Universal Analytics: What You Need to Know

Senior Digital Analyst
Published 2/25/14
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Over here at Miles’ Web Marketing Team Headquarters, we are constantly researching news, new features and trends in analytics, paid search, display advertising, SEO, user behavior, site development and design and digital usage in the travel space. Google likes to keep us on our toes with constant changes, additions and announcements about upcoming changes and additions to their product line.

One of Google's major changes was announced last fall, the rolling out of Universal Analytics, the new iteration of its analytics platform. Universal Analytics had been around before that announcement; it was an option you could select when setting up a new account for your website in Google Analytics.

It has been in beta for a while. If you had a website in Google Analytics and you wanted to see what this mysterious, rather undocumented Universal Analytics did, you needed to create a new property to get the Universal Analytics code. Then you would have two account properties for the same site, the data would not match and the new property would not have historical data. That seemed like a lot of work for a product in beta.

Last fall, the Universal Analytics announcement told us that now you can upgrade to UA in your property settings -- you won't need to set up a new property. Convenience! We also learned that Universal Analytics, while still in beta, is the next big thing in Google Analytics; it will be the next iteration of the Google's analytics platform. Oh, and upgrading is mandatory.

If you don't upgrade when Google is finished rolling it out, Google will upgrade you and the "classic" Google Analytics library will not be supported. Although upgrading all properties is mandatory, there are several phases to this process and, according to Google, the process is still in Phase 1 and Universal Analytics is still in beta, so you don't have to upgrade yet.

What is Universal Analytics? Luckily, there are a lot of guides, FAQs, forums and other resources to learn about this new product and its implementation. Universal Analytics "is a set of technological innovations that improve the way data is collected and processed by Google Analytics," according to the UA Developers Guide. This helpful video by Google Analytics goes further into detail about UA’s benefits.

Because users no longer consume content on websites and web pages alone, Google believed it needed to revamp its analytics platform to keep up with the ever-expanding digital space. In the video, Product Manager Nick Mihailovski says Universal Analytics "is a set of features and libraries as well as infrastructure that will enable businesses to measure user behavior across all these devices," including desktop sites, mobile and tablet devices, mobile apps and even game consoles.

More benefits of the new platform: more custom tracking, dimensions and metrics; much easier cross-domain tracking implementation; and session and campaign timeout handling.

More benefits of the new platform: more custom tracking, dimensions and metrics; much easier cross-domain tracking implementation; and session and campaign timeout handling. And you don't lose any historical data and all the data is in one property! Sounds awesome, right? But not so fast.

We mentioned that Universal Analytics is in Phase 1 of four phases, and is still in beta. One of the many caveats with upgrading now is that, if your site uses Remarketing, Google Display Network Impression Reporting, DoubleClick Campaign reporting and Demographics and Interests reports, these features are not yet supported by Universal Analytics. So if you upgrade, you lose all of that data until UA fully supports it, which isn't until Phase 3 (date TBD).

Also, if your site has a lot of custom tracking for events and interactions as well as custom variables, your best bet is to wait until Phase 3 to make sure you don't lose any of your custom data. The reason is that "classic" Google Analytics uses the ga.js library. Universal Analytics uses the analytics.js library. All code from the ga.js library has to be rewritten to follow the rules of the analytics.js library.

What does this mean? Lots and lots of work rewriting instances of code, testing, rewriting again and testing again. We did upgrade one client account per the client request and what we found is that, because this is still in beta, the Drupal CMS did not fully support the Universal Analytics code changes and it took a LOT of work to try to emulate some of the client’s custom coding. In short, the risks of losing data, the amount of research and development time involved and the beneficial features that are not supported lead us to recommend waiting until Phase 3 for upgrading. So, DO NOT push this button:

At least not until Google rolls out Phase 3. Until then, we’ll keep you updated on what’s new and next.