A Brief History of Google Analytics, Part One

May 1, 2014 - Digital State Marketing

In today’s digital world, the internet has become a way of life. British consumers spend an average of 43 hours online every month, equating to 1 in 12 waking minutes spent browsing the web. For businesses, the ability to measure both browsing patterns and the results of marketing initiatives serves to amplify our fascination, and dependence, on the internet. Web statistics help to shape the products offered by businesses and, in this hugely competitive market, it has never been more important to ensure your website offers a user-friendly service to guarantee results.

Google Analytics (GA) dominates the world of website statistics. In this paper, we’re looking at its evolution; from its genesis following the acquisition of Urchin, to the emergence of Universal Analytics more recently. We’ll examine how different iterations have helped it to develop into the program over half of all business rely on today, and also give some insight into Google’s motives into controlling the flow of web data.

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From Urchin to Google Analytics: where did it all start?  

In March 2005, Google acquired the web statistics analysis program Urchin and, in November, it introduced the first version of Google Analytics. Urchin was initially developed in 1998 and gradually revolutionised the way customers came to engage with their new online medium. “It made the intangible packets of traffic flying invisibly all over the world very tangible”, wrote Director of Engineering, Paul Muret, before the Urchin product was officially discontinued in March 2012.

Phil Mui, the former Group Project Manager of Google Analytics, explains how Google’s initial version sought to democratise advanced web analytics to the masses. “The primary focus was to make sure that not only people who are willing to pay a million dollars or more on analytics products are able to get access to a very decent set of tools to understand the behaviours of online browsers”, he said at a conference in New York 2011.

Google realised the infinite potential of data to create a better experience for web users. “By liberating this tool we could empower companies of all sizes to become smarter and more effective online”, remarked Muret. “We assigned considerable resources to our online solution and released it to the public for free [and]…has since grown beyond anything that we could have expected”.

What was Google’s “online solution”?

Google’s introduction of free analytical tools – to compete with paid analytics services offered by I.B.M, WebSideStory and WebTrends – sought to provide marketers with more visibility, but also encourage publishers to deliver a better user experience. A report in the New York Times touched upon the financial incentives behind Google’s venture. The early success of programs such as Urchin highlighted how web analytics could serve to help both marketers and publishers design more effective webpages and ads, and therefore, attract more internet traffic.

Google Analytics garnered enhanced marketing intelligence, helping the search giant to understand the performance of advertising campaigns on certain sites. Yet, initially, it got off to a shaky start. V1 was quickly shut down due to too much demand, and it was only re-released with limited access using an invitation system. In June 2006 Google introduced AdWords analysis reporting, enabling users to manage their ROI and, two months later, it announced that Analytics was open to all web users. All was well again.

It did not take long for Google’s offspring to eclipse Urchin. In August 2007 the Google published a case study on Carolina Rustica, a US-based accessories and furniture company that used Google Analytics to help maximise its online potential (later spawning a series of GA “Success Stories”).  President and founder, Richard Sexton, said how the company used “the entire suite of Google products, both internally and externally – AdWords, Analytics and Google Checkout”. By tracking web traffic, Analytics helps businesses tailor the most effective marketing campaign. Carolina Rustica, for instance, grew an average of 50% a year. “Analytics has got a lot of different options and a lot of tools to track each individual visitor to the site”, Sexton commented. “It lets you manipulate, not only your webpages, but also your AdWords campaigns, and work the two together.”

Since the launch of Google Analytics in November 2005, the demand for web analytics has significantly increased. In other words, it evolved from a niche occupation to an intrinsic element of online business. Popularity has, of course, created demand for more refined products. Throughout 2007 and 2008 major changes to the Google Analytics’ program represented a departure from “access ability”.  In May 2007, for instance, Google revamped the Analytics’ reporting interface for “greater customisation and collaboration”. With V2, Google modified its data display and, also, made it easier for website owners and businesses to find and share their data. V2 sought to make Google Analytics more robust and encourage organisation wide adoption by, as Phil Mui remarked, “moving analytics from the back room of techies into the boardroom”.

In October 2008 analytics evangelist, Avinash Kaushik, unveiled a series of beta updates which continued to radically transformed Google’s program. The 2008 update was designed around a wish list from both customers and experts in analytics industries – “to make it as powerful, flexible, and useful as a web analytics tool can be”. The new Advanced Segmentation feature enabled users to analyse subsets of their traffic, allowing users to select segments such as “Visits with Conversions” and “Paid Traffic”, or create their custom subdivisions that can be compared to historical or current data. Custom Reports gave users the ability to organise data, information and metrics how they wished. Multi-dimensional Motion Charts enabled users to visually compare metrics over time to expose (perhaps unexpected) data relationships. And, additionally, the new Management Dashboard made navigation between profiles much simpler.

In 2009 Google made huge strides forward in the domain of analytics intelligence. A new AdSense integration feature helped users to measure website performance and ROI. Meanwhile, the universal rollout of the Data Export API (application programming interface) supported the integration of web analytics across multiple platforms. In October, Google release V4 of its Analytics program, featuring a new algorithm that detects, and alerts users to, data anomalies. V4 was geared towards the demands and requests of Google’s customers. For example, it introduced more profile conversions, such as “threshold goals”, letting users create goals for time spent on site and page views per visit.

A Brief History of Google Analytics, Part One - 2

One Ring To Rule Them All – Google Analytics

“Powerful, flexible and intelligent”

The V4 update laid the foundations for Google Analytics that we use today. For instance, it enabled Analytics to easily segment unique visitors. Prior to these modifications, it was difficult for websites to calculate the number of unique visitors because it used a lot of processing power. Every time a web browser visits a webpage Google Analytics checks for the corresponding cookie, determining whether the user has visited the site before. So, in the past, when users wanted to view a unique visitor report, GA had to count all the collected cookie to gauge the number of new visitors. However, since V4 Google has been able to count the number of cookies in real time. Truly, a huge leap forward for both marketers and online publishers.

In May 2011, the V5 update provided Google Analytics with a major face lift. Nevertheless, it was very much designed with the future in mind. “V5 is all about setting ourselves up for the future launches and iterations where we’ll be able to address user feedback a lot faster”, commented software engineer, Snehal Thakkar, in GA’s official blog release. “V5 is about rebuilding Google Analytics from the ground up”, said Lee Deegan, a senior software engineer who helped rewrite every line of GA code.

“V5 is just the appetiser. Just the beginning.”

Version 5 helped everyday users become “power users” through the promotion of enterprise-like features. First and foremost, it sought to deliver a better user experience. It updated the GA dashboard and introduced fast profile switching and bookmarking, which enabled more complete customisation and the creation of multiple profiles to service different needs. The Plot Row feature allows users to build even more advanced segments – so, for example, you can compare webpage traffic between different web browsers.

Google’s webmasters also designed the update to accord with the increasing importance of mobile applications and search. The initially maligned Event Goals feature, for instance, helps businesses to accomplish more “conversions”. As Snehal Thakkar explains, even if a person pauses or fast-forwards through a webpage video, Google still considers it a goal.

“The main course is going to be so much better”: Google moves towards Universal Analytics

In March 2012 Urchin users were encouraged to start using GA after the client-hosted version was discontinued, reaffirming Google’s dominance in the world of web analytics. Recent modifications have concentrated on developing universal analytics – “the new operating standard for Google Analytics”. In late 2011 Google launched its real time report feature, allowing users to monitor information as their campaigns unfold. In October, GA introduced flow visualisations helping users identify the stages when browsers “drop-off” during the goal completion process. Google started to encrypt search data for search made from a Google account. And, in June 2012, Google launched GA for mobile applications.

“Universal Analytics: more features, better insights”

Google’s official announcement of UA in October 2012 was big news, but came as no surprise. With the increasing popularity of mobile (on-the-move) browsing, GA designed new software to track users across multiple devices using user IDs. Recent updates have changed the way data is collected, giving users a better understanding of how browsers interact with online content. Firstly, GA introduced a more sophisticated, and flexible, tracking code – aimed to be as developer friendly as possible. The analytics.js JavaScript was introduced for websites; Google Analytics SDKs for mobile app tracking; and Measurement Protocol for other digital devices.

UA has now been around for some time; though most GA users have yet to make the switch. Urchin is old hat. So, what is the case for Universal Analytics? And is it the promised land of web analytics?

2013 was a huge year for the team at Google Analytics, and Universal Analytics was very much at the vanguard of developments. With more than 70 product updates, Google made improvements to the user interface, introduced new APIs and more real-time reports to help users better interpret visitor behaviour.

Earlier this month, Google finally announced the UA general rollout. “Universal Analytics is the re-imagining of Google Analytics for today’s multi-screen, multi-device world and all the measurement challenges that come with it.” Moreover, it also announced the gradual roll-out of User ID, which will “help you better understand your customers’ full journey” to help users tailor a better experience for visitors, as well as an overview of its time-zone based processing to deliver “fresher data…in a more timely manner”.

“Out of beta, into primetime”

As we move further into 2014, we expect to see more changes to multi-channel reporting. Universal Analytics is the future. Most future enhancements will probably be applied to the new program, although it’s unlikely that classic GA will disappear completely. What’s more, despite Google’s promotion of its premium analytics package, there aren’t any plans to scrap the free service we all use (and depend on).

Google Analytics continues to pour resources into rebranding its styling and simplifying its user interface. But is Google’s preoccupation with simplicity futile?

Analytics are, inescapably, analytical. Investigative, methodical and (typically) complex. If businesses or marketers want some sort-of comprehensive understanding of data, they need to be prepared to handle some complexity (such is the case with something like specific ecommerce tracking – take a look at our video).

Google Analytics is an essential feature in fine tuning SEO campaigns. Data visualisation is important and the GA user-interface is fast, easy to use and presents information in a meaningful way. Indeed, perhaps that best explains the widespread adoption and high market penetration of the service. Looking forward, and as online markets become even more competitive, the importance of analytics in the world of SEO can only increase. Watch this space.

Coming soon to DSM Papers: We take a more critical look at the development of the Analytics brand – What does it say about where Google sees its future business model? Is the (current and future) cost of using GA worth paying, given the benefits to ROI?  Watch this space for part two

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