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Google Universal Analytics: Understanding online visitors, not just visits

by: Amy Gahran |

Your digital community is no longer accessing you only via their computers -- now their smartphones, tablets, internet-enabled TVs, and even gaming consoles are an important part of this experience. How can community news and information projects adapt to a multi-device world? A new analytics tool from Google can help you start to figure this out.

For years, Google Analytics has been one of the most popular free tools for monitoring web traffic. The new Universal version of Google Analytics offers expanded insight into how people interact with you across many devices and "touchpoints" (such as social media).

Universal Analytics moves away from tracking what happens during individual visits to your website, and instead tracks the behavior of visitors. As eConsultancy notes: "It stitches user data together across platforms and devices, and can track activity on any web-enabled device. That includes websites, mobile apps and point-of-sale systems, which means that Universal Analytics can track offline conversions too."

Wait, doesn't that sound like a tool for retailers, not publishers? Yes: It's important to keep in mind that Google Analytics is first and foremost intended to support e-commerce. It's designed to track how well you're "funneling" visitors toward "conversion points" -- such as product sales.

That's not a bad thing. It's useful to consider your community, and engagement, in terms of funnels and conversion points. Because -- unless your community project is strictly a hobby -- chances are you're hoping to not just attract eyeballs, but to make stuff happen.

This isn't only about getting people to click on ads. You might be soliciting donations, courting volunteers, trying out new advertising or sponsorship models, or gauging whether your efforts have increased local voter turnout or public meeting attendance. Also, you probably need to justify your efficacy and influence to funders, advertisers, and other stakeholders, or even internally.

For all of these goals it's important to track not just where people go on your website, but what they DO there -- and why. And without tools that can track user behavior across multiple device types and touchpoints, you'll have a fragmented understanding of how you're influencing your community.

Google Analytics is the first major mainstream data management platform -- an emerging breed of marketer tools that bears increasing relevance to publishers and community information and engagement efforts.

DMPs offer they kind of analysis that makes it easier to segment your audience and define new (or overlooked) opportunities to build your business or support your mission.

Should you upgrade to Google Universal Analytics now? Well, you can't, exactly. Not just yet. Google doesn't offer an upgrade option from "Classic" analytics to Universal (although they probably will in the future). But you can run both tools side-by-side on your digital properties -- and it's probably worth setting that up soon, so you can begin to compile data that you can compare and use later. When it comes to analytics, the more history you've compiled, the more useful the analysis becomes.

According to Google, in addition to what Classic Analytics provides, here's what Universal Analytics offers:

  • New data collection methods. "Universal Analytics introduces the analytics.js code snippet as the primary collection method for websites. This JavaScript is more flexible than previous the Google Analytics ga.js JavaScript, giving you more customization options of your data."
  • Simplified feature configuration. Universal Analytics exposes options in the Analytics admin interface that were previously only accessible through the development environment. With Universal Analytics, it's easier to customize configuration settings, like your campaign timeout handling and search term exclusions."
  • Custom dimensions and metrics. Custom dimensions and metrics are like default dimensions and metrics, except you create them yourself. Use them to collect data that Google Analytics doesn't automatically track."
  • Multi-platform tracking. "With the Measurement Protocol, and additional collection methods introduced by Universal Analytics, you can collect and send incoming data from any digital device to your Analytics account, so you can track more than just websites."

How to get started. First you'll need to set up a "new" web property in Google Analytics that's dedicated to Universal Analytics. Google says this can be either "a new property on an existing account, or create a new account specifically for Universal Analytics." Then follow Google's Universal Analytics setup help.

After you're set up and have begun tracking data in Universal Analytics, then you can experiment with setting up some simple conversion points and funnels, or focus on certain community segments -- if you aren't already doing so. Then compare the data you get for these between the two tools. See which helps you make better decisions. Experiment with customizing dimensions and metrics in Universal to see if that helps you get useful answers to specific questions.

Remember: the point of data analysis is to gain actionable information -- both about what your community is doing (and why); and about what you can do to engage them more effectively to achieve your goals.

Amy Gahran

Amy Gahran is a journalist, editor, trainer, entrepreneur, strategist, and media consultant based in Boulder, Colorado. In addition to writing
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