Google Analytics

Google Analytics is a free service, which will no doubt put doubts in the minds of some IT managers as to whether it should be relied upon.

Step 11: Google Analytics
  • Free, easy to use and a good range of reports
  • No real customisability, limited functionality, requires an invitation

Google Analytics is a free service, which will no doubt put doubts in the minds of some IT managers as to whether it should be relied upon. Certainly, the service was initially poor and Google still has restrictions in place to curb bandwidth usage as a result. But the service itself is better than many paid-for services, including some in our test, and has many features others lack.

The reason for the quality of the service is that Google acquired it from Urchin, the California web analytics firm. This means it has a far mature product on its hands than the six months it's been running might lead you to believe. As with the other services it works using embedded JavaScript tags that need to be inserted in the body of any tracked web page. However, Google doesn't specify exactly where the code should appear, although the head of the page is recommended. This means the page load time has a variable increase, depending on where you place the code. We didn't experience the delay we faced with OneStat by including the code in the head, but it was still noticeable in some instances. We'd therefore recommend the foot of the page instead.

Google analytics reports are viewable using most standard web browsers, although some of the rarer browsers did present problems. Pages are served encrypted using SSL.

The reports themselves are first rate. Although they lack the true customisability of more dedicated services they allow for filters on data, profiles for different parts of sites and export to XML and Excel formats. Although all reports are available to all users, there are various dashboards for particular job roles, including executives, marketers and webmasters to avoid superfluous information being presented.

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Reports are available for visitor behaviour by the hour, but typically they only contain data from 10 hours or ago (or earlier), making them inapplicable for instant web site feedback. One particularly useful report is the overlay function, which overlays click through stats on any page of the site. The site remains fully functional, so users can click links to follow the progress of visitors through the site more easily.

As you might expect from Google, particular attention is paid to both search engine marketing and AdSense campaign tracking, with comparison reports available to show whether organic or PPC marketing is providing better results. Analysis of campaigns other than Google's is a good deal harder and requires the writing of various filters - although a handy feature of Google Analytics is the ability to rewrite URLs with dynamic parameters to more easily readable forms. Up to ten funnels can be specified for monitoring commerce progress.

If there's one big drawback to Google Analytics, it's the difficulty in gaining access to it. Users need a Google account and to wait for an invitation before they can use the service. Each account can only have five profiles for sub-sites, making the service hard to use and segment with large sites, and individual users need to be granted access to particular reports. For a free service or a possible adjunct to an existing service, though, it isn't half bad.

Verdict

Surprisingly good range of features for a free service, but no real competition for the high-end

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