An overview about what Google Analytics can’t tell you in its reports
One of the key factors of getting your site a visible ranking is to know how well it performs with search engines and with your site visitors. Google Analytics (GA) is a web analytics tool that reports performance metrics of your website as well as give you insights into your web visitors’ behaviors and their activities while they are on the site. Performance metrics/indicators can vary depending on the priorities and goals of your site, but basically they include metrics like average time on site, number of page views, number of visitors and unique visitors, bounce rate, entry and exit points, goal conversion and so on. Those metrics are fundamental as they quickly let you know the overall health of your site, how it is performing against your goals. Google Analytics reports basic metrics and much more, but what can’t it tell you?
What Google Analytics Can’t Do
Track and report data from individual users
I saw many people ask this question in the GA help forum. They want to know whether customer A, B or C visits certain web page or clicks on certain link, whether their competitors access their sites or in some cases access their protected sites, or whether visitors with certain IP addresses used the shopping cart. Questions are multiple, but there’s only one answer: NO. Per Google Analytics Terms of Service , under the Privacy section, the tool doesn’t report personally identifiable information. The reported data is aggregated.
Process (or Re-process) historical/past data
At the time of writing this article, Google Analytics doesn’t allow you to (re)process past data. In another word, if you incorrectly apply a filter, improperly tag a campaign link or a web page, you can fix the error and see the results in the future results, but you can’t go back in time and reprocess already collected data.
Track non-web files (PDF, Word, Flash or video files and the like)
This is a pretty gray area. In theory, Google Analytics works based on the page tagging method, meaning that if you can’t/don’t tag a file with the tracking code, you can’t track it. Since you can’t insert the tracking code inside a PDF or a document file, no data for this file will be collected, thus no data will be reported. In reality, GA does provide some ways around this limitation with click tracking where you insert a small piece of code on individual links to the document files, and data will be collected when those links are clicked.
Report real-time data
Updated September 2011:
Data reported by Google Analytics used to be three to four hours late, not real time. However, starting September 2011, Google announced the new real-time reporting capability. This functionality, however, is only in beta and only available if you use the “New Version” interface (by clicking on the “New Version” link at the top after logging into your GA account). Thus, although real-time report is no longer an issue with GA, I still leave this here to give readers some background information.
Report the same numbers as other web analytics tools
Another question I saw rather frequently ask at the GA help forum is from those who use Google Analytics and another tool to track web traffic. They expect the two (or three) tools would report similar number of pageviews, visitors and so on. This will never happen. Different tools use different methods to track and report data; not to mention they may have different definitions in terms of what a visit, visitor or a unique visitor should be. Thus even comparing number of visits reported by tool 1 to number of visits reported by tool 2 may not like comparing apple to apple.
If you use different tools, do expect discrepancies. What matters is whether the trends are similar. If the trending data are not similar, you’d know something is going on with either one of your tools.
Other less important things
Demographic report: Several people have asked whether they can get their visitors’ demographic profile including age, gender, occupation and stuff like that. The answer is no. Google Analytics does report some demographic data, but very limited, such as visitors’ location (country/territory), and network location and that’s basically it. I know there are tools out there that claim to be able to provide visitors’ age, gender etc. data, but I’m not sure how they do it and how accurate the data will be.
Data ownership: Although Google doesn’t reveal your web data to anyone else, but think about it, by using Google Analytics, all of your web metrics data are stored on Google’s servers. What if the servers were accessed by wrong hands or got damaged… Also, since the service is free, there’s a limitation in terms of how long Google will store your data on its server. It’s two or three years I believe.