Google Analytics is an indispensable part of every online marketer's toolkit. As the most popular web analytics solution by market share, it has become the primary way that many websites track visitors, measure the impact of ad campaigns, and analyze user behavior on site. But – like any other tool – Google Analytics is not perfect, and some marketers will find that they need more.
In some ways, Google Analytics has become a victim of its own popularity: users rely on it for use cases it simply wasn’t designed to support while overlooking other tools at their disposal. In truth, most marketers stand to benefit from supplementing Google Analytics with other products, while a minority would be better off with a different analytics solution altogether.
In this article, we’ll explain where Google Analytics excels, and situations where its shortcomings are readily apparent. In the end, we will also share alternatives that can serve alongside Google Analytics or – in some cases – replace it altogether.
How Google Analytics Became King
The product that eventually became Google Analytics began its existence in 1995, before Google had even been created. Back then it was called ‘Urchin’, and during the early days of the web it served a simple purpose: track page views, referrers and hits for websites hosted on Urchin’s servers.
Although eventually renamed to Google Analytics, the Urchin name survives in the Urchin Tracking Modules (UTM) that the software’s successor still uses to track link referrals.
Google Analytics Today
Today, Google Analytics dominates the Web Analytics market with an 85.4% share, and it’s not hard to see why: the software has come a long way, with hundreds of default metrics, integrations, support for custom reports and much more.
Use cases for Google Analytics include:
- Discover how different audience segments navigate through your site using behavioral flows
- Create and monitor custom events to measure specific interactions like clicks on an external link, video plays, whitepaper downloads and more.
- Identify your highest performing content and landing pages to iteratively improve marketing campaigns
- Integrate AdWords metrics with Google’s Search Console to discover SEO insights and high-performing keywords
And these examples barely scratch the surface. Google Analytics is a veritable Swiss Army Knife of marketing capabilities: best of all, it’s free for most users. So what’s not to like?
When Google Analytics Isn’t Enough
Despite the enormous amount of functionality that Google Analytics provides, there are situations where marketers will hit a wall. Particularly if they want to:
1. Understand User Behavior on a Granular Level
When it comes to the middle of your sales funnel, the insights provided by Google Analytics can be low-resolution at best and non-existent at worst. For instance, while the service can tell you if users are bouncing away from a landing page, it cannot tell you why.
Some analytics tools provide granular insights into user activity through session recording and “heatmaps” that capture individual clicks, mouse movements and audience attention. This method will easily reveal broken links, bad formatting, cumbersome forms and other issues that won’t be obvious through Google Analytics alone.
2. Track Long-Term Customer Journeys
While the “Behavioral Flow” feature in Google Analytics will show you how the average visitor moves through your site, your insight into their journey will end with a conversion, bounce or exit. Google Analytics will not track their behavior into the future. Furthermore – because it prohibits personally identifiable information (PII) – it cannot show you an individual customer’s journey over time between different devices, browsers, or touchpoints.
This becomes a significant limitation when trying to understand the long-term impact of a campaign, email or banner ad. For instance, a single campaign may bring lots of traffic to your site in the short term while generating less revenue than a campaign that garnered less initial interest. Without the ability to track individual customers, it is impossible to study long-term outcomes and refine your strategy accordingly.
3. Keep Growing Your Business
While Google Analytics is free for most users, larger businesses will eventually have to pay for Google Analytics 360 (starting at $150,000) to continue scaling their performance, or they will have to accept compromises in data quality. The free version of Google Analytics maxes out at 10 million “hits” per month, which counts multiple page views and transactions across a single session.
To avoid reaching 10 million hits, a business can accept “data sampling” which reduces the percentage of their traffic analyzed. But even high rates of data sampling can result in critical inaccuracies (for instance, a metric may seem to be decreasing when it is actually increasing). Alternatively, businesses can reduce the complexity of their analytics configuration which results in lower-quality reporting.
4. Protect Your Customers’ Data Privacy
Google Analytics provides little to customers in the way of data privacy features. In fact, any data collected through the service belongs to Google according to the company’s terms of service (TOS), explaining the prohibition on PII.
As a result, the service provides no data residency options (the ability to store data in a certain country for compliance purposes), nor does it offer consent management features to get customers’ permission in areas protected by the GDPR, CCPA and other emerging data privacy legislation.
5. Gather Qualitative Data
While Google Analytics provides many tools for website improvement, it mainly does so through quantitative data: number of clicks, time spent on site, best performing content, etc. Like a detective, marketers must piece this data together and experiment to understand its meaning – but even with careful study and analysis, their conclusions can be wrong.
Qualitative data gathered through surveys, user feedback forms and live conversations gives marketers a more direct way to study and optimize website performance. It cuts out the need for guessing games, A/B testing and predictive analytics. But Google does not provide tools to gather feedback from individual users: only numbers and quants.
Supplementing Google Analytics
Fortunately, the web has been around a long time, and many solutions have been devised to supplement Google Analytics where it is lacking. There are even alternative analytics platforms which can replace the software altogether for companies who are focused on performance and privacy concerns.
- Granular user behavior analysis is offered by heatmapping tools like hotjar and analytics tools with a user behavior focus like Lucky Orange, Ignitio, and FullStory. All three of these options can be integrated with or used alongside Google Analytics.
- Piwik and its offshoot Maotomo are privacy-focused analytics solutions that scale better than Google Analytics without data sampling or performance sacrifices. They also offer full data ownership and data residency options.
- HEAP.io and Kissmetrics both specialize in capturing a fuller picture of the customer journey to your website across devices, browsers and online touchpoints. For larger businesses, Adobe Analytics offers similar functionality although implementation is more demanding.
- Previously mentioned tools which specialize in user behavior analysis (hotjar and Lucky Orange) also provide user survey and live chat tools for gathering qualitative data; additionally, there is Podium and Crazy Egg.
Choosing Software for Your Business
While some vendors might have you believe otherwise, there is (sadly) no single software solution that covers all your online marketing needs. In addition to Google Analytics, the average business will need other tools to understand their customers, improve website performance and meet their goals.
Fortunately, the market is diverse, and solutions exist for every business, no matter their size, industry or income level. To find the right choice for you, partner with a marketing team who will pair their expertise with an understanding of your unique needs.