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Top Ten Myths About Google Analytics – SEO Edition

I just read Google’s self-published “Top Ten Myths About Google Analytics” and I have to say, I thought Google had more integrity than this. Oh sure, everyone knows that marketing departments aren’t always 100% truthful about their claims. Everyone knows that the boastful pizza place in town that claims “World’s Best Pizza” isn’t, actually, the world’s best pizza. Even the Federal Trade Commission overlooks such claims as non-problematic because, well, you consumers should know better than believe that sort of hype.

But when Google publishes “Top Ten Myths” and stuffs it with I-won’t-believe-they’re-not-fake “myths” about their product, seemingly designed to highlight features they want to promote, I get this “ewwwww ick!” sensation. Seriously, if you work with GA or work with clients who use GA, what are the ten most popular misconceptions that come to your mind? Tell me if they include this one:

MYTH 8: Google Analytics does not support A/B or multivariate testing and isn’t well-integrated with other tools

I didn’t think so. Everyone who knows what A/B or multivariate testing is knows that Google provides a very good (but simplified) implementation. Those who don’t already know that are not likely to know what A/B testing or multivariate testing is, let alone wrongly assume that GA doesn’t have it. Is this really a “top ten misconception” or is this just inserted as an opportunity to pitch the product feature?

Take a look at this one of the Top Ten Myths claimed by Google:

MYTH 9: You can’t segment data in Google Analytics

Another one that seems to be an opportunistic insertion for awareness of a new feature of GA.. sort of like someone on the GA team said “hey we’ve been hyping this new segmentation all year but could use more hype..can you make it one of the Top Ten Myths?”

Another obvious feature promo disguised as a “myth” :

MYTH 5: It’s not possible to export your data from Google Analytics

The myth is debunked with what is basically a feature description suitable for a sales and marketing brochure for Google Analytics.

Since Google likes to cite the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) when warning publishers not to stretch their claims too far, and restrict use of the word “free” in ads and copy, I thought it important to highlight this odd behavior from Google. I also decided “hey, why not help them fix this sub-par publication, by telling them what the Top Ten Myths about Google Analytics really are!” The following are the Top Ten Myths about Google Analytics I witness them everyday with clients, search professionals, and search engine optimizers using GA (SEOs).

Note: Since I am not a Google insider, I didn’t “debunk” all of the myths, but I am hopeful that Google will clear up the remaining myths, to help set the record straight:

Top Ten Myths about Google Analytics, SEO Edition

1. Popular Myth: Google Analytics is FREE Software

Free Software is software which was designed not to be free of cost, but free of restrictive licensing. Free Software is able to be modified and changed by the end user, who may have good ideas for improving it in specific situations. Open Source software is often “free software”. By comparison, consider the phrase “free software” and “free as in beer”,  which is the free of cost kind of free.

Google Analytics is not “free software” because you cannot modify it at all. You are required to lace Google’s java script on your web pages, and cannot modify it in anyway even if doing so helps you sreamline your web publishing withoit impacting the performance of Google’s analytics software. As software goes, Google Analytics is not “free software”. In the next bullet point I address the “free as in beer” aspect of GA, because it is not free of cost, either.

2. Popular Myth: Google Analytics is Free of Cost (“free as in beer”)

Google says GA is “free”, but we all know that there is a cost to sharing confidential business data. When you run GA, you give Google immediate, real-time knowledge of your business activity. Sales up today? Selling more red than blue today? Google probably knows it before you do. When you consider that Google is also in the business of selling advertising based on keyword activity, and that Google sets it’s prices based on demand, you start to wonder just how “free” that Google Analytics really is. If you use Google Analytics, at the end of the year has your overall cost of doing business on the web increased to cover Google’s profits as well as the profits of the Google advertisers benefiting from your business data? Sure it has. So is Google Analytics really free?

There are other very significant costs to using Google Analytics. Before GA, I used ClickTracks.. an awesome piece of non-free (in any sense) software for which I paid about $1500 per year. After GA that company was sold, changed its business model, and the equivalent software from ClickTracks would now cost me about $12,000 per year. Is Google Analytics really “free”?

3. Popular Myth: Google Analytics is Confidential

Google gives you a private account, uses secure technologies, and says that it “restricts” access. But does that mean your information is confidential? Well, by signing up with Google Analytics you agree to a set of terms which strictly define the word “confidential” as follows:

“Confidential Information” includes any proprietary data and any other information disclosed by one party to the other in writing and marked “confidential” or disclosed orally and, within five business days, reduced to writing and marked “confidential”. Notwithstanding the foregoing, Confidential Information will not include any information that is or becomes known to the general public, which is already in the receiving party’s possession prior to disclosure by a party or which is independently developed by the receiving party without the use of Confidential Information. Neither party will use or disclose the other party’s Confidential Information without the other’s prior written consent except for the purpose of performing its obligations under this Agreement or if required by law, regulation or court order. In which case, the party being compelled to disclose Confidential Information will give the other party as much notice as is reasonably practicable prior to disclosing such information. Upon termination of this Agreement, the parties will promptly either return or destroy all Confidential Information and, upon request, provide written certification of such. You are responsible for safeguarding the confidentiality of Your password(s) and user name(s) issued to You by Google, and for any use or misuse of Your account resulting from any third party using a password or user name issued to You. You agree to immediately notify Google of any unauthorized use of Your account or any other breach of security known to You.

So no, unless it is marked “confidential”, your information is not confidential (got that?). Also note that data observed by Google via their script that you allow to watch your web visitors, is clearly NOT confidential (I am not a lawyer but it seems to be covered by that “will not include any information …which is independently developed by the receiving party without the use of Confidential Information” part).

This leads to a few additional common myths that Google really should answer on their “myth busting” page:

4. Popular Myth: Google uses its knowledge of your web visitors to advise its clients (which includes your competitors) on how to best advertise, manage their PPC bids, or otherwise market online

The truth of this myth is unknown.

5. Myth: Google uses your analytics data to improve its profitability in the markets Google competes in via the Google Affiliate Network

The truth of this myth is unknown.

6. Myth: Google uses your analytics data to assign risk factors to your web sites, which then influence your natural (organic) search rankings

The truth of this myth is unknown.

7. Myth: Google uses information from Google Analytics to determine your advertising costs (AdWords) and your share of advertising revenue (AdSense)

The truth of this myth is unknown.

8. Myth: Google is not your Competitor

This is a very popular myth, despite having been debunked numerous times. Google competes with you in online marketing (Google Affiliate Network, Google Checkout, Google Sponsored Links, Google AdSense, Google Blogs, Google images, etc etc etc) and Google competes with you in advertising (selling AdWords and publishing AdSense, for the tip of the iceburg). Google’s numerous invisible factors give it a significant competitive advantage (Quality Scores and the like used to set advertisings costs/payouts) separate from the additional knowledge you provide by using Google Analytics.

9. Myth: With Google Analytics, you don’t need Log Files

If you use Google Analytics, you should save your log files and consider using log file analysis to monitor Google’s performance. How else will you ever know if the core underlying basis of Google’s tracking system changes? Of course Google would love you to simply rely only on GA for tracking…. but is that reasonable? It’s not smart, and it’s not reasonable. BUT, can you afford to spend more money being careful and considerate if your competitors are not? This brings us back to the myth of GA bring “free”.. it is so not free.

Javascript-based tracking like GA uses is not the same as log-based tracking. The core definitions of “visitor” and “page view” are different. With GA, you allow Google to define the terms (and change them at any time). With log file analysis, you can run an analysis using one definition, and re-run the analysis under a different definition. With GA, Google decides which automated bots to exclude from analysis, how to count partial page views, how to handle proxies like those AOL uses, and a whole host of other factors which influence your statistics.  These uncertainties exist with all analytics programs, but with log files you have the raw data to utilize as you see fit, forever. With GA you are limited to what Google reports, at the time Google reports it to you.

10. Myth: Google Analytics has Goal Tracking

This one I added because I deal with it frequently. Google Analytics has up to 4 goals you can configure. Four..per domain profile. That is really helpful, certainly better than zero, but completely inadequate. A log file analysis solution provides an unlimited potential for goal tracking, for comparison. So, if you choose GA over a log-based analytics solution, you limit yourself to 4 goals. Relatively speaking, it’s  a myth.(Thanks to Demerzel in the comments for noting you can make up to 50 profiles to get up to 200 goals, if you are willing to manage it that way)

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21 Responses to “Top Ten Myths About Google Analytics – SEO Edition”

  1. Demerzel Says:

    Goal tracking sucks, I’ll give you that, but it’s four goals per profile, not domain. You can set up multiple profiles of the same domain up to your maximum number of profiles (50 without asking) to give you 200 goals.

  2. Jaan Kanellis Says:

    great list of GA myths John

  3. Charles Says:

    Awesome list. Good points about it being “free” and “confidential”. Google is in the information business. The more information it has, the better it can refine its search features, advertising, etc.

  4. George Says:

    Nice post…I get your point about GA not being free…but come on dude…it’s free. If I’m not paying for something I consider it free.

  5. Gareth James Says:

    This has made me think twice about GA – looking at it as great free analytics tool could be simplistic. It’s quite scary the amount of powerful information they must be holding on major companies.

  6. Harson Says:

    Thumbs up for your very well researched post. i haven’t done much yet with Google Analytics. hopefully this will help me understand how GA works.

  7. Promotional products Says:

    Many people believe that GA tracks bookmark visits as (direct) traffic. Google Analytics does not track bookmark traffic as (direct) traffic unless (direct) is the value in the cookie. Whatever is stored in the campaign cookie becomes the source of the ‘bookmark’ visit.

  8. SLight Says:

    Great article,
    Still though, where I’m constantly struggling with clients to provide me with proper analytics if I manage to get them to install GA it’s a breath of fresh air. I’ve seen some really poor analytics solutions various companies pay for and having something free and very easy to install I can recommend makes my job so much easier. Yeah it’s not perfect but with a few tweaks it does the Job.

  9. Tom Dressler Says:

    Great analysis on how and why to use Google Analytics. We typically use it in combination with other enterprise level packages.

  10. BK Says:

    But wouldn’t you say it is a nice trade-off?
    Everyone should know Google Analytics is NOT actually FREE if you want to use it well. For one thing, you have to spend some time to learn it and second you might need to hire a consultant to make sure it is implemented correctly (98% of websites that use GA are not configured at an optimal level)

    But yes Google is using the information, but hey it is a free tool that DOES help your website’s performance.

    Google search engine is ALSO free. But someone else is paying for it. Are you going to forgo the benefit cuz Google is benefiting? Google is smart in giving things away for free in exchange for information.

    But the reason why Google is doing so well is because they are using this data to give better results to people (again, not selfless but it ends up helping out the web users)

  11. Aaron B. Says:

    I’ve always been curious about your myth #6, about risk factors, but likewise, haven’t found much proof either way.

  12. audrey Says:

    Google analytics is helpful in its own way in tracking where traffic is coming from. The myths are minor flaws. They can be changed, hopefully in the future. :)

  13. Jason Capshaw Says:

    Great post. I have to say that sharing your company information does have a huge cost. The thought that Google uses our keyword and conversion information to help other advertisers is scary.

    Do you recommend any third party analytics providers? Perhaps it is time for a decentralization of power :)

  14. iPhone Game Says:

    Great info. I guess I never thought about Google Analytics or rather Google having real time information on sales and conversions. Like you I used to use Click Tracks, but the price increase is ridiculous. I have been looking at Have a Mint and Clicky with Clicky getting more of my attention. However, I am not quite sure of what might happen to my search results if I ditch Google Analytics.

  15. Synchronium Says:

    A great post, thanks. Perhaps I should be less trusting of Google? But then again, I can’t help feeling like a bit of a crazy conspiracy theorist!

  16. WaltWilliams Says:

    Does anyone know if the google analytics script interferes with seo from other search engines?

  17. Mandy @ Business Cards Says:

    I have just stumbled upon this site, and its informative, interesting and super. I am relatively new to the whole Google Analytics stuff and been able to get information like this is a huge help. I know that using their analytical stuff is the best was to get ones site to the best place that it can be with them and it also help one make sure that they are getting the visitors and the leads that they need in their business to create the sales needed.

    Thank you for the information and I look forward to visiting here again to learn some more.:)

  18. David Says:

    Interesting take on Google Analytics and Google’s mantra “do no evil.” I never really thought about Google as a competitor before.

    I guess they aren’t a direct competitor but still may be taking away ad spent from the other stuff we might be doing.

    Thanks for this interesting viewpoint =)

  19. Who Are You Online Says:

    Great Article! But is is true that google wants your traffic to increase it’s business knowledge. The more Google knows about how users in general work through a website, the more it can charge for it’s services.

  20. Robin Says:

    So, yes, you share your confidential and extremely valuable data with Google… But do we really know what they do with it??

  21. Calvin J Says:

    To the Author,
    Great article and thanks for the leg work I didn’t have to do. I spot checked several of your points, besides what I already knew, They are sound. Kudos to you!

    For those that are intimidated to be labeled, “conspiracy theorist,”
    I can think of about six million people that would have joined you. Remember, all that is required for evil men to succeed is for good men to do nothing. you want to lie to yourself and hide from the truth, I can’t stop you.

    I am not saying that Google is in cahoots with the CIA, Secret Service or the Presidency today. Let me ask you to speculate on what COULD happen if another Mao, Stalin, Hitler, etc. could seize power someday? Scary, huh?

    For the record… please name the last time you witnessed a government voluntarily give power back to the people?

    In light of the above, my last thought is for you to do the following math…

    Lord Byron said, “Power corrupts. power corrupts absolutely.”
    plus…
    “Information is power!”
    plus…
    Google’s business is information.
    plus…
    Google has one of the largest, if not THE largest comprehensive databases of INFORMATION on the planet.
    equals…
    [The obvious answer, but you aren't going to like it. ]

    I am not a “conspiracy theorist.” If anything, I am a “realist” and the reality that is plainly in view is evidence which demands a verdict. What’s yours?