Thursday, January 31, 2013

Problems with Google Analytics

Most of the Google utilities I use are great - they usually have an intuitive design that make them frictionless and have most of the features someone needs. The features they have usually work as expected too, which isn't trivial with some other competing utilities.

Lately I've been using Google Analytics and the truth is, I don't like what I see... :(

The most annoying part of using Google Analytics is that there's no way of testing it!
It would seem like a trivial feature to me, but apparently not to the people at Google. Maybe most people don't have this problem, since you set up the analytics reports when first designing the website, and then the testing process is done on your production environment which could be really easy, and if you have no stats, then you obviously have nothing to ruin.
When I was trying to make some of the most minor changes to the way we report some of the stuff on the website I work on at my job, the first thing that interested me was how I was going to test the changes.

When you have many users in production, there's no chance you'll notice the change you made when you login. Even if you would, I could by accidentally affect other analytics and I was obviously afraid to do so. So, I set up a test account, and tried reporting to the test account from my local machine. This didn't work since Google makes sure you make the request from the domain you registered in the GS (Google Analytics) account, which is great! After looking into this a little, I found out that I can tell GA to ignore the domain that the request is coming from so that this will work. From their documentation, this feature was meant to be for using multiple subdomains, but it works for reporting from any domain. Since this helped my cause, and I'm not afraid of others causing harm to my test account, I won't go into why this is a bad idea, and can be harmful to some other sites using this... :/
After doing all that, I came to realize that the analytics aren't reported in real time, which is also logical, since an analytics system usually needs to deal with large amounts of data, and it takes time to handle the load. (Not only it's not real-time, but it's pretty far from being almost real-time as well) BUT, this doesn't mean there shouldn't be a way around this for testing, like an option I could turn on, just so the reports effect will be seen in real time, even if it's limited for a really small number, just for testing!

In case someone reading this ran into the same problem - The configuration setting I used like this :
_gaq.push(['_setDomainName', 'none']);

By the way - From my experience with the Adobe Omniture utility, they have a great 'debugging' utility that you can use a bookmarklet. It opens on any site, and shows you the live reports going out, which is a GREAT tool for testing, and should've been implemented by Google in the same way.

Another issue I had (and frankly, still have) with GA, is that some of their documentation isn't full... For example : There are some pages (like 'Page Timings') where you can view the stats of different pages, and the average. You can sort this list by 'page title' or some other parameters. The problem is that when you have many pages that are the same, but with dynamic content (meaning all the 'page titles' are different), you might want to group them by a 'user defined variable' that you report on that page.
Great! You have this option. ...BUT, in the documentation, the way you report a 'User defined variable' is by using the '_setVar' method. It continues on by stating that the '_setVar' method is soon to be deprecated and they don't recommend using it. Instead you should '_setCustomVar'. The problem here is that 'Custom Var' and 'User Defined Variable' aren't the same, and in some pages you can view one and in some the latter. There is no documentation anymore for the '_setVar' method, so I searched various blogs about people writing about this in the past, and found the way to use it, but it works in a different way, and I couldn't find a way to define it's lifespan (per session/page/user/etc.) like you can do with '_setCustomVar'.

Long story short... It seems like they have quite some work to do on this before it's perfect, or close to being perfect, and I'm not 100% I'll be using this again as a full site solution for web page analytics.

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