Real World Considerations for Google Analytics E-commerce Tracking
January 20th, 2020 by
It’s 2020, and there’s no shortage of instructional guides to setting up Google Analytics Ecommerce Tracking on your website. If you’re looking for detailed technical information on setting it up yourself, there’s no way I would ever outdo Simo Ahava’s guide to setting up Google Analytics Enhanced Ecommerce Tracking in Google Tag Manager. And Google’s own support documentation naturally offers some pretty helpful guidelines and syntax itself.
What I can hopefully shed some light on is why—despite all these brilliant and freely available resources on the subject—your developer is always making noise about all the problems with setting up Ecommerce Tracking for you. In addition, we’ll look at some recommendations for assessing platforms and plugins when considering options for your site. If your developer is whining about issues with Ecommerce Tracking, it’s probably not because they are being lazy or cranky! Or at least it’s probably not just that.
So What’s the Big Hassle With Setting Up Ecommerce Tracking?
I know, I know. When you set up your basic Google Analytics tracking code, it was so easy! All you had to do was copy and paste the code from Google into a script section in your website’s backend. It took like 5 minutes, and anyone can do it!
Well, unlike most other aspects of Google Analytics tracking, the code and configuration for Ecommerce Tracking has to actually communicate with your website’s functionality in order to collect the actual e-commerce reporting data. That is to say basic pageview-oriented tracking code is adding reporting functionality to your website, so it doesn’t need to care how your website works as long as it loads. Once the tracking code is there, the reporting information flow is more between Google and the site user’s browser, not so much the site itself. But Ecommerce Tracking code has to get transaction data from your website’s backend e-commerce functionality.
When an e-commerce customer completes a purchase, the user simply reaches a confirmation page and probably sees some kind of thank you message and general order info. Behind the scenes, though, the website is processing the items in the user’s cart, updating your site/shop’s inventory, processing a payment, sending confirmation emails, and all kinds of other things depending on what you sell and what your process is. The user doesn’t see all of that, and—crucially—neither does Google or the user’s browser unless you want them to. In the case of Ecommerce Tracking, we want Google to get some of that information that wouldn’t otherwise be readily available. That requires your developer to pull some elements of those backend processes and reformat them into frontend-accessible code that Google can read and transmit to its Ecommerce Tracking platform.
OK Fine, So Our Developers Have to Write Some Code. That’s What We Pay Them For.
Yes, that’s true. And we’re all generally very pleased with that arrangement. But with all the different options and possible combinations of CMSes and e-commerce platforms and plugins and modules and so on and so on, there’s no hard and fast rule for how or if pulling data from an e-commerce platform is possible in real-world configurations. And modifying someone else’s platform or plugin directly, even if you know exactly what you’re doing, can have major unexpected ramifications as other auxiliary platforms and plugins get updated and integrated by their original creators.
The whole point of Ecommerce Tracking is to be able to track how the ultimate purchases actually got to the point of purchase. You already know what you sold and how much it cost the user by the very fact that you sold it. Google’s Ecommerce Tracking allows you to compartmentalize how many paying users or what percentage of your transactions come from organic search vs. ads vs. social media vs. emails and so forth. And in order to do that, Google needs to be able to follow the user from arrival to the site all the way to completion of purchase, at which point it needs additional, more granular information transferred from the backend payment processing system itself. And the more differently specialized cooks you have working in the same kitchen that is your user’s arrival-through-purchase experience, the more difficult it is to come out of it with a decent data feast. As a bonus to this blog post, you have full permission to borrow that tortured analogy, compliments of the chef.
I’ll reference a specific recent example our team encountered to illustrate my point. One of our clients came to us regarding a campaign that was going to be very dependent on Google Analytics Ecommerce Tracking, arriving with a freshly built WordPress site, which used the MonsterInsights plugin for general Google Analytics tracking and the WooCommerce platform for their e-commerce online sales. Both of these are very solid, well-maintained, and extremely widely used platforms, and namechecking them here is not meant as criticism. Meanwhile, WooCommerce had a plugin extension installed to integrate the on-site e-commerce functionality with an external calendar booking platform, which manages attendance stats and served as a sort of CRM for the client internally. The calendar booking platform/CRM had its own internal configuration for Google Analytics, which was essentially a black box to me as an outside developer for completely understandable security and privacy reasons.
Hey, That’s a Bunch of Different Things
It sure is! If you’re mapping this out at home, we have MonsterInsights initially establishing tracking for the user. From there, when a user goes to pay for something, they arrive at WooCommerce, which then has to transmit data via an additional add-on plugin to an external booking platform. The booking platform then sends its information back to the WooCommerce add-on plugin, back to “WooCommerce proper” for processing, (which, of course, generally involves additional add-on plugins for specific payment options), and only THEN does a user arrive at the checkout confirmation page where the net results of that path are supposed to be sent to Google Analytics for reporting.
The obvious way to approach Ecommerce Tracking for a WordPress site with WooCommerce is to add an WooCommerce plugin extension for Google Analytics integration. And that’s what we tried to do, except that it turns out that the WooCommerce Analytics extension’s tracking didn’t play nicely with the preexisting base analytics tracking set up through MonsterInsights. If this is already getting tiresome and technical speak makes you nauseated, just ignore this part, but MonsterInsights sets its own unique tracker name for its Analytics tracking. Since WooCommerce does not, the Analytics clientId that identifies users in their path through a website were getting effectively reset as soon as WooCommerce would fire its e-commerce data for reporting. For more on custom trackers, here’s Google’s breakdown.
I could go through about 10 more steps of trial and error and frustration here, but I think the bigger point is probably clear enough: while many of those different plugins and extensions and booking platforms can absolutely make one piece of your website setup and maintenance much easier, they frequently do not care about each other. They do the thing they do very well, but they don’t always account for the bigger picture considerations of running an e-commerce website, much less a business with various other tentacles, where the e-commerce functionality is only a single, modest aspect of the services offered in full. So setting up a way to make all of these divergent elements successfully and accurately transfer user tracking information is often just a long game of tracking error whack-a-mole, depending on the preexisting configurations in question.
What Can We Do To Avoid E-commerce Problems?
We can’t make all of these plugins and external modules do exactly what we want exactly when we want it. But we can think about what we ultimately want to accomplish with our websites and ask the right questions before going whole-hog tying all of our operations to something that may not support many of the things we may want to accomplish down the line:
Do we really need a plugin for this?
There are many very basic processes and configurations you can perform both without a plugin and without any real development knowledge. No disrespect to MonsterInsights or any other Analytics plugins, which offer plenty of advanced features and options that can be incredibly useful in specific situations, but if all you need from your initial Google Analytics setup is standard pageview tracking, you can probably install that yourself without a plugin. If you can copy and paste your Google Analytics tracking ID into a plugin, you can generally just as easily copy and paste the base Google Analytics tracking code. Google Analytics is an obvious example of this, but many other platforms have associated plugins they love to promote for ease of use, which are ultimately just allowing you to copy and paste one thing instead of another. The fewer plugins and extensions you are tied to, the easier it is to revise or expand your configuration in the future. As an added bonus, using fewer plugins will usually make your site faster and more secure as well.
If we do need a plugin, what kind of external integrations are available?
In the context of this post, obviously we’re primarily concerned with whether a platform would integrate with Google Analytics, which is generally simple enough to establish. But don’t just look for the specific things you need at this particular moment when investigating available integrations. Try to get a feel for how many and what types of outside integrations any new platform offers. Just because you’re not using something like Zapier or Automate.io or Mailchimp or whatever it is right now, doesn’t mean you won’t find a need for it down the road. If a new plugin or platform is proudly featuring a wide array of different external integrations, that can be a good indication that the platform will be flexible in accommodating a variety of different use cases and will limit you less as you expand your marketing efforts or your business as a whole.
Be very wary of any platform assuring you that you don’t need those outside integrations because it gives you all the tracking analytics and other features you need right there in its own dashboard. That is an easy path to finding yourself trapped with limited functionality and unreliable data about your website and your business as a whole. I once logged into an unfamiliar external platform used by a client and was greeted with an enthusiastic congratulatory message highlighting the fact that according to their analytics, the client had received 3 times as many new site visitors as total site visitors in the previous reporting period. Unless this platform’s developers unearthed a magical transcendent code library that can report on website interactions with the hidden spirit world, that math does not work out and that analytics data point isn’t reliable. There’s a level of transparency to the way a platform on the scale of Google Analytics records and reports data that you’re unlikely to find in a random calendar widget’s dashboard screen.
Is it really that important to use an e-commerce platform that works with Google Analytics Ecommerce Tracking anyway?
Yes! It’s 2020. We’re disappointed that we don’t microchip brain implant video games and rocket boots. Google Analytics Ecommerce Tracking has been around for a long time and should be a baseline expectation for any ticketing or e-commerce platform to have fully integrated into its native functionality. If your e-commerce or ticketing provider doesn’t recognize the importance and ever-increasingly broad usage of Google Analytics Ecommerce Tracking, it probably isn’t going to be very attentive to other future needs as your business or marketing plans expand, either. Even if you can find ways around it, you shouldn’t be paying to use a platform that puts you in the position of having to do so.
If there’s one general principle to take away from this, it’s just to try to think through and plan your various platforms that need to work together online. When deciding on a new plugin or e-commerce/ticketing platform, try to think long term. Sometimes the cheap and easy immediate option can cost you way more in the long run as it requires wildly extravagant development gymnastics to integrate with the other items you may need running and functioning in concert with the new thing that seemed so simple at the time. Online marketing and e-commerce are always moving forward rapidly, so make sure you cast an eye toward the platforms and services that will allow you to keep up.
Still trying to wrap your head around it all? Whether you’re a tech whiz or new to the game, Search Influence can beef up your analytics approach with qualified confidence. Get an expert opinion and start making smarter e-commerce decisions today.