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24 Jan 2011

Google Images Maps and News : The Gray Area in Analytics

January 24, 2011Business, Tips

With universal search, and new elements being continually added to Google, many business understand the importance of ranking not only in web search, but also the advantages of ranking in Google for images, news and maps in addition. Not only can being listed highly in these areas be beneficial for when they are included on the first page of Google results in universal search, but many users will skip directly to these areas to find what they want (e.g. to easily see the product they wish to buy), and it is another great way to drive traffic to your website.

However, tracking this information and monitoring the results of your efforts in these areas in Google Analytics can be difficult, and it can be increasingly complex trying to understand where your different visitors are coming from, beyond what Analytics is actually saying.

As a starting point, data in Google Analytics from traffic sources can take the form of any of the following;

  • Organic – visitors from unpaid search (SEO)
  • CPC – visitors from paid search results (PPC)
  • Referal – visitors following links from other sites to your website
  • Direct – visitors directly entering your URL into their browser

However, 3 of these 4 forms are able to come from Google alone (excluding only direct traffic):

Google Analytics Traffic Sources

While ‘organic’ and ‘cpc’ work fine for measuring traffic from web search, and bring with them suitable data such as the keyword that was searched, it is the ‘google.com /referral’ traffic that can be more confusing.

Referral Traffic from Google

So what exactly is referral traffic from Google? Surely by definition any traffic from Google is search traffic that is either paid or unpaid? Well, no. There are other pages on Google, such as their blogs, where links can occasionally be placed and traffic can come through correctly as referals.

However, if you look in the ‘Referring Sites’ report in analytics and drill down to the google.com domain, you are able to see more precisely where this traffic did come from. This data is likley to look like the below;

Google Analytics Referring Sites

As we can see, traffic can come directly from the homepage (‘/’) where users are using iGoogle to personalize their homepage, and a lot of this traffic is likley to also be coming from Google Reader (‘/reader’) from visitors reading either your blog, or someone elses blog linking to you, through RSS.

However, the ‘/imgres’ subdomain is in fact traffic that comes from Google Image searches, and because it is being tracked as a referal and not as search, it does not carry with it any data on keywords. This means that any reports you are running are going to be underestimating traffic from such SEO efforts, and also missing keyword data showing where the most valuable traffic is coming from.

Finally, it also appears that any searchers who click ‘I’m Feeling Lucky’ (who does do that by the way?!) will also appear as referral traffic from the homepage, as opposed to being tracked as organic search with a keyword.

What about Google Maps and News?

Google Images seems to be the odd one out of the Google searches in that it uses a subdirectory and is tracked as a referral, whereas traffic from Maps and News is tracked a search traffic, and does retain the keyword data. However, they do use subdomains (maps.google.com and news.google.com) and due to Google Analytics’ oblivion for these, they are not reported and it is all shown as ‘google / organic’ as opposed to ‘maps.google.com / organic’.

Therefore, you are able to see keywords being sent from news and maps, but you are not able to idenity these as coming from these separate enties. This means that a business or blog cannot work out the value of them being listed regularly in news results separate to their other SEO efforts.

Possible Solutions

In working on this blog post and researching the area, I have come across various possible solutions, none of which have been able to work (please see posts such as this, this and this to name a few). However, none of these have been able to work, perhaps due to updates in the Analytics code or changes to Google Images and its changing use of subdirectories versus subdomains.

Even if these were able to be implemented quickly and work correcly, I don’t think this is particularly the point, especially for small business owners who likley make up the large majority of Google Analytics users. As an out of the box solution, made by Google, I don’t think it is too much to expect for it to work fully with the other Google properties such as Images, News and Maps and bring in all of the available data.

With the increasing importance of ranking highly in these different areas to drive addiitonal website traffic , it is also important to be able to measure the effectiveness and value of any efforts in this area, and I hope that this is added to any future updates made by Google to Analytics. Until then, all businesses can do it understand that these limiations exist and take this into consideration when making any relevant decisions.

If you know of another possible solutions to either of these issues, please comment below and let me know, I will glady try them out and see if any can work quickly and easily! Similarly, if you have seen any other discrepancies in Analytics around traffic being reported incorrectly, please post it below too.