Digging Deep With Google Analytics Custom Variables

Out-of-the-box website analytics tools are rarely satisfying. Sites that track only standard visits, pageviews, and bounces are missing out on some of the richest Web marketing data available.  Every digital marketer should have a clear understanding of the data points that will be essential to maximizing the on-site user experience, which will ultimately foster greater audience engagement and yield more revenue.

Specifically looking at options available via Google Analytics (a near-ubiquitous technology these days), marketers will want to confirm that several customizations have been made if the tool is to be fully utilized:

  • Internal IP filtering
  • On-site search reporting
  • Event tracking (external links, video and PDF assets)
  • Goals
  • E-commerce transaction details (if applicable)
  • Custom dashboards

Customizing Google Analytics with these options will ensure that most of the website’s pertinent details will be tracked and accounted for, even if they’re not yet being relied upon for further refinement.



But beyond those core customizations, Google offers power users another reporting option that can provide some of the most powerful and unique visitor insights, Custom Variables. While Custom Variables require a bit more elbow grease to implement, once installed you’ll be amazed at how much more you know about your customers.

Rather than going into the tedium of the implementation process and tagging taxonomy (for reference, Google’s instructions are here), I instead thought I’d highlight four compelling uses for Custom Variables.

1.     Social Network Authentication – ever wonder whether your website visitors are social media junkies? Curious about which networks are most popular? Tom Anthony over at SEOmoz authored a great how-to for keeping tabs on which social networks your visitors are logged into.

This intelligence can have many possible uses, including enhancing the website UX with social share buttons from the most popular networks. Visitor segmentation would also identify which networks bring the most valuable visitors; that can help inform a social advertising pilot.

2.     Tapping The Social Graph w/ Facebook Connect – if your site relies on Facebook Connect for commenting or subscriptions, then you should be privy to a range of additional demographic details straight from the social graph. Details such as age, gender, likes, current city, etc. are all possible data sources to pivot against for added context and understanding. 

NOTE: Provided this data is rolled up into an aggregate, non-personally identifiable way, you shouldn’t run afoul of Google’s Terms of Use.

3.     B2B Superstardom – Business Demographic Data – B2B advertising network Bizo offers developers a way to identify the business demographics, or “bizographics,” of website visitors. If your site is B2B focused, you likely care more about industry vertical, size of organization, or the visitor’s role in his/her respective company than age or gender. Bizo’s analytics tools allow marketers to capture that detail, if known by the network, and flow it into Google Analytics via Custom Variables.

4.     Organic Search “Rank At The Time of the Click” – I’ve written previously about how powerful this data point could be for SEOs. Rather than continue the debate about the utility of keyword rank reporting, “rank at the time of the click” would provide the far-more-useful data point: where your site ranked when a given visitor clicked through. This type of data would help frame an understanding of the nuances of search rank, including localized and personalized search results.

Google is passing this information in the referral details via the “cd” parameter. Note, though, that with the announcement that authenticated searches (users who are logged into their Google Accounts) are now secure, a percentage of organic search referrals are now no longer trackable in this way.

In my experience, Google Analytics Custom Variables are an under-utilized option available to webmasters and Web marketers. Take the time to identify what additional data wants you have, because none of it will be available retroactively. We need to dig deep today.

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