Ten Years Later, How Google Analytics Changed Marketing

data analytics
Credit: Shutterstock

The data that you see in Google Analytics is wrong.

As I explained in a recent presentation at MozCon in Seattle, Google Analytics code is a client-side JavaScript snippet that is inserted into the front-ends of websites. Whenever those code snippets are blocked or otherwise do not execute, Google does not obtain any information from the session that is occurring at that moment.

That data, however, does remain in the server log, which is the only collection of data that is one hundred percent accurate in terms of how search engines and visitors are crawling and using websites. (For more information on how to use this server log data for IT operations, business intelligence, and marketing, I will refer you to my MozCon presentation, notes, and links to explanatory material.)

samuel scott mozcon
Samuel Scott at MozCon 2016

But based on the popularity of the platform, online marketers would not seem to know that Google Analytics shows faulty data. According to W3TECHS, Google Analytics is used by 55 percent of all websites and has a traffic analysis tool market share of 83 percent. More than half of those websites use GA as their only source of marketing data.

Yes, most websites are creating and executing marketing strategies based on the bad information in one single analytics tool. In the just over ten years since the release of GA in November 2005, the marketing world has changed for better and for worse — and much of the latter stems from Google Analytics itself.

Google Analytics Forced Everyone Online

Of course, GA can be useful. The basic version is free, so it is no wonder that countless people and companies use the platform.

After all, the greatest benefit of marketing over digital channels rather than offline channels is that online marketing is often cheaper and more agile. Campaigns of many types can be started, adjusted, and cut at any time. A bad campaign can be stopped before too much money is lost.

In contrast, take traditional TV advertising. Companies can use polls and focus groups to attempt to create the best desired ad. But that company will not know the results of the campaign until after the advertisement has already aired on TV and thousands — if not millions — of dollars has already been spent. In traditional marketing, you often have only one chance to get a campaign right. It’s cheaper to put an advertisement such as the now-famous ad for “Dollar Shave Club” on YouTube than on NBC Nightly News.

The data shows the increasing popularity of online channels. In just one example from the Internet Advertising Bureau in the United Kingdom, spending on digital advertising there increased from roughly £500 million in 2003 to £7.2 billion in 2014.

However, while this GA-inspired leap from offline to online has helped businesses in many ways, it has also led to the problems that I will outline below.

Google Analytics Changed the Marketing Buckets

In a lengthy tutorial of mine elsewhere on integrating traditional and online marketing, I describe each of the traditional “buckets” in marketing in terms of what is called the Promotion Mix (“Promotion” is one of the 4 Ps):

marketing promotion mix

Google Analytics pushed marketers to change their focus from the strategy (how one will use the best practices of those five buckets) to the channel — now defined in GA as the sources of traffic. The new “buckets” became direct, organic search, social, referral, paid search, e-mail, and display.

However, that shift in assumption has led to poor marketing because almost any strategy can be executed over any channel — and it is strategies and actions, not channels, that have associated best practices and deliver ROI.

To ask “What is the ROI of social media?” makes as much sense as asking “What’s the ROI of the telephone?” Activities, not channels, generate results. The fault of marketing analytics platforms such as Google Analytics is that they track the source of traffic but not the cause of that traffic.

Google Analytics Pushed Only Direct-Response Metrics

In traditional marketing terminology, “direct marketing” is the part of the Promotion Mix that consists of any action that aims to result in an immediate, direct response. It is the sending of a sales catalogue or e-mail. It is running PPC or display ads. It is targeting people based on their social media interests and then retargeting them later. (Yes, most online advertising is actually direct marketing and not advertising.) It is the use of marketing automation platforms to transmit marketing collateral such as neverending flows of e-mails to individuals based on predefined workflows and timetables.

In Google Analytics, one defines direct responses as “conversions,” “transactions,” or “events.” Most online marketing activities aim for these results. The benefit of direct marketing is that it is very trackable. The downside is that it is often spammy and not very creative. Most of it is just plain dismal and dull.

As Ad Contrarian Bob Hoffman once described the practice:

The aesthetic lineage of online advertising is not “Madison Avenue,” it is the maddening tackiness of junk mail direct response.

Creativity, however, is what builds brands over time and sells products. Just look at this so-called expert roundup on the Tint blog on the future of marketing. Everyone talks about channels and technologies and data — no one talks about the “human” part of marketing. As Hoffman also recently said at the IAPI/ADFX Awards in Ireland, the marketing industry is increasingly devaluing creativity as a whole.

Marketers thinking first and foremost about channels and direct responses only adds to the (often but not always undeserved) reputation of digital marketers as being nothing but spammers. But the negative effect of focusing too much on direct marketing does not end there.

Google Analytics Confused Direct & Brand Marketing

In a reply to my comment on a highly-debated Inbound.org forum question on the ROI of contributing articles to publications, a person asked me how she can show the direct ROI of her publicity work. Sadly, I explained that her assumptions were wrong from the very beginning — she was wanting to apply direct-response metrics to a brand marketing campaign, and the two do not mix.

The correct metrics need to be assigned to the right marketing strategies — and Google Analytics metrics are useful for only a few specific marketing methods such as direct marketing and SEO.

Ayelet Noff, the founder and CEO of the Tel Aviv and Boston high-tech PR agency Blonde 2.0, expressed similar thoughts when I interviewed her for her thoughts for this column:

We try to avoid measuring PR efforts with Google Analytics. Mostly, because we feel that it misrepresents our work. PR achieves many goals, and traffic and leads is one of them, but at the end of the day, PR is not about traffic. It’s about brand awareness and visibility in the right circles.

PR will get you mindshare, brand awareness, investor interest, and many other things. Diminishing PR to sales and download numbers is to diminish the importance of earned media versus all other medias. Earned media is the hardest to obtain (as the name suggests), and as such, can achieve many things paid and other media cannot. Sales and download numbers are definitely a part of the equation, but they are not the number one goal.

Noff recommends that people use tools such as TrendKite and track PR metrics including total mentions, social amplification, ad equivalency value, and brand sentiment. None of that is available in Google Analytics, and Noff says the most important thing is missing as well:

Branding is still the one metric that is unmeasurable in our data-driven world. Once someone cracks that, PR will finally have measurement metrics that actually show its real value.

Too many people think like what Kayla Weimer wrote on PR software company Cision’s blog or like what Emeric Ernoult said to blogger Heidi Cohen: “The main metric to evaluate the impact of my earned media is the organic and referral traffic I get to my website and blog.”

Actually, the referral traffic that is shown in Google Analytics is only a very small part of the PR and publicity picture. For those who are interested, I have published a tutorial elsewhere on how to plan, execute, and measure publicity campaigns.

The Solution? Don’t Ignore the Offline World

I first went online in high school, so I’ve always seen both online and offline marketing — and I have seen what worked long before the Internet ever existed. Today, however, most people who are younger — especially those in the tech world — reflexively think of digital-only strategies.

But not everything is about digital. In one example of effective offline marketing and PR, Olga Adrienko of the competitive marketing intelligence platform SEMrush recently invited me as someone who is a frequent marketing speaker as well as other marketers from Europe to a White Nights event in St. Petersburg, Russia.

In early July, we attended the marketing gathering and then explored the city’s attractions and restaurants over three days:

semrush white nights
SEMrush White Nights 2016

Obviously, it was in SEMrush’s interest to build its brand among marketing and PR influencers. But to the company’s credit, the gathering did not lead to a direct sales pitch — the PR event was held as a way for marketers from different countries to meet each other.

As a former journalist turned marketing and communications executive, I’m more than a little cynical. But I can say that I was impressed — I made friendships and connections there that I am sure will last for a lifetime.

But one problem in PR campaigns such as SEMrush’s event is that Google Analytics cannot quantify the direct benefit to SEMrush. Still, it’s not such a bad thing. As Noff mentioned earlier, relationship-building and branding are not quantifiable but still important.

Just because a product or service is digital does not mean that its marketing should only use digital channels. Some of the best marketing and PR campaigns — for traditional and digital companies — have nothing to do with online channels:

888 advertisement

adblock advertisement

One of my favorite examples? Just see what Emirates Airlines did during a football match in Germany.

The best marketers and PR professionals will always use the best channels for their specific purposes and audiences. The Internet and mobile as well as augmented and virtual reality (the latter of which is now being promoted by tech PR veteran Robert Scoble) are merely new sets of available channels over which we can choose to perform the existing marketing functions that comprise the traditional Promotion Mix.

As Mark Ritson, in his overly blunt manner, said in this hour-long presentation to the Australian Association of National Advertisers on “The Death of the Traditional/Digital Divide”:

Put down the dreary [digital] tools. Put them down. Work out who your customer is. Work out what your strategy is. And then work out what is the best way to reach him. We need people with digital tools, but if you only know about digital tools, you’re useless.

The minute you start with “digital,” you’re an idiot. You’ve already said to me, “I’m tactical.” You’re no use to me. You’ve already said that you’ve already got your hammer, and you’re looking for nails.

The more than half of all commercial websites that use Google Analytics as their only source of marketing analytics will find that their options are limited and that they are applying faulty metrics to the wrong marketing strategies. They are locking themselves into a specific set of marketing tactics that are not always the best ones to use. Their entire worldview and business processes wrap themselves around that platform despite any limitations, flaws, and mistaken assumptions.

When people use only a single platform such as Google Analytics, they will try to quantify all marketing work with that platform — even though it is impossible to measure, as in my example above, brand marketing campaigns with direct marketing analytics platforms.

What to Do? Build Your Own Analytics Dashboard

While marketing and PR today almost always need to be performed over a mix of online and offline channels, the need for quality analytics to measure the digital ones is obvious.

So, what is the solution when online marketing needs to be a priority but Google Analytics is insufficient? In one example, we at AI-powered log analytics platform Logz.io created our own server log analysis dashboard with the open source ELK Stack of Elasticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana:

elk stack
Server log analysis with the open source ELK Stack

For more information for those who want to do the same, we have created free informational material on Apache, IIS, and NGINX log analysis with ELK as well as an overview on AWS log analysis with the open source stack. While the creation of such open source dashboards will not solve every analytics problem, it will allow people to track all of the website and server activity that Google Analytics misses.

Still, there is a whole world of marketing out there beyond attempts the flawed question: “What should I publish on my website to get the most traffic and customers?” Here is the real question to ask:

Want to get an introduction to traditional marketing strategy and see how you can apply it to both traditional and online channels? Take a break from redundant marketing blog posts and take the time to read the 101 textbook “Principles of Marketing” by Philip T. Kotler and Gary Armstrong.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on the material in the comments below.

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

Read next: Slice launches their on-demand insurance platform for homesharing platforms like AirBnB

Here's some more distraction

Comments