Kay lives here

working with the web

Google Analytics: a one week review

As an Urchin customer who feels rather neglected, the launch of Google Analytics as a free service upsets me a little.

I’ve made that point already: Urchin, Google, and why I’m not thrilled. But I’m doing my best to be fair and balanced anyway.

Confession time: I’m a statistics junkie. Despite doing really badly at maths at school, I love graphs and plotted lines and tables filled with numbers. As you always need to “know your enemy” – and the concept of too many statistics is not something I’m familiar with – I signed up for an account (last week, before they limited new registrations due to high load) to take it for a spin. Here’s what I think after using it for a week.

Can we trust Google?

I’ve read some articles from people who don’t feel comfortable with Google being on both sides of the equation – selling the ads on one side (knowing what you pay) and then providing statistics on the other site (knowing what you earn). That’s a bit uncomfortable for me too, but as I don’t have any pay per click ads for any of my own sites I figure they’re not harvesting too much useful data. I wouldn’t want to put Analytics on a site where I did have AdWords.

I put the Google Analytics code on this blog, which is on a server without the benefit of Urchin standalone. I have AWStats which is OK in a pinch, but not really a great solution for a statistics junkie like me. Firstly it took about 36 hours before stats starting showing up. I’m surprised that Google didn’t anticipate the demand (and subsequent hammering of their servers) and roll out gradually, more like the Gmail beta “invitation” system that’s working so well for other services like WordPress.com and Measure Map (which I’m also trying out, more on that later). I’m sure doing it that way would have increased the already considerable buzz about the new service to a fever pitch.

The Analytics interface

Once you log in, there’s some quite pretty graphs including a nice world map overlay that’s a bit of fun. On the whole I don’t think it looks as slick as the standalone Urchin interface, although it’s possibly a little more usable (the JavaScript windows that can’t be opened in a tab in the standalone Urchin drive me nuts).

On to my first complaint: not surprisingly, it’s very pay per click oriented. As I don’t PPC on any of my own sites, that means there’s lots of stuff I don’t really want or need to see cluttering up my view. One of the first things I did on our standalone Urchin install was to set all my customer accounts up with a simplified report set – one that contains just the important information, without the fluff. Most small business site owners don’t need to know statistics about HTTP status codes, hits per request and other geeky stuff – they just need to know how many people are visiting their site, what they’re looking at and where they came from.

So far, the level of interface customisation possible with Analytics is quite limited – you can turn off any of the five categories of reports but that’s about it. I wouldn’t recommend it to any of my clients who were not running PPC ads (that’s most of them) – there’s just too many unneeded things that get in the way of the useful information.

It ain’t log file analysis

The reports are good, but my main complaint is that it’s still not log file analysis. It can’t tell you about:

  • Visitors to your site with JavaScript disabled
  • PDF, code/zip file or executable downloads
  • People hotlinking to your images or other resources
  • Bots

All of the above are useful things for anyone serious about their stats to know. Urchin standalone version gives you the ability to have stats from a (locally hosted) JavaScript bug, as well as crunching your log files. That’s a much more complete solution, in my opinion.

Let’s summarize

If you’re running pay per click ads, the ability to set conversion goals and compare the success of different campaigns is pretty sexy and Google Analytics will be right up your alley. For people like me, who are more interested in organic search engine optimisation campaigns, it’s not as good as I thought it would be.