Your guide to mobile tracking with Google Analytics

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More and more people are using smartphones to surf the web. Because they have different screen dimensions, mobile visitors may not react to your site the same way as visitors using computers. Mobile traffic does not really represent new customers, but existing customers using an extra device or replacing their laptop with a smartphone. If your website doesn't suit mobile as well as it does computer then your conversion rate, and your bottom line, will fall. This is not yet an issue for most, but it will be one day for everyone. Unless a site happens to be suited to mobile traffic by luck, redesign and additional construction will be the only option to maintain current performance. This can require a considerable investment. You need to know when your site will hit that crunch point so you can plan for when that happens, and you need to know how successful your current website is so you can determine how much investment will be required...Or you can ignore the growth of mobile and wait until it becomes a crisis.

Many people I speak to are unwilling to face the issue of rising mobile traffic head-on. For them, it represents a threat: If it costs money and time, it's taking resources away from existing goals, for no additional benefit, merely to stand still. Others use the justification that people won't use mobile to visit their site, often comforting reasons, but rarely backed by research.

The thing to bear in mind is that no one really knows how far the rise of mobile will go, or how it will change things. If you scout the various projections, they all come out with mobile forming half of web traffic between 2013 and 2015. The following table shows the percentage of web visits made via mobile over the last year:

StatCounter Global Stats

Figures within specific industries can be very different. I have clients who get twice their national average, and others getting less than one-quarter. How closely your stats follow your national trends depends on the demographics of your market, and also how well your site suits mobile. Websites which perform badly on mobile tend to get a lower proportion of mobile traffic.

Don't assume you understand when people will use mobile or what they will use it for. I recently had a conversation with a design agency planning a B2B site for architects. Its assumption was that visitors to such sites would be unlikely to use mobiles for web access. The agency didn't have any reasons to back this up except that it thought mobile web access was mainly done by teenagers. However, it was forgetting about all the times architects get stuck in airports or taxis, and the chance of having a nice neat IT infrastructure on a construction site. Mobile web access is relatively new, so people's patterns of use are evolving just as people's use of the web did when it first started. At the same time, mobile infrastructure is undergoing rapid change, devices are evolving rapidly, and smartphone penetration is far from complete. All these factors mean it's still too early to have learned much about mobile web access. If you want to understand mobile usage of your sites, you're going to have to look for yourself. This means gathering your own metrics, establishing your own benchmarks, and watching for trends.

One thing to watch out for is the seemingly obvious, but incorrect, fact. There'll be plenty of these in the days to come. It seems intuitive that older people will use mobiles to surf the web less than younger people. While this is true, the difference is trivial: In 2011, 70 percent of people in the USA over the age of 65 used mobiles for internet access, compared with 76 percent of younger people. Sure there's a difference, but not enough of a difference to mean you can ignore older users.

The purpose of this article is to tell you how to track mobile activity, not how to design for mobile users, so I won't be going into detail about what makes a good mobile site versus what makes a good computer site. The key thing to take away at this point is that mobile internet is relatively new and that we have much to learn. You need to accept that some of your best ideas about how to do things online may need to change. What works on computer may not work on mobile. Your best designer for computer may make terrible mobile sites. The agency that knows web for the computer may simply be incapable of getting web for the mobile.

Tracking mobile with Google Analytics

There are two methods of tracking mobile visits to your website with Google Analytics. You can use the standard JavaScript tracking code, which will already be present in your site. However, you may prefer to use server-side code for mobiles: The JavaScript code makes several calls from the phone to Google, and may not work properly on slower mobile connections, or may get caught by anti-tracking or ad-blocking systems, or get blocked by the phone's security system. For this reason Google created a server-side code available here.

You need to be careful with the implementation of server-side tracking. Since the same script is called on every page, it can be one of the operations which places the heaviest load on the server. You need to ensure the server is correctly configured to anticipate this.

If you're building mobile apps, you can use the Google Analytics Mobile SDKs. There's one for Android and one for iOS. However, there's nothing for Windows Phone.

Developers need to be familiar with the traditional web-based tracking system which uses ga.js before they can implement the mobile app SDK. It needs to feed data into the existing GA system, which is designed for websites, not apps. This means hyperlinks clicked by people, different web pages with different URLs, and so on. The mobile widget tracking system needs to create "events" which can be described in such terms. So it is up to the developer to determine what constitutes a change of page -- or the clicking of a link -- and to pass that to Google Analytics. For this reason, if tracking is critical to the project, it's probably best to include it in the design process from the beginning. App tracking is more than just dumping some code in, it needs to be part of the application architecture.

In June, Google announced that it would be upgrading the mobile tracking SDK by the end of this summer (2012) to add tracking of features more relevant to mobile apps, such as in-app purchases and ad presentations. Right now Google is open to suggestions for additional features from existing app developers, so if you have an existing Android or iOS app, now's your chance to ask Google for features.