Google Universal Analytics Tracking Updates and Workarounds

Overview

As the digital landscape has evolved, so has the sophistication of the tools needed to truly understand user-flows and engagements. With this in mind, Google rolled out a suite of analytics tools in 2014, known as Google Universal Analytics (GUA). The suite took a number of well-known Google products and introduced a “one-stop shop” that connected the tools for more robust tracking.

Along with this, Google also introduced some new standards for tracking website sessions. One of these changes was a revised look at how timed-out and refreshed sessions would be attributed, which could have an impact on the reporting of anyone currently using GUA.

Effects on Tracking

According to the method of tracking visits for Google Classic Analytics – that is, the platform standards prior to the GUA update – if a visitor came to the website for any period of time, the visit remained attributable to the channel through which they originally accessed the website. This makes sense, as the visitor has remained on the same browser and device, and is part of the same session, even if there is a period of inactivity or prolonged research.

When the platform was revised to Universal Analytics, one of the updates introduced included a default session time of 30 minutes. This means that as visitors come to the website, regardless of the user-journey, after a 30-minute period of inactivity, a new session would begin. This can be troublesome, particularly for visitors coming through higher in the search funnel. An example could be an instance where a consumer is recently diagnosed with a disease. Even more commonly, would be the case in which busy users keep several tabs or windows open and reference them throughout the day when convenient. Whenever this type of user-flow exceeds 30 minutes of inactivity, the default option for Google Universal Analytics is to begin a second session once activity is resumed, representing the “source” as brand.com and “medium” as referral. Adobe Analytics currently features a similar designator for this type of traffic which is labeled “internal” in order to capture these types of refreshed sessions. For obvious reasons, this can lead to misrepresented performance statistics on the website.

The good news is that there is a fairly easy correction to this problem.

Resolution and Next Steps

Before taking the steps listed below, it may be useful to first take inventory of the volume of refreshed sessions that are currently being captured in your profile. If these sessions represent <5% of traffic it may not be as critical to take the next steps. However, if you do see higher levels of traffic being labeled as brand.com / referral, then you should address this by leveraging this workaround.

In order to properly attribute refreshed session activities to the relevant channels, one can simply add the domain of your brand’s website to the referral exclusion list.
First, ensure that your site is using Universal Analytics tracking (labeled analytics.js) and not Classic Analytics (labeled ga.js) tracking. This can quickly be checked on site using a debugger tool (see below for an example using HttpFox).

Once it’s confirmed that your site is using Universal Analytics tracking, you can then update the referral exclusion list in Google Analytics by accessing the Admin panel and following these steps:

  1. Click on “Tracking Info” under the Property column
  2. This will open a drop-down menu. Select the option for “Referral Exclusion List”
  3. Click on “+ADD REFERRAL EXCLUSION”
  4. Enter the brand’s domain name into the space provided (see below)

Once complete, make a note of when the fix was assigned so that you can effectively analyze any shifts in session reporting. Be sure to note any impact this may have had to determine which channels demonstrate higher session contributions post-fix. Future reports should not include any traffic labeled brand.com / referral.

Conclusion

Google has a proven track record of innovation as they deliver cutting-edge digital products and solutions, and as such there are constant updates that are made in order to streamline existing processes and expand capabilities. As such, it is vital to maintain a pulse on these types of updates in order to extract the most accurate and useful data for your brands. An existing resource that can be leveraged to this end is the Google Analytics developer blog in which they maintain an accurate and up-to-date log of updates. The updates can be accessed here where you will be able to view change logs at a granular level. Additionally, by joining the Analytics API Notify Google Group, you will also be able to stay current on the latest changes that may impact your data.