Coming to Grips With Google Analytics

You’ve probably heard the hubbub about Google entering the analytics game. Earlier this month, Google launched Google Analytics, a free Web analytics service that lets companies track how visitors interact with their Web sites and how ad campaigns perform.

The announcement has caused quite a stir online. At my agency, we’ve already had a number of calls from clients asking, “Should we be using Google Analytics? Why or why not?” Analysts such as Eric Peterson and Click Z’s own Jason Burby have already weighed in on the topic. And you can bet companies like Coremetrics, WebSideStory, and WebTrends have been receiving calls asking what makes them better than, or different from, Google Analytics.

Google Analytics proved so popular in its first two weeks of release, the company temporarily disallowed more people from signing up for it. By the time it did that, 234,725 Analytics accounts had been created. That’s a lot of user accounts — and a ton of data for Google to process.

The product’s sheer popularity caused Google problems it wasn’t prepared for. It’s taken 24 hours or more for some data to propagate into the Google Analytics interface (comparable products take a couple of hours). Problems with support infrastructure have also been noted.

I expect Google to tackle these issues and resolve them over time. (I’ve heard, for instance, Google is setting up a partner program in which third parties would sell support services, but it hasn’t launched yet.)

It all boils down to this: It’s Google, and it’s free. Google is offering for no cost — so as long as the site stays below 5 million page views per month — what other companies charge for. If a site has over 5 million page views every month, there’s no clear mention of how much it could cost. But Google waives that cost if the company actively purchases AdWords in a search engine advertising campaign.

As a reporting tool, Google Analytics offers good features and functionality. Some features are more advanced than what you’ll find in some of the simpler analytics tools, such as those that create reports geared toward small businesses. For instance, it sports advanced features such as A/B testing, conversion funnel reporting, outbound link tracking, and some other cool stuff.

So, will we recommend it to our clients?

It’s too soon to give it anything more than a very qualified recommendation. Since Google Analytics is free, it can’t hurt to implement it and see what kind of data you get. But to rely on Google Analytics for all your tracking needs is premature at this point. Performance and support issues are real concerns for companies looking to replace their current analytics solution. Even when these are resolved, Google Analytics is a better fit for small businesses, rather than larger sites that require detailed conversion and marketing metrics, such as online retailers. The reports aren’t a replacement for larger enterprise reporting tools at this time, either.

In addition, there are possible issues with Google Analytics, and, indeed, any live or tag-based reporting software, as compared to reporting based on log-file analysis. In live or tag-based reporting tools, a snippet of code is placed on each site page, so reporting data is drawn from the browser, or client side. With log-file analysis, which is typically offered by the larger enterprise reporting tools, reports are based on the activity logs generated by the server hosting the site, or server side. The main issue with live reporting tools is downloaded content such as PDFs, video, and audio may not be fully tracked. In viral marketing campaigns, people may access files directly from the server. This bypasses the tracking code of live reporting solutions such as Google Analytics.

But this is Google. With this offering, Google fired another shot in the battle to become the 800-pound gorilla of the Internet. Analytics is about as far-reaching an offering from its core competency as it’s yet attempted (you can bet it won’t be the last or farthest-reaching one, however).

It also shines a spotlight on analytics, if only for a moment. And that’s a good thing.

Web analytics can be a powerful tool. Google Analytics can be a powerful way to show clients the uses of analytics. If the Google Analytics announcement does nothing more than start a conversation about using analytics to better a business between us and clients we otherwise wouldn’t have had, it’s done us a great service.

What do you think?

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