Google Analytics is a free service that allows marketers and website owners to track users’ behavior on their website. It can tell the story that is so critical to understanding how to improve the performance of a site. Specifically, who is visiting, how they got there, and what they did. When I say “who” I don’t mean name, address, social security number, and mother’s maiden name, but with all the recent talk about digital marketing and privacy, I could see why you thought that.

Google Analytics is awesome. So awesome that over two-thirds of the top 100,000 websites in the world are using it. That’s according to BuiltWith, a website that tracks what software is used on websites across the internet.

Google Analytics is also free and, sometimes in life, you get what you pay for. There are a number of limitations that can skew the data it collects. While it’s a tool I recommend every one of our clients use, it’s important to understand these limitations when using the data to make decisions about marketing campaigns and website enhancements.

Limitation #1: Recording bot and spam traffic

Not every machine that loads your website is being operated by a person. There are many bots that are constantly crawling websites for various reasons. Some are nefarious and some are not. Either way, these bots can skew data significantly. We recently performed a thorough analysis for a client with multiple sites and found that bot and spam traffic made up between 10 and 20 percent of recorded visits. Spam – it’s not just for inboxes anymore.

Bot traffic is harmful for analysis because it uses websites very differently than typical users. Bots often only load one page which misrepresents pages per session and conversion rate metrics. Fortunately, custom segments can filter this traffic out. If creating filters for specific types of web traffic isn’t your passion in life, a marketing analytics professional can help.

Limitation #2: Time on site

Time on site is a metric that is always under reported by Google Analytics. When a user loads a page, the exact time that page loads is sent back to Google’s servers. When the next page is loaded, that time is recorded. Google then does the quick math to determine how long the user was on the first page. This works perfectly well until a user reaches the final page. How long do they spend looking at the final page? Do you know? That was a rhetorical question. You don’t. Google doesn’t either. Without another recorded time to measure the difference, the time spent on the last page within a session is not calculated and therefore not factored into time on site. That’s why for every user who only looks at one page, time on site in Google Analytics shows zero seconds. That would actually be very hard for a user to pull off. You’d have to have a very quick mouse finger.

Limitation #3: Measuring all users

Google Analytics works by loading a snippet of javascript code on each page of a website. When the page is loaded, the code sends a long string of data back to the Google servers to be processed. Not all browsers allow javascript code to run. On top of that, Google Analytics uses cookies to track information from a user’s browser. Cookies can be blocked by web browsers and ad blockers.

Recent privacy laws are throwing an additional monkey wrench into the situation. When the EU enacted GDPR last year, web owners were forced to give their users the option to disable cookies. Some site owners are keeping cookies off until users opt-in, leaving large numbers of visits unrecorded.

With the limitations of javascript and cookies, not all users are tracked. Based on this information, a smart analyst (like me) might tell you not to use Google Analytics to track hard numbers. Instead, look for trends over time to measure success.

Limitation #4: The need for customization

Many website owners and marketers place Google Analytics code on their website then high-five themselves in the mirror because they’re “crushing it.” Unfortunately, that’s just the beginning of the set up. In order to run the most important reports available, you’ll need to set up goal tracking. You’ll also need to set up event tracking to measure interactions with non-HTML content like PDF downloads, video views, and form submissions. Google Analytics doesn’t know what you want to measure, it’s important that you customize the tracking to fit your needs.

I’ve often heard that in marketing the most effective word you can use is “free.” So use Google Analytics on your website because it is free. But understand just how much awesome that price will get you.

If you want to learn more, we offer Google Analytics training.

Originally published by the Rochester Business Journal