Google Analytics: 2011 in Review

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Slept through the whole of 2011 and need to prepare your 2012 plan for Google Analytics? Fret not, we’ve gotten you covered! This one post summarizes all the major news, updates and controversies that happened in the Google Analytics world in this last year.

After a lacklustre 2010 which saw the Google Analytics team mostly working on back-end changes, and not doing much in terms of improving the feature set, 2011 was a whole new ball game. Sparked by Facebook’s explosive growth, and their internal Google+ initiative, the Analytics division also moved at a much faster pace.

Shortened PPT version of this article, for downloading & passing around

The year was full of announcements, feature launches, improvements and a much greater attention to the Analytics business. Here are the 10 different areas that saw the most changes:

    1. Upgrades to UI & Features
    2. Brand New Features
    3. Mobile
    4. Social Media
    5. SEO & Site Speed
    6. API & Back-end
    7. Education
    8. News & Controversies

 

1. Upgrades to Existing Features & the UI with GA v5

As certified Google Analytics Consultants, we had been teased with images of Google Analytics version 5 since late last year, but the official announcement of the upgrade to the new Google Analytics v5 was made in March 2011. At that time, we also posted a GA v5 review with a mixed report card.

The GA team introducing the features of Google Analytics version 5

But over the course of the year, GA v5 has gotten more robust, more features and the best part, it hasn’t been made compulsory yet. The new Google Analytics now only lacks two notable features (email scheduling and PDF export), and brought with it – a whole bunch of new features.

This journey of feature launches started in March with the official announcement, followed soon after by introductory posts introducing the new features. This included features walkthroughs of the new Dashboard, Plat Rows, Goals & Event Goals, Custom Reports, non-interactive Events, new Intelligent notifications and many webinars posted on the Google Analytics Youtube channel.

Before you proceed to the advanced features, remember to make sure all your existing campaigns are already tagged. And the quickest way to do that is to watch my speech at the GoMeasure event by Google Analytics – about 360 degree tracking with GA.

Happy Marketer’s Rachit Dayal on 360 degree tracking with Google Analytics

 

2. Brand New Features

The award for the coolest new feature definitely goes to something that was called “Analytics Right Now” (right now, it’s called “Real Time (Beta)”). This awesome feature lets you see what’s happening on the site with a delay of less than 1 second! Pretty amazing feature and an amazing tool to demonstrate to clients what an awesome, feature-rich tool Google Analytics is.

A walkthrough of Google Analytics Real Time data by @labnol

The most useful tool released this year would be the Multi-Channel Attribution report. It lets you get a complete picture of your marketing efforts, letting you see which mediums and sources your audience used before converting into a sale. This is a well needed development that will finally push clients away from last-touchpoint-attribution which usually increases the importance given to search marketing, and doesn’t capture the effect of all the online branding efforts.

Google Analytics also launched some fancier features like Path Analysis (excellent intro by Justin Cutrioni here), DoubleClick integration (part of Google Analytics Premium). These are probably more appropriate for really large organizations with significant investments into the digital realm.

3. Mobile Tracking Features

Before 2011 rolled around, Google Analytics already had healthy support for tracking activities in Mobile Apps (Android & iOS) & Mobile Websites (high end sites, and low end sites). All that support had rolled around the previous few years and is still admittedly, the most robust & flexible platform for Mobile tracking (even in the face of dedicated frameworks like Flurry, Localytics & Webtrends Mobile)

A great intro to tracking Mobile web visitors by our friend, Nash Islam

This year, most of the work on the product included improvements in number of features and the flexibility of the SDKs. February started off with the iOS SDK getting Custom Variables (about three months after the Android SDK got them. For a great explanation for using Custom Variables on the web version, check out this post by e-nor). The May update brought ecommerce tracking and validation to Android apps.

In August & September, both the Android and iOS SDKs saw new versions with features like campaign tracking within apps. Finally in November, both versions again got an upgrade with significantly easier tracking because of the EasyTracker library.

4. Social Media Tracking Features

If there’s one feature that gets a marketing division excited today, it’s Social Media! Trust us, our Social Media Training division gets more enquiries than we can handle wanting to know how to tackle the whole social landscape.

Unfortunately, this is also one area in which Google Analytics has been sorely lacking. While platforms like Radian 6, Brandtology & ThoughtBuzz have been working hard on analytics in this space, Google Analytics has been stuck mostly in the world of Pageviews & Visitors.

Now, to their credit, they’ve been working on various things to fix that. They have shown off social tracking solutions to select partners under NDAs. They’ve acquired Social Media companies like PostRank and SocialGrapple which will eventually show up in some of their products. But everything they’ve done is private and there’s really nothing we can work with as users.

Well, in 2011 they finally started waking up to Social with the Google+ initiative. The whole company got into a competitive mood with Facebook, announcing raises to stop defections to Facebook, matching week-to-week launch schedules and betting everyone’s bonuses to their success in Social.

In terms of Analytics, they had plenty to announce this year.

In June, they announced the “+1” button for web results. These later got extended to Ads and could be placed freely anywhere. (Incidentally, this was a week before they announced “Google+” … seriously, nobody in branding & PR could come up with better names?). Google Analytics also started auto-integrating +1 results into the data. BTW, if you’re not into the in-built solution, you should check out this ultra-geeky alternative by tracking Social Activities as Events from Analytics Geek Eduardo.

Almost immediately afterwards, Google extended this feature for tracking Facebook “Likes” and Twitter “Tweets”. These features are definitely not seamless like the tracking of +1, but with a little work webmasters can accomplish these for their own sites.

In October, they finally announced that the Social Tracking feature would be automatically built into Social Plugins by AddThis and ShareThis.

At the end of the year, Google Analytics announced something called “Social Data Hub” which would basically allow social media networks and platform owners to auto-send usage data to Google. A little optimistic on Google’s part to expect this as there’s no way the large platforms like Facebook & Twitter are going to do this, but this could take off for smaller networks (starting with Google+, Orkut and YouTube). For an explanation of this feature, check out this post on Lunametrics.

5. Search Engine Optimization & Site Speed

The biggest feature in terms of SEO features for Analytics came in the middle of the year in the form of Google Webmaster Tools integration with GA. Webmaster tools collects and shows some excellent data (though nowhere as insightful as GA), and there was no way to share that data until now. In June, Google Webmaster Tools data could finally be passed on to GA.

Another huge push Google made this year was towards giving more importance to Site Speed. Apart from other initiatives like the “Page Speed Tool”, which analyzes your sites and makes suggestions to improve loading time, and announcing that Speed is a factor in search results, Google Analytics also introduced tools to help marketers adapt to these new ranking factors.

May brought with it, a launch of a feature called “Site Speed” which helped measure the Page Load time on your site. Over the course of the year, the feature got upgrades and finally was made available to all pages without any code customization. For those interested, here’s a tutorial on getting insights from the Site Speed tool.

But the biggest news of the year was actually a controversy when Google decided to auto-send visitors to the “https” (secure) version of the site. When people on a secure version of Google search for something and then get redirected to the site, now Google Analytics (and any other Analytics tool), doesn’t see the actual keywords used by their visitors.

This was a huge change, and the controversial part was that if you ran campaign on Google AdWords, you could still see the keyword data for that source. It was just for the free search results (clicks on which don’t directly make Google any money), that all the keyword data was stripped out. Needless to say, this would be terrible as it takes away our ability to understand our audience or tailor or message based on keyword behaviour.

Pretty much every online expert jumped in to criticize Google for this double standard – some openly accused Google have having ulterior motive (Danny Sullivan in his passionate piece “Google Puts a Price on Privacy”). Others thought it was mostly a messaging and communication gap, the actual gaffe was minimal (More comments here from Brian Clifton and Lunametrics).

Personally, I think it’s a crappy move on Google’s part stripping out this data considering it’s still providing this data to advertisers. Anonymized keyword data doesn’t hurt users’ privacy any more than age-old cookies, but helps marketers, webmasters and businesses get a much more complete picture of the marketing

In my private conversations with Googlers in the Analytics team, they admitted they’re helpless on this move as this is a diktat from the top. Google’s going overboard to show regulators around the world that it’s one-step ahead in terms of protecting people’s privacy. While I appreciate their compulsions, the future with this kind of thought is scary – I hope we’re not looking at a world where Google refuses to release any data and goes back on it’s basic “openness” DNA.

A Great explanation by @koozai about what the whole controversy is

6. APIs & Back End Upgrades

Google Analytics v5 brought with it tonnes of invisible upgrades that weren’t discussed much in the blogosphere – from faster AJAXy loads, to unique URLs to reports, a much more refined number crunching system and overall UI coherence.

Early in the year , Google announced new features for the API – with Server Side Authorization and announcing new dimensions and metrics being available.

In April, the Google Analytics blog highlighted new tracking code improvements (client side POST support) that build upon it’s asynchronous code introduced in late 2009.

Finally, two old features were overhauled. Benchmarking as we knew it was killed (with a creatively titled post called “Evolution of Benchmarking” Smile) in favour of a private email that goes out to webmasters with benchmarking data. We haven’t seen much about this report through the rest of the year, so I guess this feature may get a boost sometime next year when the Social Media Monitoring features that came from the PostRank acquisition make their way to the launchpad.

The second feature was a difference in the way sessions were calculated, logically ending the session when one of the one of the variables (utm_medium, utm_source, utm_term, utm_content, utm_id, utm_campaign and gclid) changes.

7. Education

One area in which the GA team excelled in 2010 was Education. That year, they started the excellent web series called Analytics TV. Every episode featured the energetic, enthusiastic & passionate Analytics Guru Avinash Kaushik and other Team Leaders from the Analytics team answering questions from the web audience. For most regular users, the content was probably too technical … but for regular Analytics users, it was pure gold.

Watching Avinash is an always entertaining time

Our very own Vinny launched the Conversion JAPAC blog which brings together awesome Analytics and Conversion focussed case studies in the Asian context. That blog featured several fascinating case studies including Fairmont Hotels and one on Price Testing (written and shamelessly plugged by yours truly).

In April, a new Help Center was also launched to match the  new GA version 5. Thankfully this version gets updated much more than the previous version and links to articles contributed by external authors

And finally, there were also plenty of articles from the usual array of bloggers, authors and Analytics expert. One highlight that I’d definitely like to bring up is an awesome Google Analytics infographic from Tatvic on improving your GA setup.

Improving your Google Analytics set-up

8. News & Controversies

Among all the feature launches, upgrades and integrations – probably the biggest news for the product that stretched the entire year was the launch of Google Analytics version 5. Mostly because it was such a slow rollout (that’s still not finished), the Analytics team has taken their time to introduce features.

The Official “Making of Google Analytics v5 Video – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3KaHlt5pKSY

The Google Analytics Premium was another product launch that was much discussed in the blogosphere. At Happy Marketer, we’re still unsure about whether our clients require paying for the tool (as Avinash says, you need 10x the investment in Analysts than in Analytics tools), but for many of the global Google Analytics Certified Partners, this is a significant revenue & support opportunity.

Slick official video promoting Google Analytics Premium!

And the biggest controversy was the removal of keyword data for regular search engine traffic from the tool. Obviously a huge deal for SEOs and Webmasters, this was discussed, dissected and was a hot passionate topic on the interwebs.

Wrapping Up …

As we start off 2012, we can remember 2011 as a turning point when the Google team started taking the pace of launches and features really seriously. This has been a standout year in terms of product development and we hope that some of the major holes in GA’s features (social media, better mobile tracking, more automatic integrations) will get filled up in 2012.  For a more well informed prediction post, here’s a recent Justin Cutrioni video by Online Behaviour on Analytics Future.

Awesome video! Love it when the checkout times out :-D

Finally, let me leave you with an awesome video above from the UK Analytics team that encourages you to pay attention to user behaviour on your site.

And it was also a very fun year for us! David and I got to spend time at Google Mountain View, and have a quick conversation with Avinash, one of our Analytics idols!

What do you think of this wrap-up? Did we miss something important out? Do you disagree with some of my analysis? Chime in below in the comments section!

Rachit Dayal

Managing Partner at Happy Marketer

Is the Managing Partner at Happy Marketer, and handles clients with needs in Web Analytics, Search Engine Optimization, Google AdWords, Website Design and Conversion Consulting.

As Singapore’s first Qualified AdWords Professional and one of the first Analytics Qualified Professionals in the region, Rachit has been on the forefront of search marketing in Singapore since 2004.

But as this industry comes into maturity, he believes now is when the fun is starting – when clients dare to dream of exciting campaigns, and we can finally show tangible positive ROI from all marketing campaigns.

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