What is Google Analytics?

Google Analytics is a freemium web analytics service offered by Google that tracks and reports website traffic. Google launched the service in November 2005 after acquiring Urchin. Google Analytics is now the most widely used web analytics service on the Internet. Google Analytics is offered also in two additional versions: a subscription based Google Analytics Premium targeted at enterprise users and Google Analytics for Mobile Apps, an SDK that allows gathering usage data from iOS and Android Apps.

Google acquired Urchin Software Corp. in April 2005. Google’s service was developed from Urchin on Demand. The system also brings ideas from Adaptive Path, whose product, Measure Map, was acquired and used in the redesign of Google Analytics in 2006. Google continued to sell the standalone, installable Urchin WebAnalytics Software through a network of value-added resellers until discontinuation on March 28, 2012.

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.

The newer version of Google Analytics tracking code is known as the asynchronous tracking code, which Google claims is significantly more sensitive and accurate, and is able to track even very short activities on the website. The previous version delayed page loading and so, for performance reasons, it was generally placed just before the </body> body close HTML tag. The new code can be placed between the <head>…</head> HTML head tags because, once triggered, it runs in parallel with page loading.

In April 2011 Google announced the availability of a new version of Google Analytics featuring multiple dashboards, more custom report options, and a new interface design. This version was later updated with some other features such as real-time analytics and goal flow charts.

In October 2012 the latest version of Google Analytics was announced, called ‘Universal Analytics’. The key differences from the previous versions were: cross-platform tracking, flexible tracking code to collect data from any device, and the introduction of custom dimensions and custom metrics.

Features

Integrated with AdWords, users can now 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.

Google Analytics’ approach is to show high-level, dashboard-type data for the casual user, and more in-depth data further into the report set. Google Analytics analysis can identify poorly performing pages with 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.

Google Analytics e-commerce reporting can track sales activity and performance. The e-commerce reports shows a site’s transactions, revenue, and many other commerce-related metrics.

On September 29, 2011, Google Analytics launched Real Time analytics.

A user can have 100 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.

Google Analytics includes Google Website Optimizer, rebranded as Google Analytics Content Experiments.

Google Analytics Cohort analysis feature helps understand the behavior of component groups of users apart from your user population. It is very much beneficial to marketers and analysts for successful implementation of Marketing Strategy.

Technology

Google Analytics is implemented with “page tags”, in this case called the Google Analytics Tracking Code, which is a snippet of JavaScript code that the website owner adds to every page of the website. The tracking code runs in the client browser when the client browses the page (if JavaScript is enabled in the browser) and collects visitor data and sends it to a Google data collection server as part of a request for a web beacon.

The tracking code loads a larger JavaScript 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. The file does not usually have to be loaded, however, due to browser caching. Assuming caching is enabled in the browser, it downloads ga.js only once at the start of the visit. Furthermore, as all websites that implement Google Analytics with the ga.js code use the same master file from Google, a browser that has previously visited any other website running Google Analytics will already have the file cached on their machine.

In addition to transmitting information to a Google server, the tracking code sets a first party cookie (If cookies are enabled in the browser) on each visitor’s computer. This cookie store anonymous information, called the ClientId. Before the launch of Universal Analytics, there were several cookies storing information such as whether the visitor had been to the site before (new or returning visitor), the timestamp of the current visit, and the referrer site or campaign that directed the visitor to the page (e.g., search engine, keywords, banner, or email).

If the visitor arrived at the site by clicking on a link tagged with Urchin Traffic Monitor (UTM) codes such as:

    http://toWebsite.com?utm_source=fromWebsite&utm_medium=bannerAd&utm_campaign=fundraiser2012

the tag values are passed to the database too.

Limitations

In addition, Google Analytics for Mobile Package allows Google Analytics to be applied to mobile websites. The Mobile Package contains server-side tracking codes that use PHP, JavaServer Pages, ASP.NET, or Perl for its server-side language.

However, many ad filtering programs and extensions (such as Firefox’s Adblock and NoScript) can block the Google Analytics Tracking Code. 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.

The largest potential impact on data accuracy comes from users deleting or blocking Google Analytics cookies. Without cookies being set, Google Analytics cannot collect data. Any individual web user can block or delete cookies resulting in the data loss of those visits for Google Analytics users. Website owners can encourage users not to disable cookies, for example, by making visitors more comfortable using the site through posting a privacy policy.

These limitations affect the majority of web analytics tools which use page tags (usually JavaScript programs) embedded in web pages to collect visitor data, store it in cookies on the visitor’s computer, and transmit it to a remote database by pretending to load a tiny graphic “beacon”.

Another limitation of Google Analytics 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, Google Analytics limits reports to 500,000 randomly sampled sessions 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 Google Analytics reports. For small segments of data, the margin of error can be very large.

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