June 23 2020

Using Google Analytics, Tag Manager and Data Studio to Build a Comprehensive Analytics Strategy

custom website analytics strategyMarketers and content creators have been using Google Analytics (GA) to monitor website visits for almost twenty years. Over half of all websites are using the free GA tracking code, allowing them to measure audience, acquisition and behavior metrics to make informed inbound and outbound marketing decisions. In addition to their Analytics platform Google offers a number of other free tools that can provide greater insight into visitor engagement and the ability to create custom visualizations of your data. When used together, you can identify and monitor the key performance indicators (KPIs) that matter to your business or organization and develop an ongoing strategy that is informed by your actual data instead of assumptions.

Exploring Default and Customizable Features of Google Analytics

While the basic function of placing Google Analytics tracking code on your website allows you to see important site data like which pages are viewed, there are dozens of additional reports with information about how your visitors are arriving on your website and technical information about their device and browser. Without any customization to your analytics tracking you can see how much of your traffic is coming from organic search, how many users are browsing on mobile devices and how long the average visitor stays on a certain page. You can also create audience segments based on visitor attributes to allow for a more precise look at your data.
Depending on how much traffic your website receives, you may suffer from ‘analysis paralysis’ when looking at all the numbers being provided to you. If you log into Google Analytics without any training or direction it can be confusing as to which data you should be paying attention to. This is compounded by the fact that Google frequently changes the platform. The reports in GA are most helpful when you’re trying to answer specific questions about a specific audience, traffic source or piece of content. This could be viewing New Visitors by City to see if there is an increase in traffic from areas where you’re trying to grow business. You could also segment your audience to show only Organic traffic to check on whether your SEO efforts are causing positive changes to landing pages. You can even look at a campaign landing page with a secondary dimension showing traffic sources to see qualitative metrics of your different marketing tactics.
There are additional reports that can be enabled within Google Analytics which provide even more insight into your web traffic, some of which require very little in terms of setup.

  • Connecting Search Console and Ads accounts to analytics: If you’re using Google Search Console to monitor organic search standings or Google Ads to bid on keywords, you can link those platforms into your existing Google Analytics account to provide more insight into how these channels are affecting website visits.

  • Benchmark reporting: By opting into benchmark reporting you can see how your website compares to other similar websites.

  • Behavior and audience reporting: Enabling behavior and audience reporting unlocks reports breaking down traffic by age, gender and various behavioral dimensions.

  • Cross-device reporting: Turning on cross-device reporting (Google Signals, currently in Beta) will let you see how individuals come to your website across multiple devices. Google Signals will also unlock a Conversions report called Store Visits. If you’re running Google Ads campaigns using location extensions linked to your Google My Business, this report will show how often a visitor comes to your website and then visits an actual physical location.

Using Google Tag Manager to Track Engagement

Many of the customizations you can make to your Google Analytics used to require additional code to be placed throughout your website. Any link that you wanted to track needed a piece of JavaScript code to be appended to the link which usually meant involving a developer and publishing a new version of a webpage or website. This was not only a resource constraint, but could also cause duplicate data if a page was copied, and could increase page load time as well. Instead, using a tag management system makes this process easier, as the custom codes you used to enter manually on your website can now be placed as tags within that platform. Google Tag Manager (GTM) is Google’s free tag management system that integrates natively with its own platforms like Google Analytics and Google Ads, as well as dozens of other popular third-party services like Hotjar, Twitter and LinkedIn. Through the GTM code you can send data related to interactions on your website to these platforms as conversions, heatmap data or to build remarketing audiences.
The way GTM works is by listening to the various interactions on your website. This could be the loading of a page, the click of a link, hovering or scrolling with your mouse or viewing a specific part of the page. Using GTM’s list of rules (called Variables) you can designate specific interactions that you want to track. So if there’s one specific link on one specific page that you want to count as a conversion in Google Ads, you can create a tag that is triggered by rules that are true for that specific click.
One very effective way to utilize Google Tag Manager is by sending Events to your Google Analytics. There are Event reports available in the default installation of GA, but if you don’t add event tracking the reports will be empty. Events can be any of the interactions listed above like clicks or scrolls. If there is a clickable element on your website that you would like to know how often people are clicking on, adding event tracking is the answer. While there is no limit on the number of items you can tag for event tracking, the free version of Google Analytics does limit you to 10 million “hits” per month. A hit is considered a Pageview, an Event or an eCommerce transaction. This means that depending on how many Pageviews you typically receive in a month, you may want to limit the number of events you are tracking, especially if you are tracking elements that receive a lot of clicks. There is a screen in Google Analytics Admin settings that will show you the number of Hits you’ve received over the past day, 7 day and 30-day time periods (found under Property Settings).
In addition to tracking clicks as Events, you can also use GTM to track clicks as Virtual Pageviews. When is a Pageview not a Pageview? When it’s a Virtual Pageview. Let’s break this down. Virtual Pageviews are interactions sent to your Google Analytics as Pageviews even though the URL may not reload or change. One example would be a form with multiple steps that lives on a page. You could track the step-by-step clicks in the form as events, but GA has the ability to track user flow and conversion funnels based on Pageviews. Based on how you’d like to view your data, tracking these clicks as Virtual Pageviews in GTM may be more beneficial.
Google Tag Manager also makes it easier to implement cross-domain tracking with third parties. This means that you can track behavior on other sites that your site links to if that site allows the code to be placed. This is especially helpful for businesses or organizations where conversions happen off the domain, such as loan applications for a bank or credit union. With many vendors now allowing for the placement of tracking code, you can see how visitors continue to interact with content after they’ve left your website, which means that you can track conversions, like a submitted form, thereby allowing you to ultimately track ROI. Placing GTM code on a third-party website means that you can also add Event and Virtual Pageview tracking as needed.

Visualizing Your Data in Google Data Studio

While Google Analytics allows you to record your data and Google Tag Manager allows you to customize the type of data you’re tracking, Google Data Studio allows you to visualize that data in a way that is personalized to the exact measurements that are important to you. Data Studio, which is also free, allows you to link to Google’s various reporting APIs from platforms like Google Analytics, Google Ads, Google Search Console and Google Docs. Using their drag-and-drop interface you can build tables, charts and graphs that visualize all of the available reporting metrics from platforms like GA. Thanks to filtering and segmentation you can create rules about which data is shown on a specific report. This allows you to create a custom report tailored to specific pageviews, clicks or conversions on your website.
While Data Studio is a great tool for building monthly reports that are delivered as a PDF, it’s also great for regularly checking in on the performance of your digital marketing tactics for a specific campaign. Reports can be built that are filtered to only show traffic from one campaign and monitored on an ongoing basis to see which tactics are driving the best traffic. Date range comparison tools can tell you whether your traffic is improving based on your optimizations.
In addition to being a useful tool for visualizing your data, Google Data Studio is also highly customizable. Colors and fonts can be updated to closely align with your brand guidelines and images can be added, including your company logo or screenshots of the website. The names of reporting metrics and dimensions can also be modified, which is helpful for any audience who may prefer Unique Visitors and Hits over Users and Pageviews.

The Importance of an Analytics Strategy

While goals may be different for every website, the ability to measure and report on engagement and ultimately ROI is universally important. Access to free Google tools like Analytics, Tag Manager and Data Studio make it easier for marketers and content creators to know what their most engaging content is, beyond the ‘out of the box’ implementation provided by Google. By customizing the data you’re tracking, you’ll be setting yourself up for success with your analytics strategy. Creating custom reports to view that data will allow you to get better insights and make more informed marketing decisions.
Whether you’re interested in implementing custom tracking, building meaningful reports or getting more training in the Google suite of products, ZAG Interactive can help you achieve your goals.

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posted by
Patrick Trayes
Patrick Trayes
Associate Director of Client Analytics

ZAG Interactive is a full-service digital agency in Glastonbury, CT, offering website design, development, marketing and digital strategy to clients nationwide. See current job openings.
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