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Google Analytics
Google Analytics logo
Developer(s) Google
Operating system Cross-platform (web-based application)
Type Statistics, Analysis
Website http://google.com/analytics

Google Analytics (GA) is a free service offered by Google that generates detailed statistics about the visitors to a website. Its main highlight is that the product is aimed at marketers as opposed to webmasters and technologists from which the industry of web analytics originally grew. It is the most widely used website statistics service[1], currently in use at around 57% of the 10,000 most popular websites.[2]

GA can track visitors from all referrers, including search engines, display advertising, pay-per-click networks, email marketing and digital collateral such as links within PDF documents.

Integrated with AdWords, users can review online campaigns by tracking landing page quality and conversions (goals). Goals might include sales, lead generation, viewing a specific page, or downloading a particular file. These can also be monetized. By using GA, marketers can determine which ads are performing, and which are not, providing the information to optimise or cull campaigns.

GA's approach is to show high level dashboard-type data for the casual user, and more in-depth data further into the report set. Through the use of GA analysis, poor performing pages can be identified using techniques such as funnel visualization, where visitors came from (referrers), how long they stayed and their geographical position. It also provides more advanced features, including custom visitor segmentation.

Users can officially add up to 50 site profiles. Each profile generally corresponds to one website. It 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.[3]

Contents

History

Google's service was developed from Urchin Software Corporation's analytics system, Urchin on Demand (Google acquired Urchin Software Corp. in April 2005). The system also brings ideas from Adaptive Path, whose product, Measure Map, was acquired and used in the redesign of Google Analytics in 2006. [4] Google still sells the standalone installable Urchin software through a network of value-added resellers; In April 2008, Urchin 6 was released.

The Google-branded version was rolled-out in November 2005 to anyone who wished to sign up. However due to extremely high demand for the service, new sign-ups were suspended only a week later. As capacity was added to the system, Google began using a lottery-type invitation-code model. Prior to August 2006 Google was sending out batches of invitation codes as server availability permitted; since mid-August 2006 the service has been fully available to all users – whether they use Google for advertising or not. A new version of the user interface was released on May 17, 2007.[5]

In December 2007, Google rolled out the new ga.js page tag which they recommend to use for all new accounts and new profiles for new domains. Existing urchin.js page tags will continue to work, nevertheless the new tag will allow site owners to take advantage of the most up-to-date tracking functionality, ability to graph multiple data points at once and to track ecommerce transactions in a more readable way.[6]

While the product platform has never been a beta, new beta features are added from time to time.

Technology

Google Analytics is implemented by including what is known as a "page tag". This is referred to as the Google Analytics Tracking Code (GATC) and is a hidden snippet of JavaScript code that the user adds onto every page of his or her website. This code acts as a beacon, collecting private visitor data and sending it back to Google data collection servers for processing. Data processing takes place hourly, though it can be 3–4 hours in arrears of real time. However, a comment on a web analytics blog from a Google employee indicates that not all data is processed for approximately 12 hours after collection.

To function, the GATC loads a larger file from the Google webserver and then sets variables with the user's account number. The larger file (currently known as ga.js) is typically 18 KB in size and is only downloaded once at the start of the visit as it will be cached throughout the session. As all websites that implement GA with the ga.js code are using the same master file from Google, a visitor that has previously visited any other website with this code implemented, will also have the file cached on their machine. The result is that the page overhead of including the GATC on web pages is kept to a minimum.

In addition to broadcasting information to Google servers, the GATC sets first party cookies on each visitor's computer. This is used to store anonymous information such as whether the visitor has been to the site before (new or returning visitor), what is the timestamp of the current visit and what was the referrer site or campaign the visitor came from e.g. search engine, keywords, banner, email etc.

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Limitations

Many ad filtering programs and extensions (such as Firefox's Adblock and NoScript) can block the GATC. This prevents some traffic and users from being tracked, and leads to holes in the collected data. Also, privacy networks like Tor will mask the 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 are considered small – affecting only a small percentage of visits.[7]

The largest potential impact on data accuracy comes from users deleting or blocking Google Analytics cookies.[8] Without cookies being set, GA cannot collect data. Any individual web user can block or delete cookies resulting in the data loss of those visits for GA users. The only protection a website owner can use to prevent this, is to ensure best practice policies are upheld on their web site. That includes being transparent in what visitor data is collected and how it is used. This information is usually placed within a privacy policy statement page.

Because GA uses a page tagging technique to collect visitor information via a combination of JavaScript and cookies, it has limitations with websites browsed from mobile phones. This is due to the fact that only the latest phones are currently able to run JavaScript or set cookies (Smart phones and PDAs).

These limitations affect all on-site web analytics tools that collect on-site visitor data using page tags. That is, the small piece of code (usually JavaScript) that acts as a beacon to collect visitor data.

Another issue occurs with pages not loading properly because of the placement of the script or tag that is used to harvest the data. You can google on this issue yourself but reviews are mixed. Many webmasters have felt that this does slow the loading of pages and have gone to other solutions. Others feel that this is not necessarily the case and may be browser issue.

Another limitation of GA for large websites is the use of sampling in the generation of many of its reports. To reduce the load on their servers and to provide users with a relatively quick response for their query, GA limits reports to 200,000 randomly sampled visits at the profile level for its calculations. While margins of error are indicated for the visits metric, margins of error are not provided for any other metrics in the GA reports. For small segments of data, the margin of error can be very large.[9]

Bugs and support

Until September 2008 it wasn't possible to delete Google Analytics accounts, this has since been rectified.[10] For support, users have many options: Google provides direct email support in many languages.[11] A user can contact the Google Analytics Support team to ask a question, suggest a feature or access a list of known issues. Google also provides a Google Analytics Help website.[12] In addition, Google Analytics users can get help by visiting the Analytics Help Forum,[13] and search for answers to their questions or post new questions. For professional services and paid services, including technical support, installation, training and consulting, Google has created a global partner network of Google Analytics Authorized Consultants (GAACs),[14] supporting GA users in many regions and languages.

Privacy Issues

Google uses IP addresses to identify users. While this probably isn't an issue for those that use Google Analytics, it is certainly an issue for those who visit websites that use Google Analytics.

High Profile Sites using Google Analytics

Google Analytics is used at 3813, or 38.13%, of the 10,000 most popular websites (as ranked by Alexa Internet) ordered by popularity, as reported by BackendBattles.com

See also

References

Plaza, B (2009) Monitoring web traffic source effectiveness with Google Analytics: An experiment with time series. Aslib Proceedings, 61(5): 474–482. Article URL: [1]

Plaza, B (2009) Using Google Analytics for measuring inlinks effectiveness. MPRA Paper No. 19676. Article URL: http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/19676/

External links

  • Metalytics - A survey of how many sites on the Internet use Google Analytics (and other analytics engines)

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