What Are Goals in Google Analytics?
Goals are how you tell Google Analytics what makes a website visit count as a “success”.
Without goals, all Google Analytics can capture are simple metrics like pageviews and sessions.
But these metrics don’t – in and of themselves – tell you whether your website visits were successful.
For example, an increase in sessions/pageviews could be either a good or bad thing, depending on the reason.
- If sessions and/or pageviews increase, it could mean that people are more engaged with your website – or it could mean that people are having trouble finding what the need.
- If sessions and/or pageviews decrease, it could mean that people are less interested in your website – or it could mean that they are finding what they need more easily, requiring lass clicking-around (pageviews) and fewer return visits.
So, in order to measure whether a particular visit is successful, you have to tell GA what counts as success, to you.
You define your goals. What is it you want your website to do?
Why Set Goals in Google Analytics?
Once you have set-up goals in your GA view, you will have access to conversion data for just about any report in GA:
- Visits by referrer: without goals, you can see which websites send you how many visitors, but with goals you can see how many of those visitors from each site convert.
- Visits by country: without goals, you can see how many visitors come from each country, but with goals you can see the conversion rate for each country.
- Visits by source: without goals, you can see how many visitors come from each traffic source, but with goals you can see is there is a difference in conversion rate for visitors from search versus referral.
In most cases, there are large differences in conversion rates between different audience segments. Of course Google Analytics can only calculate a conversion rate if you tell GA what counts as a conversion first!
Yes, even without goals you can generally calculate success ‘on-the-fly’, but it’s very time-consuming to do this every time you need to pull data – especially for complex goals.
And, If you want the goal funnel visualization, you have to set goals.
Goal funnels are useful for multi-step goal processes, like an online checkout process, for example. They allow you to see where in the process you are losing visitors. This is called goal abandonment.
Note that in standard Google Analytics, pageviews and events cannot be combined into a funnel, so funnels will only work for pageviews. (In GA premium this restriction is removed.) However, as a workaround, you can set-up GTM to send a ‘virtual’ pageview when an event occurs. We have used this for the central request information forms.
Combining Goals with Campaign-Tagging
If you combine campaign-tagging of your marketing efforts with defined goals in GA, you can truly begin to tell how effective your marketing efforts are.
With goals, but without campaign-tagging, you can see successes, but not which specific marketing efforts drove them.
Without goals, but with campaign-tagging, you can see how many visits/pageviews/etc. were driven by your marketing efforts, but you can’t tell whether they lead to conversions.
There are many goals which are useful for websites in general, but which don’t really apply to us:
- Checkout process funnel: this is the canonical example of a goal/funnel.
- Pageviews per session: this is a good goal if you sell impression advertising.
- Session duration: this goal is good for websites which focus on engagement (i.e. keeping people on the website).
Here are some goals which tend to be useful for our websites:
- Form Submissions, such as ‘request information’ form.
- Clicks from your website to the central Apply Now page. (All academic units should probably have this as a goal.)
- Any other user actions which represent business success to your department (for example the speaker search on masonspeakers.gmu.edu).
While it is not required to give goals a specific monetary value, I would suggest always doing so as it will unlock the “page value” metric in your GA reports, which helps to see which pages are driving people to complete your goals.
In some cases – for example an online purchase – the real value of a goal is easy to determine. But in many of our cases – since most of our goals do not represent an actual purchase with a specific dollar amount – the actual or ‘true’ value is a much less clear. If you can figure out a reasonable ‘true’ value, then by all means use it. But if you can’t then don’t be afraid to use an arbitrary amount.
If you can’t figure out a ‘true’ value, I would generally suggest using a value of $1, as that gives you a nice round number to make sense of in your reports.
In some cases, you could also decide to set goal values proportionally. For example, let’s say that you have goals for two similar functions on your website: signing-up for a mailing list or submitting a ‘request information’ form. Both represent an interest in your product/service and both collect some personal information, but one obviously represents more engagement then the other. In this case you could reasonably decide to give the mailing list signup a goal value of $1 and the request information form submission a value of $2.
You should always first create new goals in Google Analytics in a test view, to make sure that they are set-up correctly and working as intended before applying them to your official, production view.
You can also test goals with the Google Tag Assistant Chrome extension. It will tell you when a particular page view or event triggering a goals.
Custom Alerts for Goals
I recommend setting-up custom alerts tied to each goal to alert you if/when goal completions drop precipitously.
If something is important enough to have as a goal, you want to make sure that the goal keeps tracking despite future changes to your website.
Depending on how the goals are set-up, it is certainly possible that changes to the website or connected systems can throw-off the goal tracking.
Here are some examples of goals which could be impacted by future website changes:
- goals which depend on a particular URL;
- goals which depend on integration with a particular outside system;
- goals which depend on specific HTML element attributes, such as and ID or a class value;
- goals which depend on a particular HTML structure.