5 tips to avoid a metrics meltdown when upgrading to Universal Analytics

Universal Analytics promises some juicy benefits over the previous standard analytics. But having upgraded 6 different high traffic sites there are some pitfalls to be aware of.
universal analytics

Universal Analytics promises some juicy benefits over the previous standard analytics. But having upgraded 6 different high traffic sites there are some pitfalls to be aware of.

Firstly, why would you want to upgrade your tracking script?

  1. More reliable tracking of page visitors – i.e. fewer visits untracked
  2. More customisation to exclude certain referrers or search terms
  3. Better tools for tracking across multiple domains and tracking users across different devices
  4. Track usage across your apps for the same web property
  5. Ability to send up to 20 custom dimensions instead of the previous limit of only 5 custom variables

If you want to avoid any interruption of service when you upgrade, why not book a quick consultation with us to check if Universal Analytics will work in your case.

But before you start you should take note of the following.

1. Different tracking = overall visits change

If your boss is used to seeing dependable weekly / monthly numbers, they may query why the number of visits has changed.

Universal Analytics is likely to track c. 2% more visits than previously (partly due to different referral tracking – see below), but it could be higher depending on your mix of traffic.

PRO TIP: Set up a new web property (a different tracking code) for Universal Analytics and run the old and new trackers alongside each other for a month. Then you can see how the reports differ before sharing with managers. Once this testing period is over you’ll need to upgrade the original tracking code to Universal Analytics to you keep all your historic data.

2. Different tracking of referrals

Previously, if Bob clicked on a link in Twitter to your site, reads, goes back to Twitter, and within 30 minutes clicks on a different link to your site – that would be counted as one visit and the 2nd referral source would be ignored.

In Universal Analytics, when Bob clicks on the 2nd link he is tracked as a second visit, and 2nd referral source is stored.

This may be more accurate for marketing tracking, but if Bob then buys a product from you, going via a secure payment gateway hosted on another domain (e.g. paypal.com) then the return from the payment gateway will be counted as a new visit. All your payment goals or ecommerce tracking will be attributed to a referral from ‘paypal.com’.

This will ruin your attribution of a sale to the correct marketing channel or campaign!

PRO TIP: You need to add all of the payment gateways (or other third party sites a user may visit during the payment process) to the ‘Referral Exclusion List’. You can find this under the Admin > Property > Tracking codes menu:
referral exclusion link

referral exclusion

3. Tracking across domains

If you use the same tracking code across different domains (e.g. mysite.co.uk and mysite.com or mysite.de) then you will need to change the standard tracking script slightly.

By default the tracking script you copy from Google Analytics contains a line like: ga('create', 'UA-XXXXXXX-1', 'mysite.com');.

This will only track pages that strictly end with ‘mysite.com’.

PRO TIP: It’s much safer to change the tracker to set that cookie domain automatically. The equivalent for the site above would be ga('create', 'UA-XXXXXXX-1', 'auto');. The 3rd argument of the function is replaced with ‘auto’.

4. Incompatibility with custom variables

Only relevant if you send custom data already

Custom variables are only supported historically in Universal analytics. That means you will need to change any scripts that send custom data to the new custom dimension format to keep data flowing. Read the developer documentation for more.

PRO TIP: You’ll need to set the custom dimension names in the admin panel before the custom data can be sent from the pages. You can also only check that the custom dimensions are being sent correctly by creating a new custom report for each dimension.

custom dimensions

5. User tracking limitations

We wouldn’t recommend implementing the new user ID feature just now, as it has some major limitations compared with storing the GA client ID.

  1. You need to create a separate view to see the logged-in-user data, which makes reporting pageviews a whole lot more complex.
  2. Visits a user made to your site BEFORE signing up are not tracked with that user – which means you can’t track the marketing sources by user

PRO TIP: See our user tracking alternative.

Got more tips on to setting up Universal Analytics? Please share them with us in the comments, or get in touch if you want more advice on how to upgrade!


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