When should I upgrade to Universal Analytics – and how does it work?

5 minutes

Customers often ask me: When should I install the Universal Analytics code? 

I always reply with the same question: Why do you think you need it? They usually shrug their shoulders and look at me for a smart answer. Since this happens so often, I decided to write a blog post about it. This post will help you determine whether to upgrade, and walk you through the upgrade process when you decide to make the leap.

What is Universal Analytics, and why should you care?

Universal Analytics is the next generation of Google Analytics.

It has already excited the entire community of web analysts, and for good reason: it’s by far the biggest update to web analytics since the switch from web logs to JavaScript tracking.

I won’t go through all the great new features of Universal Analytics right now, but here are the basics:

  • It focuses on visitors (meaning people), not just visits.
  • You can track people across multiple devices (web, mobile, tablet).
  • You can set custom dimensions and metrics to track what is important to you, not just what Google Analytics gives you by default.

Instead of focusing on features, I will focus on when it’s the right time to upgrade to Universal Analytics, based on the profile of the company using analytics.

Profile #1: Knock knock! Who’s there? A web analyst

You should absolutely upgrade. Universal Analytics is a game changer and there is a lot to learn about the system. Sooner or later, everyone will switch to the new technology and you’ll want to know everything about it before this happens.

If you are a web analyst or work in a company where there is a web analyst on the payroll, you’ll probably switch to Universal Analytics sooner than others do. Not everything that used to work in classic Google Analytics will work with Universal Analytics, but web analysts should have the knowledge and skills to identify and resolve the differences.

Those making the switch will need to plan accordingly as all the existing tracking codes on your websites will need to change. This is a major undertaking, but the increased power and flexibility from Universal Analytics will be worth it. Web analysts may want to consider upgrading a personal or smaller site before tackling a corporate upgrade to help them master the process.

Tip: While you are upgrading, consider switching to Google Tag Manager as well. You’ll kill two birds with one stone and you’ll make any future analytics updates much, much easier.

Profile #2: Knock knock! Who’s there? A SaaS startup

You should consider upgrading. Universal Analytics requires changing the whole tracking code on your website, but being a startup you are probably agile enough to make this change quickly and enjoy the advantages of the new technology immediately.

For SaaS companies especially, tracking people and not visits makes a huge difference in day-to-day activities. Being able to look at data across different devices and know that you are dealing with the same person will open up a new frontier of reports that will help you improve the bottom line.

From a technology point of view, you’ll need to know that after switching to Universal Analytics, Google Analytics will only set a single cookie in the user’s browser. That cookie contains very little information, essentially just a unique ID for the person visiting the website.

A documented method allows you to set that analytics ID to match an ID that already corresponds to that specific user in your system, like a CRM or affiliate ID. That means that each time a user is logged into your app, no matter the device is being used, Universal Analytics will always use the same ID to track that person – and you’ll be able to connect that tracking data with your internal data.

Tip: To unlock advanced campaign reports, many SaaS companies used to log Google Analytics cookies on their own servers. Once you switch to Universal Analytics, this option will not be available anymore.

Profile #3: Knock knock! Who’s there? Major software company

Upgrading is not your priority yet. I’m pretty sure that your IT department won’t be happy to hear that Universal Analytics is still in beta. Also, switching to a whole new tracking technology will probably put many of your other developments on hold, which is obviously not desirable.

Right now, it’s most important for your company to plan for the inevitable upgrade to the Universal Analytics technology. One Universal Analytics feature that big companies will love is the ability to define custom dimensions and metrics. Google Analytics allows you to define a max of 20 for each. These dimensions and metrics can help drive your upgrade plan.

Think of a visited web page as one of the few dimensions that were available for you to customize and send contextual data about your visitors to Google Analytics. Now you can use 20 such dimensions! While this is a big step up, without proper planning you can easily reach the point when you have used up all of these dimensions but still need many more.

As a major company, you probably already have a web analyst on your payroll who’s already familiar with Universal Analytics (see the first profile in this post). That person should start documenting target dimensions and metrics to plan the deployment on your main websites.

If there’s any specific information you would like to have available inside your Google Analytics account, now is the time to talk to your web analyst to make sure it will be available after the switch. If you don’t plan the upgrade appropriately, you will be stuck with dimensions you don’t need and without dimensions you do, so allocate sufficient time for planning.

Tip: Remarketing lists defined in Google Analytics are not available in Universal Analytics (at least at the time of this article). If you use remarketing lists, make sure to plan the upgrade deployment to happen after remarketing becomes available.

Switching to Universal Analytics

The migration to Universal Analytics should not give you headaches. It is a well documented process and Google Analytics even provides a guide for the switch.

Companies looking to upgrade can follow the example of PadiAct, a SaaS startup Avangate started working with a few years ago, that recently started switching its web properties to Universal Analytics.

Here is the checklist PadiAct followed to make sure all the elements of the upgrade were covered for each of its websites:

  1. Change the tracking code that was placed in the header templates of websites. PadiAct also decided to switch to Google Tag Manager to make future updates much easier.
  2. Create an inventory of all the custom Google Analytics codes added on website pages anywhere other than header templates (e.g., custom link tracking, other events). Remove any such tracking and replace it with Data Layer event tracking, which is then customized with Universal Analytics inside Google Tag Manager.
  3. Add custom dimensions and custom metrics tracking where needed. This can also be done via Google Tag Manager to accelerate and future-proof the process.
  4. Identify any third party system that you used to track with Google Analytics. For PadiAct, this was the Avangate payment system and support platform. PadiAct replaced all its analytics codes there as well.
  5. Define custom reports for each custom dimension. These reports will help you make the most of the upgrade to Universal Analytics.
  6. Validate the reporting data with other sources (own database, past Google Analytics). Fix bugs, if any are found.

Once the upgrade process is complete, it’s time to celebrate – data-driven decisions are now closer than ever. Congratulations!

Good luck in your migration to Universal Analytics, which will build a path to new insights regarding how your visitors interact with your web properties. And feel free to share your stories about these new insights in the comments!

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