A Quick Explanation of Google Analytics Events for the Sitecatalyst Power User

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This post is one half of a 2-post series of which, most likely, you are looking for only one of the two posts!

Here’s the guide:

  • If you are well-versed in Adobe Omniture (Adobiture) Sitecatalyst and are trying to wrap your head around Google Analytics “events,” read on! This is the post for you!
  • If you are well-versed in Google Analytics and are trying to wrap your head around Sitecatalyst “events,” then this sister post is probably a better read.

If you’re looking for information about Coremetrics or Webtrends…well, you’re SOL. If you’re looking for a great refried beans recipe, then my limited SEO work on this blog has run so far amok that I’ll just thank my lucky stars that I’m an analytics guy rather than a search guy (but, hey, here’s a great recipe, anyway).

Why “Events” Seem Similar in Google Analytics and Sitecatalyst

At a basic/surface/misleading level, events in Google Analytics and Sitecatalyst are similar. In both cases, they’re something that are triggered by a user action on the site that then sends a special type of call to the web analytics tool:

Alas! The similarity ends there! But, since no one learns multiple tools simultaneously, this surface similarity causes confusion when crossing between tools. Hopefully, these posts will help a person or two overcome that messiness.

Sitecatalyst Events…Conceptually (Just to Make Sure We’re on the Same Page)

With Sitecatalyst, an event is a success event — a conversion to an on-site activity you care about. I was told by a reliable source that, in early versions of Sitecatalyst, events were actually  called KPIs — a nod to the fact that many of the best KPIs are about what visitors do on a site, rather than simply being related to the fact that they arrived on the site in the first place. So, are we cool with that high-level definition of a Sitecatalyst event? Good. Let’s continue…

Google Analytics Events — Conceptually, a Completely Different Animal

A Google Analytics event is very different in both concept and in application from a Sitecatalyst event. It’s much more akin to Sitecatalyst link tracking or a “non-standard” Sitecatalyst call triggered for the sake of counting some activity other than viewing of a basic HTML page (viewing of content in Flash or DHTML…although these also use virtual page views — more on that in a bit) either via pageName or an sProp.

Events are, simply put, a way to record a user action that warrants being recorded, but that does not warrant being counted as a page view.

While events in Sitecatalyst, almost by definition, are “significant” actions — a product added to a car, an order completed, a product details page viewed, a site registration — Google Analytics events are often of much less on-going importance. For instance, they may include:

  • The use of minor navigational buttons or elements (in Flash, in DHTML, or elsewhere)
  • The reaching of a certain point (half viewed, 3/4 viewed, 95% viewed) in a streaming video
  • The exit from the site on an outbound link (virtually identical to Sitecatalyst “exit links,” but requiring explicit coding/customization to track using Google Analytics events)

Up until the most recent release of Google Analytics, and much to the chagrin of analysts the world over, Google Analytics events could not be set as “goals,” and goals in Google Analytics — configured by a Google Analytics admin user rather than anywhere in the page tag — are the closest that Google Analytics comes to the concept of a Sitecatalyst “event.”

Did you catch that? If you’re looking to implement something akin to a “Sitecatalyst event” in Google Analytics, read up on Google Analytics goals.

“eventx” (Sitecatalyst) vs. Category/Action/Label/Value (Google Analytics)

Another, albeit lesser and secondary, difference is that Google Analytics events are named and categorized at the point when the event is fired by a user action. As such, you won’t see a Google Analytics event called event1, event2, etc. that subsequently needs to be described and named on the back end. Google Analytics events have the requisite meta data built into the page-side recording of the action through the inclusion of a “category,” an “action,” and an (optional) “label” and “value” that will then appear in Google Analytics event reporting just as the values were called from the page. Plentiferous detail on the mechanics and syntax are available in the Google Analytics documentation on event tracking.

This is similar to how Google Analytics handles campaign tracking — all of the meta data about a campaign is included in multiple parameters in the target URL for the campaign, whereas, with Sitecatalyst, you have the opportunity to simply use SAINT classifications to map an alphanumeric campaign tracking ID to a range of different classifications.

Google Analytics Events vs. Virtual Page Views

One final area of confusion is the popular “when to use an event versus when to use a virtual page view in Google Analytics” conundrum. Sitecatalyst power users transitioning to Google Analytics can get all sorts of twisted in the head on this, as the basic question just doesn’t make sense…if they’re thinking about “events” in Sitecatalyst terms. If the question doesn’t make sense to you, er…re-read the first half of this post (or leave a scathing comment as to how non-elucidating the first part of the post is!).

When to use one or the other is both situational and a judgment call. The general rule our analysts apply is to consider whether the activity meets either of the following conditions:

  • Activity that is already being recorded as a standard page view elsewhere (e.g., clicks on home page promo areas where the target URL is on the same site and will soon be recorded as a page view…but where you want to be able to easily report or analyze individual promo or promo location clickthroughs)
  • Activity that the visitor would not consider as “viewing a new ‘page’ of content” (e.g., reaching the halfway point in a streaming video)

If either of these criteria is met, our bias is to record the activity as an event rather than as a virtual page view.

(Until recently, the exception to this criteria was if the user action was a “goal” for the site. Since events could not be set as goals, we would be required to a virtual page view. But, Google has, happily, added the ability to use events as goals in v5!)

Does This Help?

Describing  this distinction in a clarifying manner is tricky — it’s quite confusing and frustrating…until it makes sense, at which point it’s hard to identify exactly what made it so confusing in the first place!

If you’ve gone through (or are going through) the process of adding Google Analytics to your toolset after being deeply immersed in Sitecatalyst, please leave a comment as to how you overcame the “events” hurdle. With luck, others will benefit!

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