go, providing a couple of examples of how they can be incredibly useful.

I discovered to my delight that the upgrade in dashboard functionality with the release of GA v5 was indeed sufficient to make the dashboards useful.  Not ideal yet but good enough so they add value for any user.  The set of dashboard widgets cover most needs and it is the inclusion of filters which has meant that you really can now design a dashboard that provides you with a quick overview of performance.  The ability to create to create multiple dashboards is a nice bonus.

Google Analytics Dashboard Widget

My closing slides in all “Introduction to Google Analytics” training sessions are that everyone should start by creating their own dashboards.  It is the best way to start with GA, learning the reports and which metrics matter.

Events as Goals

One of the cool extra features enabled for v5 was the ability to define events as goals.  This means you no longer needed to use virtual page views for downloads, outbound links, etc if you wanted to report on visitor behaviour using goals.  Note though that events cannot be used as stages in goal funnels and goals based on events do not include funnels.

Multi-Channel Funnels

Probably the best received announcement was of a campaign attribution tool allowing for greater insights into cross channel interactions with websites with multiple attribution methods, not just last click.  I am not a big fan of this release as I don’t consider campaign attribution to be possible due to multiple device use and cookie deletion.

The tool is not pointless but it could easily be used to produce misleading data.  When reports are produced saying that 60% of conversions occur within three visits, this is incorrect.  The data in this report is only as good as the data captured by GA and, like all web analytics tools, GA cannot tie together visits across devices and after cookie deletion (some tools do tie together visits based on logins).  As such, a conversion reported to have occurred on the 3rd visit may have actually been that person’s 6th visit to the website.

Reports that state that a particular channel such as organic search influenced 38% of purchases are also incorrect.  GA, again like any web analytics tool, is dumb in that it cannot tell what influenced a purchase.  So while a visitor may have used multiple traffic sources to access a website, there is no definite casual relationship possible through the data that proves a purchase would not have occurred without a particular traffic source.

In the hands of a good analyst, multi-channel funnels can provide valuable insights.  But don’t blindly believe the data it presents without questioning what it really means.

Real-Time Reporting

Google Analytics Real Time Overview

I was in Edinburgh on holiday when this feature was released and I was incredibly frustrated initially.  Why now, why when I was on holiday, if only it was released when I was at my desk because then I could, I could, well I couldn’t actually do anything about it – I couldn’t use the information to influence anything.  Which does relate quite nicely to real time web analytics data.  It’s nice to have and it’s definitely great fun to watch the number of people on your website going up but this is not something that most companies can use to improve their button line.

The best definition I have heard is that it is a great monitoring tool, but it is not an analysis tool.  It is incredibly useful for confirming tracking is in place, whether for campaigns or a new site section.  And it can provide actionable data sooner for content websites which want to promote their most popular articles.  But it doesn’t add much value for improving business performance

Google Webmaster Integration

I am not a SEO person so this integration wasn’t too exciting for me personally.  I know there is value in having direct access to the tool within GA but it is not something I have experience with.

Flow Visualisation

Now this is something I am excited about.  I have long thought that the weakest point in the GA product was a good navigation analysis tool.  In fact, it is an area most web analytics tools appear weak in.  Then Google goes and releases Flow Visualisation, a potential game changer in my mind.

This tool provides visual insights of how visitors navigate through the website, allowing you to highlight particular segments of visitors or key areas of the website.  A great feature is the way it automatically groups nodes of pages, with Google identifying that it is the Page Type that is important, not individual pages.

I have previously been forced to physically map out visitor navigation flow through a website and this new feature should remove a lot of the pain/time for me.  This approach allows the web analyst to pinpoint if visitors are behaving in an expected way, where they are dropping out of processes, which options they choose when multiple ones are presented, etc.  All providing valuable insights for optimising websites and business performance.

The tool is not perfect yet, you can only create a node of pages for the central one you are looking at.  I want to be able to create multiple nodes and then drill into them and really explore the data that way – hopefully a future upgrade.

I haven’t really looked at the Goal Visualisation report yet but I like the idea behind it.

Google Analytics Flow Visualisation report

Future Features

So what’s next for Google Analytics?  I have no idea.  I would like to see the rest of the bugs in v5 fixed and all features from the old version transitions across.  Scheduled emails and PDF downloads are coming soon and one of my favourite features – Test Segments – was included recently.  I would love them to upgrade Google Website Optimiser and integrate that tool but now I am getting ahead of myself, a future post will be a wishlist for Google.

But what do you think about these new features?  Going to disagree with me on Multi-Channel Funnels?  Think Flow Visualisations are over-rated?  Let me know your thoughts.

7 responses to “Thoughts on New Google Analytics Functionality”

  1. Tim Wilson says:

    Nice post, Peter! I agree that the dashboards are a HUGE step forward (when compared to all web analytics platforms — not just GA). But, it’s pretty frustrating that they can’t be emailed, scheduled (to email), or shared. I’ve had clients give me their login credentials so I can go in and set up dashboards for them, and that’s just wrong on both a setup and a maintenance level!

    I totally agree with your take on real-time insights. I was chatting about it with a client just yesterday, and we agreed it fell in the bucket of, “It’ll be rare occasions when it’s useful, but it will likely come in kinda’ handy at those times.”

    • Peter O'Neill says:

      Thanks Tim. I assume the functionality for emailing, scheduling, etc is part of the list of what will be added in the next few weeks. Assuming that is the case, will fix many issues with it. Sharing is important like you say for us consultants so that we can set up dashboards for our clients. Actually this feature will be important for any web analyst as they need to set up dashboards for their internal customers.

      Real Time has actually been handy for me a couple of times already – and yes at those particular times, really really handy to have.

  2. Steve says:

    Multiple nodes are what we need in the visitor flow report. I want to see flow through the nodes that I define. Google has done a pretty bad job of grouping my pages together in a meaningfull way. I´ll be doing a bit of manual tallying tomorrow to try to make sense of things.

    • Peter O'Neill says:

      @Steve good to see we agree on how Google can improve the flow visualisation tool. I wouldn’t say they do a bad job of grouping pages, not bad for a first attempt, but it could be better and would love to be able to define multiple nodes. My current approach with GA is to create multiple profiles which contain pages grouped at different levels. This helps with the flow visualisation reports but I can drill into the data as I would like. Check out this blog post for details on that approach – http://www.l3analytics.com/2011/03/25/you-can-too-do-content-grouping-in-google-analytics/.

  3. Damon says:

    Real time reporting absolutely has a use.

    In my case, I was working on a site in Google News that would get new news articles crawled in seconds. I wanted to target news postings for Super Bowl commercial breaks. Google News favors fresh articles, but for hyper-competitive searches the time spent ranking in the Google News box on the main page can be extraordinarily short.

    Lacking real time data I couldn’t tell whether the timing helped improve traffic, nor could I meaningfully test the time to ranking in advance.

    If I had the chance to do a similar project, I would absolutely rely on real time tracking to test and monitor the campaign.

    • Peter O'Neill says:

      @Damon I didn’t say that Real Time reporting doesn’t have a use, just that it is not required for most web analytics. If I am reading your example correctly, you needed to test different approaches and measure the time to get a reaction. I believe for most content sites, that being able to review the data post the fact at hourly level would be sufficient to understand behaviour and discover the best approach to use in the future.

      The key word you used there was “monitor” the campaign, real-time is great for monitoring performance. My belief is that in most cases, you will not use real time data to understand performance in detail and identify changes for improving this business performance. I did just use the real time to confirm that a code change had fixed an issue with tracking so they are definitely useful.

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