Two Steps Forward, One Step Back for Analytics

It's been a tumultuous autumn for Google Analytics. The free site tracking tool has seen many improvements and feature roll-outs as Google develops a new (and they claim, "improved") back-end interface. But even with the addition of new tools and reporting methods, bloggers are much more vocal about one feature that was removed: keyword referral data.

First, the good news: One of the most requested Analytics features was real-time tracking, and Google finally released it to all accounts earlier this month. Real-time tracking allows site owners to view the exact number of users on the site at any given time, as well as information like 1) how a user got there, 2) what page they're currently on, and 3) what city they came from.

This feature helps bring Google Analytics in line with other web-stat tools like Omniture or Mint, but what value does it bring? Not a great deal. It's neat to watch visitors come in from a recent Tweet or Facebook post, testing the Bitly measure of "link half life" in social media. But that's its biggest selling point— the "neat factor".

Other new features bring less wow but greater insight. One such example is the Site Speed report. Not technically "new"— it was launched a few months ago requiring a special tracking code— it now has mass appeal, providing data on default Analytics installs, no new code needed. This report allows developers to track the page-load speeds of actual users with actual browsers. The report segments by page, (tracking the fastest and slowest pages on a site), but also by geography. Now a company knows why they haven't been selling any widgets in Malaysia this month.

The final new feature highlighted today is my favorite, the Visitor Flow Visualization. The Visitor Flow Visualization uses a Sankey diagram to show the routes visitors take through a site, with line thickness representing the percentage of visitors who took that path. This is an enormously useful tool for content strategists to analyze the effectiveness of their page's goals.

If the goal of the Services page is to cause a user to contact the sales team, for example, how many users actually went from Services to Contact Us? How many users went back to the homepage? And how many left the site altogether?

With this update, Google didn't give us any new data. These numbers were always available in the Navigation Summary report and with advanced segmentation. But each page on a site had a separate Navigation Summary, and it was tedious and confusing to navigate them all. The Flow Visualization collects all the data from those Navigation Summaries into one convenient, easy to manage, and perhaps even beautiful report. Good work, Google.

In spite of all these additions, search engine optimization blogs are still more concerned about the loss of data in the Keyword report. The Official Google Blog announced last month that they would start encrypting search data from logged-in users. The Google Analytics Blog quickly weighed in on the change, acknowledging that this would cause Analytics users to lose that valuable keyword data from their reports. Where site owners used to be able to see the exact search terms that led a user to their sites— search terms like click rain, competitor keyword bidding, or knifey spoony t shirt— now those queries will show up as "(not provided)" when coming from users logged into their Google accounts.

SEO bloggers were up in arms about the change, questioning Google's motives and trying to quantify the true impact. Many of us in the web world are analytical people by nature, and as I blogged about before, any uncertainty will necessarily make us uncomfortable.

But bloggers, analyzers, developers, and site owners will all need to do a better job of dealing with uncertainty. The old Analytics is going away in January, and it's time to embrace the new Analytics, along with all the neatness, insight, beauty, and yes, uncertainty that comes with it.