Web Analytics: To Google or Not to Google

The world loves Google, right?  How can you complain with free Web search, free email, free blogs, free picture sharing, free video sharing and all the disk space in the world with which to do it?  So when Google released Google Analytics, we all said, “why not?”

Why Google Analytics?

Well, for starters, it’s free.  When your marketing mix and marketing tracking tools have ever-rising costs, a free tool for Web analytics is right up every CFO’s alley.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I heard the murmurings of the old adage “you get what you pay for.” Granted, that was apropos when Google Analytics first launched, but they’ve gotten far better tools and reporting since then.  But should your company solely rely on it?

The Good

Google Analytics is a client-side solution.  This means that you rely on your site visitor (and its browser and security settings) to give you the information you desire.  You have to insert JavaScript code into every page of your site that you want to track.  This includes any customized redirect pages or error pages.  Upon hitting your site, the JavaScript is loaded into the visitor’s browser, makes additional network connections to Google, where the visitor’s actions are tracked.

The Bad

Simply put, if a visitor to your Web site has JavaScript disabled or only accepts certain cookies, you won’t get the analytical information you want. Keep in mind, there is a setting that says “only accept cookies from the originating domain,” which many people choose to use.  In essence, this means that Google’s thrid-party cookies set by their JavaScript code are never accepted.  An entire subset of security-conscious, naive or simply unknowing users of a high-security corporate network are never tracked. An incredibly large bias has now been introduced into your statistics.  How can they be trusted?

Is It That Cut-and-dry?

In a nutshell, yes.  While Google analytics are great, free tools, the data you collect are not entirely accurate.  Server-side analytics are generally more accurate and don’t rely on cookies or JavaScript.  Every time a visitor hits a Web page, they leave a footprint of date, time, page requested, any parameters attached to that page, browser, operating system, IP address, referring page and any status codes that indicate errors, redirects or caching checks.  This always happens.

Google’s JavaScript code can’t catch all of that. To track a user back and forth, Google needs to rely on pre-existing data and cookies that the visitor may or may not use. In this day and age of Web-based scripts and security, many Web programmers have begun to use technology called server-side redirects to masquerade how certain parameters are used so hackers can’t take down their site.  These server-side redirects are not pages, which means you can’t put Javascript onto them, which further means more skewing of data, even if people have all their cookies enabled.

So doesn’t it make sense to use analytics tools that read data you already are collecting? When you rely on Google for analytics, you’ve just increased the bandwidth used by your visitor. (Ask Time Warner, this will be an issue in the future.) You’ve also increased the time it takes to display that page, because you have to wait for the connections to Google to be made, processed and returned to the visitor.

So Why Does It Matter?

For your personal blog, or your start-up, brick-and-mortar small business, Google Analytics is a fine tool. For the most part it  gets the job done. But when you heavily rely on accurate visitor traffic, you need something that analyzes ALL your data.  If your average target demographic is not a dumb novice computer user, you’re probably missing data on many of them.

I recently sat through a presentation where the primary marketing officer talked about multi-variable testing on creative and landing pages and the usual lather, rinse, repeat that every good marketer should be able to preach. They talked of diverse audiences and of key words, SEM, SEO, SMM, ad spends, tracking and analytics and pretty much every marketing buzzword you could think of.  Lastly, they lauded their clients’ organic placement. Yet, I ran simple searches for their key phrases and only came up with one of their clients in the top-ten.  This made me suspect.

Post-meeting, I approached one and asked about A-B testing of creative to landing pages and of methods of tracking used.  On cue, I was told they test multiple creative ads and “of course” they test multiple landing pages with each of the many creative ads.

Yet, I was shocked that a multi-national company that effectively flaunted their reputation in this presentation so matter-of-factly stated they relied solely on Google Analytics. This company has dozens of large organizations as clients.  Each of these clients should have far outgrown a solution that consists only of Google Analytics.  However, this entire marketing department that juggles dozens of client sites uses the free, unrobust tool.

To Use or Not To Use?

Please don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying don’t use Google Analytics. I’m saying it shouldn’t be the primary means on which you base your marketing decisions. Worse yet, it should not be the basis of marketing decisions you make for others.

4 thoughts on “Web Analytics: To Google or Not to Google”

  1. I agree, Google Analytics doesn’t catch it all, I personally prefer analytics tools included in the control panel of my hosting company, like Webalizer.

  2. I agree, I also see that they cannot track a lot. But I wonder why do you expect multinational corporation necessarily hosting their own tracking solution?

    Can you imagine how hard is it to convince upper management about getting money for that? Or keep such a project from bloating out of proportions? Especially with the tons of people believing their opinion is important and capable of doing a lot of damage unless somehow pacified? Besides, it’s not like you need a precise science here.

  3. The key here is that Google Analytics is free. Most of the other services charge a lot of money and there does not seem to be anything in the middle. So either take the free software and live with the results you get, or pay a lot of money. I am not sure this will change any time soon.

  4. Pingback: Piwik – Web Analytics Alternative to Google : Thom "dot com" Craver

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