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Universal Analytics is the next iteration of Google Analytics, and last month it launched into public beta.

Universal Analytics is a completely new version of the Analytics tracking code, and it’s also a completely new way of looking at how we track and analyse our users.

In short, it’s going to change everything. 

The main difference with Universal Analytics is that it tracks much, much more than just visits to a website. The Google Analytics that we all know and love is based on an older analytics product called Urchin, which Google bought in 2005 and was initially created in 1998. It’s come a long way since then, and we’ve been able to do some sophisticated stuff with it, but it’s only designed to track visits to a website. 

Universal Analytics moves away from tracking the anatomy of a visit, and tracks the behaviour of visitors. 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. 

Essentially, the change to Universal Analytics is about acknowledging that as the web has become more complex and users have become more sophisticated, a visit-based analytics tool isn’t going to cut it. The old method no longer fits the new model, so the method has to change.

With the new method comes a whole heap of new features, a lot of which are still in a fairly abstract and theoretical state. Here’s a summary of some of the main ones, and how they can be useful in a practical sense:

  

Offline Conversions

This is going to be a major factor in driving organisations to migrate to Universal Analytics, and a major benefit they’ll see as a result of doing so. It’s all thanks to the Measurement Protocol which is one of the core components of Universal Analytics.

It allows us to send data from pretty much any device, and collect it in Universal Analytics. This means we can finally link in-store transactions with campaigns and, via a loyalty card tagged to a User ID, with an entire history of user interactions with our brand. 

It’s the offline aspect of Universal Analytics that will cause the biggest change to what we do, and the open structure of the Measurement Protocol means there will be a plethora of ways to manage the collection of offline conversion data. For a great example, check out Julien Coquet and his method of tracking in-store footfall and cash register transactions. 

 

Custom dimensions to create the reports you want

Another huge change is the ability to set multiple custom dimensions in reports. Think of a dimension as anything to which we assign a number, we can use certain behaviours to trigger dimensions around which we can structure reports. 

For example, on the Econsultancy site we might want to see how the behaviour users that are logged-in differs from the behaviour of users that aren’t. By sending this as a custom dimension to Universal Analytics, we can pull down custom reports to compare the different activity between the sets of users. 

Likewise, we might want to see which Econsultancy blog authors have the best engagement. Google Analytics won’t normally let you view reports on posts by author, but a custom dimension will let you see exactly how different authors foster different levels of engagement.

Link your CRM data to logged-in users

Universal Analytics can be fed information from your backend customer tracking database to give additional context to your reports.

For example, by tying age demographics to user IDs, you can see how different age groups access different types of content, and which campaign sources are best at engaging with different groups of users.

 

Advanced segments can be created across sessions

Part and parcel of a move away from visit-based analytics is the ability to segment based on multiple visits.

So, if you want to create an advanced segment around people based in Sydney, that first arrived on your site on a Saturday between 2am and 4am, then returned via a remarketing campaign and spent $100 online, nothing's going to stop you now!

Configure session timeouts, with a maximum of four hours

The previous limit was a non-customisable 30 minutes.

This is useful for sites like office supply stores where users might keep the website open for long stretches of the day while they coordinate a company-side purchase, and few 30-minute visits were showing up with conversions. 

Add custom search engines and have visitors show up as organic search

You might decide that YellowPages is more like a search engine than a referring site. Now you can bucket these visitors in your organic search segment. 

 

Exclude certain organic search terms from your reports

You might want to take your brand or domain name and remove those from your organic search reports, since their use implies that users already know who you are.

Anyone searching on an excluded search term will show up as Direct Traffic, enabling you to drill deeper into customers that don’t already know your brand.

User timings become more specific

User Timings can be set so we don't just get a basic figure on how long a page took to load, but how long certain elements of pages take to load.

This customisation means that complex websites and web apps can be tracked from a performance perspective, which will be particularly useful for optimising mobile web user experience.

Did somebody say "Data-Driven?"

Overall, we’re looking at a lot of changes all introduced at one time; and right now, the digital analytics industry is still getting to grips with how to best work with the new features.

It’s certainly the most significant change the digital analytics industry has seen, and it’s going to widen the reach of analytics to more touchpoints across an organisation. “Data-driven” might have lost its meaning from over-use, but it’s about to have a whole new meaning applied to it. 

Universal Analytics is available now, free, for all current users of Google Analytics. You can’t upgrade directly at this time, but the official advice from Google is to create a new Web Property for Universal Analytics in your Google Analytics account, and run it alongside the current tracking code.

There’s a great walkthrough in getting setup at Kissmetrics and also under Google’s official documentation.  

Over to you

Have you made the transition to Universal Analytics yet, or is it on your to-do list? 

We’d love to hear about your experiences and where you’re finding the biggest benefits (or challenges). Let us know in the comments...

Damion Brown

Published 24 April, 2013 by Damion Brown

Damion Brown is Trainer & Consultant at Data Runs Deep and a guest blogger on Econsultancy. You can connect with him on Google+ and on LinkedIn

2 more posts from this author

Comments (5)

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Tim Cross

This is really exciting stuff. Over the last few years GA has become a core part of tracking display campaign success alongside the traditional adserver, particularly for multi- channel campaign, but until now has still lacked some functionality and opportunity to integrate. I'm keen to see what additional flexibility this new iteration will deliver.

almost 3 years ago

Yehoshua Coren

Yehoshua Coren, Founder and Principal at Analytics Ninja LLC

Thanks for this post, Damion. It is indeed exciting what Universal Analytics from Google is going to bring to the table for businesses.

I'm like to point out a few things that Google Analytics could previously do with the current ga.js, and how UA will make a difference / differs from the current GA in these areas.

1). Offline conversions. This was previously possible to do, but very difficult to deploy. The previous API was not built from the ground up to make this happen, but things like true session level phone call tracking and offline conversion tracking are possible in the current version if you're able to cache the users cookie values. All in all, it is a big shift in the infrastructure and offline tracking will be much easier.

2). Custom Dimensions. The examples you gave such as seeing the behavior of logged in users versus users that aren't or which blog authors have the best engagement have been around for a while as Custom Variables. The main advantage of Custom Dimensions over Custom Variables is that the actual name of the dimension is present in the reporting UI. It is also nice that Custom Dimensions are set server-side, which reduces cookie size. Overall, this is a big move as the reporting will be much more intuitive.

3). Linking CRM data - this was something that was not really possible in the same way that is going to be available in UA. Powerful stuff.

4). Visitor level segmentation. This excites me the most. From what I've heard, visitor segmentation is not going to restricted to UA but will also be in regular GA accounts. Again, just hearsay. In any case, it hasn't been released yet and I'm pacing back and forth waiting for it to happen.

5). Configurable session timeouts. These have been available in GA since the beginning through adding specific javascript configuration. The current method is called _setSessionCookieTimeout() .

6). Custom Search Engines. These too have been available via javascript configuration (as opposed to UA's server-side config). Namely, _addOrganic() .

7). Excluding Search Terms. See point 6. _addIgnoredOrganic()

8). User timings. These too are in the current version of GA. Relatively newer feature that adds a powerful new set of reports to GA.

Again, great post. Glad to be able to comment here as well.

Best,

Yehoshua

almost 3 years ago

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Roy

Aw, too bad it doesn't seem like it's going to have a smooth upgrade path, running a new account alongside means that we won't have years of analytics data... ...so, not fun?

almost 3 years ago

Damion Brown

Damion Brown, Trainer & Consultant at Data Runs Deep

@Tim -- thanks for the input! Agreed it's a hugely exciting area. I get the impression that at the moment, people are tinkering in the basement with what can be possible with Universal. Once those ideas mature, and are launched to the wider community, things will get really interesting!

@Yehoshua - stunning input, thanks! While a lot of the new features can be implemented in regular GA, as you're right to point out, having them easily controlled server-side means they're easier to access and will hopefully gain a wider usage.

@Roy - good point about the lack of historical data. Eventually I expect they'll figure out a way of upgrading everyone to Universal, with all the back-data from regular GA. Not fun, but the added functionality outweighs the negative, in my opinion.

almost 3 years ago

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Finn_Jake

Interesting post! Have actually given up on GA (due to its limitations) and currently into ColibriTool. Looks like time to revisit GA and try out the mentioned info.

almost 3 years ago

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