Thursday, August 1, 2013

Tracking individual users in Google Analytics

Several people have recently asked me if it is possible to use Google Analytics to track and store information on specific individual visitors to their site. Usually the popular analytics package only reports trends and grouped user behaviour, you never get to see the granular detail of each person (e.g. their specific browsing path around the site, etc.). However this can be quite annoying for some marketers who want this information and who have used competitive packages from companies such as WebTrends or Adobe (Omniture) in the past.

If you read the Google Analytics support documentation on Google’s website, you will see in several places there is a reference to NOT using PII (Personally Identifiable Information). This is data that can be used by Google to identify an individual and includes info such as: Name, Address & Email address. However PII can also be a mobile phone’s unique identifier or some other way to recognise a specific device.

There are work-arounds to this restriction (such as using Custom Variables that hold randomly-generated reference for each specific user), but these come very close to violating Google’s End User License Agreement and are definitely not in the spirit of the platform.

So can you upgrade to Google Analytics Premium (the paid-for version of GA) and then start to store important user data? No. The collection of personally identifiable information (PII) is in violation of Google Analytics entire EULA and therefore paying $150k still doesn't let you use the platform as you might have hoped.
Google has therefore been pretty specific in its user agreement (with its new Universal Analytics product also currently having the same restrictions) and even gives the warning that:
Your Google Analytics account could be terminated and your data destroyed if you use any of this information.
However, I have one important point to raise that has been bugging me…

In GA there is the feature to understand your Multi-Channel Funnels. This is lets a site manager understand the interactions between different online media and see how the channels work together to trigger sales. Since this report gives a breakdown of all the multiple digital customer touch-points over the last 30 days… if Google doesn't uniquely identify individuals, how does it know when specific people use each channel and then join them up to create a complete picture of the steps customers take before actually converting?
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