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Why you can't ignore Google's new Universal Analytics

Why you can't ignore Google's new Universal Analytics Brandt Dainow

Roughly half the world's websites use some form of web analytics software. An estimated 80 percent of those use Google Analytics. If you're one of the millions using Google Analytics, then you are, sooner or later, moving to Universal Analytics.

Why you can't ignore Google's new Universal Analytics


After a year's testing with early adopters, Google is now migrating everyone to Universal Analytics. Some are being invited, while everyone else will simply find the option available in their Google Analytics admin system at some stage. At a certain time, yet to be determined, everyone who hasn't moved themselves to Universal Analytics will be moved across by Google.

So what do you need to know?

What is it?

Universal Analytics enables you to track pretty much anything you want, online or offline. All you need to do is find a way to get a signal to Universal Analytics. RFID chips, sensors, accelerometers, mobile apps, fridges, or cars -- doesn't matter. If it can somehow get an internet connection, Universal Analytics can track it. This means you can track people as they move from device to device and from location to location. In theory at least, you could track exposure to a banner ad, follow it through to a keyword search, track that person later reviewing your website on his or her phone, and then record that person making a purchase in the store.

Of course, Google isn't going to give you all that capability out of the box. At this point in time, you'd have to do some serious R&D to build such a complete analytics environment, but already some web analytics agencies are working hard to fulfill this vision. What's already become clear is that Universal Analytics is more than capable of supporting it. Moreover, it's capable of responding in real time. Want to take a page from "Minority Report" and recognize customers as they walk past your store and send them personalized messages? Universal Analytics makes it possible, provided your store window's facial recognition system is up to the task.

Moving to Universal Analytics: Your options

So what are your options when it comes to upgrading to Universal Analytics? Google's been careful to support a range of upgrade strategies, from "do nothing" to "make like a rocket scientist."

Do nothing
Moving from Google Analytics to Universal Analytics can be as easy or as complicated as you want it to be. You don't have to do anything at all. In order to access the additional features of Universal Analytics, you do need to replace the Google Analytics tracking code with your new Universal Analytics code -- but you don't have to. The old Google Analytics code will work fine with Universal Analytics; you just won't have access to the new features. According to Google, you'll retain all your old data so you can ignore the move if you wish. If you leave your old Google Analytics code in place, you'll still have all the old functionality of Google Analytics (at least in theory).

Minimal upgrade
It's recommended, however, to at least undertake a minimal upgrade. This involves replacing the old Google Analytics code with the new Universal Analytics tracking code in your web pages (or mobile app) and setting a couple of options in the admin system. Even here, you can just accept the admin system's default values. In fact, since the system defaults to industry standards and uses the same settings as Google Analytics, you'd need an extremely good reason to override them.

Customized tracking
However, if you have customized Google Analytics in any way, you might be in for some serious work. The syntax for most of the custom variable operations has changed, so you'll have to completely rewrite the code for any custom data you track. This includes event recognition and shopping cart data. It's not complicated, but it is different enough that you should be serious about testing your new Universal Analytics solution before you commit.

Run free
The reason Universal Analytics can track any form of device is that it doesn't require you to use any particular code. Sure, Google provides a tracking script for Universal Analytics, but you don't have to use it. You can write your own. Universal Analytics offers the "measurement protocol," which enables you to send HTTP requests direct to Universal Analytics. The easiest way to do this is to use JavaScript, but anything that can access the internet will do.

Google provides code for Android and iOS apps, but it would be a relatively simple task to use Universal Analytics in native Flash or Java if that suited you better. It also opens up the possibilities for tracking from the server rather than the web page. This was possible with Google Analytics using PHP, but with Universal Analytics, you can use any programming language you like. You can even get your database to send signals direct to Universal Analytics.


Let's do a full analysis of Universal Analytics when it comes to its strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats.

Universal Analytics offers capabilities traditionally restricted to enterprise systems, such as the ability to track across multiple domains, handle multiple cookies, control sampling, and generate "virtual" page views (useful in Flash and video). You can also add additional search engines or filter for certain search terms. The enterprise version, Universal Analytics Premium, will one day offer data mining capabilities

Most of the industry excitement is focused on the fact that Universal Analytics can track anything, in pretty much any fashion you want. All you need do is get a signal to an internet-connected device. Hence Universal Analytics could, for example, track RFID tag movement around a trade show or light switches being turned on or off. Australian data specialists at Loves Data made a great video in which they use Universal Analytics to cross-reference staff making coffee with their billable hours. In another video, Loves Data has used a Kinect to track people's dance moves with Universal Analytics. One nice innovation the video demonstrates is using sensors to detect movement in front of a screen showing advertising. Loves Data can count footfall moving past and the number of times people stop in front of the screen. If people then move toward the screen, Universal Analytics has been configured to count that as an engagement. Companies like Quividi have been offering this type of tracking for a while, but it's never been available in a free product before.

It's important to bear in mind that Universal Analytics is not finished. One of the "advantages" Google suggests is that upgrading now will enable you to gain access to new features as they are rolled out. Whether you consider this an advantage depends on how much you trust Google to roll out upgrade after upgrade without ever introducing new bugs or destroying much loved features. My own experience with horrible Android "upgrades" means I regard the prospect of multiple upgrade cycles forced on me by Google as a weakness in the system.

One key limitation is so important I think it's worth quoting Google directly:

"Universal Analytics does not currently support the dc.js JavaScript and related features (Remarketing, Google Display Network Impression Reporting, DoubleClick Campaign Manager Integration, and the Google Analytics Demographics and Interests Reports). If you use any of these features, upgrade to Universal Analytics after dc.js is supported." 

Changing from the Google Analytics code to the Universal Analytics code is reasonably straightforward for websites; you simply do a copy-and-paste on a few key templates, and you're done. It's not so easy for mobile apps. Since the apps are already installed on users' devices, you'll need to issue an update. Then you need to get users to actually perform the update. While that is going on, you'll be in a transition phase where some users are running Google Analytics and others are running Universal Analytics. At this time, it is unclear how well this works. Despite Google's assurances that you won't lose data, some people are complaining that they have.

You don't have the option of doing nothing and staying with Google Analytics. You can upgrade yourself, carefully, in a time frame that works for you, with lots of testing. Or you can simply wait for Google to move you, then clean up the damage that an unstructured, uncontrolled, untested, automated (i.e., dumb) upgrade does to your business. You're moving to Universal Analytics whether you like it or not. Your only choice is how.

I think you should come to grips with Universal Analytics immediately, but I don't think you should upgrade too quickly. There are far too many people complaining that they've lost data or that it simply doesn't work to regard the upgrade as safe. However, upgrading is inevitable. I don't know about you, but if I'm going to be forced to do something, I'd rather control the process and do it in my own time, in my own way.

You need to understand exactly what needs to be changed in your existing Google Analytics system and develop a formal roadmap. You really have to treat the upgrade as complicated and dangerous. If it turns out to be easy and safe, you'll be pleasantly surprised. Better than treating the upgrade as a no-brainer and ending up with no data. If you're feeling brave, you could consider the additional opportunities Universal Analytics presents, but I wouldn't include that in the upgrade because it adds too much complexity to the project. Too much complexity is cause of most technical failures. Once you have Universal Analytics settled in, then you can look at expanding your use.

In the meantime, don't be too excited by the hype. Bill Gates once said that people are overly optimistic about the short-term impact of new software and overly pessimistic about the long-term impact. What he meant was that people tend to assume new systems will change everything very quickly, but that rarely happens. He also meant that new systems do create profound changes, but that these happen slowly and in ways no one expected. I don't expect Universal Analytics to make much difference to the industry in the next year or so. However, I suspect that in 10 years, we'll all look around and discover Universal Analytics has created a completely new landscape in digital marketing.

Brandt Dainow is the CEO of ThinkMetrics.

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Brandt is an independent web analyst, researcher and academic.  As a web analyst, he specialises in building bespoke (or customised) web analytic reporting systems.  This can range from building a customised report format to creating an...

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