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The Pros and Cons of Google Analytics


1/20/2007

Google Analytics has been on the website traffic statistics scene for just a little over a year now and looks to be in no danger of fading into obscurity. For many website owners and professional online marketing firms it has become the de facto standard for helping to manage online marketing campaigns. Much of this is due to the depth of data and the ability to cross reference categories of information and really drill down to specifics on the who, what and when of your site’s visitors. When Google Analytics is integrated into a shopping cart based site it can really shine, providing valuable research on what your most popular products are and exactly what dollar amount your average visit from various sources of traffic are worth. But behind the slick interface, fancy charts and tightly zoomed data details the technology this system is built upon offers up some lesser known pros and cons.

For a long time now traffic analytics meant usually one thing, log analysis. Every website has a raw log file that records each request to the server, such as a page or image. This log file will record this information regardless if it’s an actual site visitor collecting this data or one of the hundreds of thousands of automated software, or bots, scouring the web for information for both helpful (search engine crawlers) and hurtful reasons (address collectors for junk email). Sifting through this data to separate the real traffic from the junk makes the data gleaned fairly useful for trends and patterns, though true specific numbers are hard to come by without some level of inaccuracy. If you have a site that utilizes programming to serve images or other files, the numbers can be further skewed. While many software packages have been offered to do some of the heavy lifting, there is still usually some amount of manual filtering and analysis needed to get useful information for online marketing efforts.

Google Analytics, on the other hand is a JavaScript based tracking system. JavaScript is a common programming language used to accomplish various add on features for many websites, from animating buttons to making realtime calculators, and it works by running within the environment of a user’s browser. This means that when used as a statistical collection system you can get data from only actual real site visitors, not bots, with a high level of assurance. As well, since the JavaScript is placed only on pages you want to track, you can avoid issues of site programming skewing the data. Because it’s based on programming language itself, the tracking system is capable of gathering data, such as ordering and shopping cart information and site conversions for purchases or lead forms and associating them to visitors and the referrering sources.

So, what are the cons? Well, one of it’s afore mentioned pros, filtering bot traffic, can be a downside if that information is important to you. If you want to monitor the activity of non browser based traffic to try and combat malicious bot traffic or just want to see if a certain search engine has come to crawl your website, you will have to use the old fashioned method of website traffic analysis. As well, if you need information on files or images being downloaded, Google Analytics can not help you there as you can’t apply the JavaScript code to them. There are some work arounds to be able to track specific file downloads as pages, but to use these methods to keep track of every image in impractical. The last major downside is that not every site visitor will have JavaScript tracking allowed in their browser, either because they are using antiquated software or they specifically have it disabled. This number is not substantial however, and not of great concern.

From the standpoint of maintaining complete oversight and statistical references for your site, it would be wise to be sure to have in place both a log analysis system and something that gives a richer more true detail such as Google Analytics. While the majority of your time should be spent researching your real visitors’ behavior and working to meet their expectations and needs with your internet marketing effort, it’s important to have the tools to get further under the hood and troubleshoot when the need arises.

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Author: Terry

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