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From our Depsters December 10, 2019

Why you should stop using Google Analytics (as we know it)

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Tell me, what do you do on the web? Do you buy clothes or your groceries? Do you maybe read the New York Times or simply watch YouTube videos? There are a million different things to do online and we’ve come a long way since static content and blinking GIFs on computers the size of a baby elephant. Yet interestingly enough, the one thing that hasn’t changed since then is the way we measure the web.

Google Analytics has grown to be the most common means of tracking web behavior since its launch in 2005. However, the tool itself hasn’t been updated since the launch of its ‘Universal Analytics’ in 2012. That’s almost eight years ago, and eight years is a long time in the digital world. Now might just be the right time to ditch the good, old Analytics and start using, yes, Google Analytics. The new Google Analytics (Web + App) is so conceptually different from the existing Google Analytics that it might be worth restructuring your entire analytics approach.

Don’t fit your business into a tool, fit the tool to your business

Google Analytics may not have changed over the last eight years, but what has changed is the way the online world has become intertwined with our lives. This tool enforces a system that we have to somehow fit our business into with strict definitions of product views, add to carts, transactions, and sessions to name a few. Instead, we should consider our business goals and find a measurement and tracking approach to match that. I too have been guilty of fitting businesses into this system. To name a few examples:

  • For a site with job postings I’ve seen the e-commerce implementation being used to track not products, but jobs as if they flow through a fictitious checkout funnel until the job is ‘sold’.
  • Similarly, for a news site, some implementation setups view articles as ‘products’ and ‘sold’ as ‘scores’ to keep a tally of what you’ve read. This would then show up as ‘revenue’ in Google Analytics.
  • For a mobile app from a large retailer, we choose to ignore data from the application itself because it didn’t fit into their existing web analytics dashboard that would only work with pageviews. Campaign decisions were, instead, made based on how many ‘pageviews’ came from specific campaigns.

So why do we —still— do this? Because Google Analytics is cheap. Even when we take into account all the hours spent trying to come up with weird ways to fit one’s business model into an analytics setup made for e-commerce. But I’m here to tell you this is the end of an era. For all the news about the new App + Web setup in Google Analytics, most accounts have failed to acknowledge that this is a conceptual change more than a change in features.

A conceptual change

The new App + Web forces you to think not about pageviews and sessions but about relevant events and user attributes for your business. What does that mean? It implies that you can track the journey of your user through the interactions that are relevant for the app, site or product that you have built. But also, you can show the path between push messages on a smartphone, the various steps in configuring a custom shoe, registering for an event or chatting about the status of an order. To the customer, these were already obviously linked together, in your analytics setup they were not so obviously linked if at all.

That means that if you’re anything but a webshop or information-only site, this is useful for you. Traditionally publishers and content-heavy sites, lead generation sites, subscription sites, online courses, social platforms or any combinations of those did not fit well into the Google Analytics framework. Let me give you a few use cases of how this event-driven approach can work.

  • Product Analytics – Let’s say you’ve built a note-taking tool. Event tracking means you can track when users create, view, edit and share a note. Everything is a separate event with custom parameters like the note ID, the note name and note creation date. Maybe the user has custom attributes too, like the number of notes they currently have or the number of notes they’ve shared. If a user sees an error you can track the location of that error, the error message, the note ID where it happened, the device and use that during the debugging process.
  • Content sites – Are you a publisher with (online) subscriptions? Instead of being forced into an e-commerce product you can track subscription events as they occur like monthly renewals or upgrades to new plans. Or maybe you want to just track posts viewed on large archive pages with multiple posts or look at how posts for different authors are doing. Instead of firing one pageview it makes more sense to track posts that have actually been viewed or post snippets that have been viewed and clicked on. Maybe a user saw a push notification for an interesting article and then went on to upgrade their plan on the website, that journey consists of a specific path of separate events that you can now tie together and map out.
  • Social platforms – Whether it’s a comment section on your blog, reviews on your products or a full-blown dating site. People sharing information on a platform was not a suitable use case for traditional analytics. The event tracking conceptual framework allows you to think about how features are being used such as: is the search function used? Has someone started a chat? What products have they reviewed and what is their average rating? Have they used the app recently? What navigation options are used most?

Getting ahead with analytics

Of course, lots of sites are combinations of all of the above and more, but that’s exactly the flexibility that an event-driven framework allows for. The hard part now is not fitting your business into the tool, but deciding what paths are important to you and how you want to leverage the audiences and outcomes of those paths. Google has vowed to support GA throughout 2020, but they have not suggested anything about what happens after that. In either case, this is a chance to get ahead of your competition by reshaping your business to think about how the events on your user’s paths match your business goals and start measuring them accordingly.

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