In 2017, I was featured in the Journal of Brand Strategy. I discussed tracking with Google Tag Manager, and while a lot of has changed since then in digital marketing, many of these principles are still the same.
Below is the full publication:
Tracking website data with Google Tag Manager
Received: 11th September, 2017
JOSHUA SILVERBAUER is co-founder and chief executive officer of Grue & Bleen LLC, a digital marketing agency that specialises in website tagging for marketing purposes. He is a certified Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager and Google Adwords Specialist and has worked with companies of all shapes and sizes to help them understand how to track their data more efficiently. Throughout his five years as a digital marketing strategist, he saw a need to bridge the gap between creatives, analysts and developers, understanding that using code as a marketing tool was the future for advertising. Today, he uses his knowledge of website structure and code to create data segmentation that reveals audience insights and improves user experience and decision making.
Google Tag Manager has revolutionised the ability of marketers to track virtually anything on a website. This software serves as a powerful data collection tool — but with so much available information, how does a company decide what is worth tracking? What are the privacy implications of tracking such information? And once users have this data, how do they interpret it? Using strategic data collection techniques, marketers can build powerful analytics systems that provide rich insights into user activity, engagement and customer success.
digital advertising, website analytics, Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, tagging, click tracking, DOM manipulation, digital marketing, digital analytics
In the early 1990s, to propose a concept for a new advertising campaign that entailed employees hiding beneath company billboards, tracking potential customers’ cars from billboard to store, then following those customers around to see which items they added to their carts would sound insane. Jump forward 25 years, and that is essentially the process of digital mar keting, with the added bonus of the customer leaving before buying and bringing the billboard directly to their house to start the marketing cycle again. Marketers are encouraged to track a consumer from entry point (ie a digital advertisement) to exit point (ie a sale) and to also formulate a clear picture of the exact path that got them there to further optimise their digital funnel. This, in turn, gives business owners more insight into their online stores, set ting them up for earning a greater return on investment. With digital analytics, a marketer can track almost anything on a website; data curation, however, is unique to the business and must therefore be analysed specifically through the lens of the company gathering it. The need for data control, segmentation and manipulation has grown in importance as digital analytics has advanced into marketing strategy for companies and business analysts.
GOOGLE ANALYTICS: ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT
Most companies have Google Analytics (GA) installed on their site. By simply putting GA code on a site, companies receive user insights such as the most visited pages, time spent on the site, bounce rate, and referrer and source information. Frustration grew among market ers as GA became the predominant digital analytics platform, inciting several issues that needed to be addressed:
- While GA was valuable, there was no easy way to get additional (more valuable) insights. Google built in the ability to track further insights, such as link click data; every link click that a marketer wanted to track, however, had to be manually inserted with code.
- Communication errors between marketers and developers to get these code snippets inserted in the right way — ensuring clean data was being sent into GA — frequently occurred.
- Beyond GA, hundreds of other soft ware suites were being introduced that required code to be implemented on the website. Organising all these snip pets of code was a ghastly task that made large campaigns difficult to man age.
These frustrations revealed the need for an additional tool to act as a vessel to send further insights into GA that would help put control back into the marketers’ hands in terms of data mining. The solution: Version 1 of Google Tag Manager (GTM) was introduced in October 2012.2
GOOGLE TAG MANAGER: A SOLUTION FOR MARKETERS
As digital marketing grows, so does the software that surrounds it. The number of tags (scripts that send information to different software suites) that were needed to have a sufficient digital marketing setup grew to a point where putting the hard code on the site was time consuming and disorganised. GTM, a software solution by Google, is a tag management system that replaces the need for hard-coded tags on websites with easily manageable templates.
One common misconception is that GTM is the ‘latest version’ of GA. While GTM works incredibly efficiently with GA, they are completely separate programs. GTM is not limited to creating GA tags; it can also integrate with dozens of other programs and even supports custom code injections. One of the benefits GTM offers is that it fires tags asynchronously, causing all tags and scripts to load independently of one another. This allows a significantly quicker page load and more accurate data collection.
GTM is made up of three main components that are nested in what is called a container. These components are tags, triggers and variables:
- Tags are the actual code snippets or templates that complete an action or send variable information when a trigger tells them to fire.
- Triggers tell tags when to send information or complete a specific action. ● Variables are pockets of code that exist within a page to receive and store information used by tags.
For example, if a marketer wanted to understand how many users click on affiliate links, he or she could set up a variable with the affiliate names or link ID nested in it, a trigger that will fire only when someone clicks the affiliate link, and a tag that will send the variable content to the analytics system. This will allow the marketer to understand which affiliate links are driving the most traffic and to reward those that are driving the most sales.
GOOGLE ANALYTICS/GOOGLE TAG MANAGER: OPTIMAL DATA TRACKING
Off the bat, both of these programs are impressively robust. GA has the capabilities to show marketers where most of their traffic is coming from — an easy reference for social media marketing and search engine trends. GTM comes with built-in tag templates that simplify the implementation of GA and make setting up demographic insights (which previously required a relatively customised setup) as easy as clicking a button. Beyond the built-in features, there are additional steps one can take to get the most out of the GTM and GA implementation. The following list of tips is intended to help marketing planners at different stages of their analytics and tag management implementation strategy.
- Enable All Important Variables: GTM has a plethora of built-in templates and features. When GTM is first set up, the program will have only a few built-in variables enabled — mainly the page level variables that show which page a visitor visits. This information is useful, but it is similar to information already provided by GA. Hidden within the built-in variable configuration are click data variables, form data variables, site-error information and more. Users can even create their own variables to capture any information they want to collect on a site. This makes GTM incredibly powerful, giving it the ability to collect any data from a user interaction and send it to any analytics system. Digital analysts must first enable GTM to collect this information, which is why it is important to configure the built-in variables and select all of the click and form variables.
- Set Up a Basic Click/Form Trigger: Websites are no longer just storage rooms for information. Many com panies have a specific purpose for their site, whether it is to sell some thing, contact someone or simply learn more about a product. In mod ern web design, these goals go hand in hand with call-to-action buttons and form submissions. Measuring clicks on these buttons is important to gauge the effectiveness of the site. Setting up a basic click/form trigger will enable click and form events in the GTM interface, allowing GTM users to easily find click or form information stored in variables and create more restrictive triggers.
- Set Up a GA Settings Variable: In 2017, GTM enabled the creation of GA set tings variables. These variables are fully set-up GA templates that can be used over and over again in any GA tag. They store all of the specific settings to a Universal Analytics setup such as UA ID, custom dimensions, demographic preferences or e-commerce prefer ences. Since GTM makes GA events much easier to implement, GA settings will be used quite a bit. Setting up a GA settings variable will drastically speed up a user’s workflow.
- Enable Advertising Features in the Universal Analytics Tag: When setting up a GA tag in GTM, one can easily enable advertising features by clicking a button in the GA settings variable. This allows marketers to gain information about website visitor age, gender, affinity and in-market categories. This information assists overall marketing audience insights and can aid in the understanding of return on investment (ROI) from different audiences, leading to higher-quality targeting methods. Note that a GA administrator must also enable advertising features in their GA property data collection settings.
- Use Goals: This is an extremely useful feature of GA that allows marketers to understand their ROI better by creating website goals that involve certain page hits or events. If a company has a large ‘Buy It Now’ button on its home page that triggers a pop-up asking for user information, a goal may be the submission of the completed form or the arrival at the destination (confirmation) page after a visitor fills out the form. These types of goals can be configured in GA. GTM can help send information to GA that can be used for goals.
- Enable Remarketing Lists: Remarketing is Google’s term for ads that follow a user around the web on different affil iate websites after the user has viewed certain content. These ads are shown to audience groups that are segmented in GA. This can be one of the most powerful forms of marketing, but unless Google is instructed to do so, it will not collect remarketing information. The ability to enable remarketing lists can be found in the admin portal of Universal Analytics in the property column, under the tracking info drop-down within the data collection setting.
- Create a Clean View: GA is broken into three tiers: Account, Property and View. The Account tier is usually the company name or label. Nested within the Account tier is the Property tier. The Property tier is used as a specific website or subdomain where GA is intended to exist. Inside the Property tier is the View tier, which allows additional filters, goals and custom layouts. GA allows an admin to create multiple accounts, each of which can hold up to 50 properties, and, within each property, up to 25 views. Within views, an admin can filter internal traffic, website bots, referrer spam and more. It is crucial to have both a clean view and an unfiltered view, as raw data are important to understand, and clean data are an important foundation for marketing decisions.
- Enable Site Search: For a company, understanding what a visitor is look ing for on its website is essential in determining the effectiveness of the user experience, information layout, and product and service demands. GA makes it easy to track website search queries to provide such an understand ing. On most websites, when a visitor types into a search box and clicks go or enter, the user’s search gets populated into what is called a ‘query string’. These are represented in URLs by what looks like ?s=pizza, with everything after the equals sign representing the typed search term. GA admins can track site search by navigating to their view settings in their GA admin portals, turning on site search tracking, and entering in the letter or term that signifies the first part of the query string (which in this case would be ‘s’).
There are many different implementation tricks that can help optimise a marketer’s experience with GTM. One of the most important to understand is the GTM data layer.
PAGE CODE RELATIONSHIPS, DOM SCRAPING AND THE DATA LAYER
The data layer’ is a phrase that has both excited and intimidated marketers since the rollout of GTM. One of the reasons GTM was introduced in the first place was to make tagging easier and less code oriented for marketers, so why put so much emphasis on such a code-heavy concept?
Every mouse movement, action, click or scroll on a website has an event associated with it. The first three events GTM communicates when a website page loads are Page View, Document Object Mode (DOM) Ready and Window Loaded. These events signify that the page code is ready for use and that certain tags (specifically page-level events) will fire during these GTM events. Beyond these built-in events, other customised events can be used to pull out the associated data (Figure 4). For instance, when a user clicks on an ‘Add to Cart’ button, that event has millions of data points associated with
that click. Not only does that event have all of the ‘Add to Cart’ button data, but it also includes the entire page of data in relationship to that button click. Suppose the ‘Add to Cart’ button is installed on every product page on a website; simply having ‘“Add to Cart” was clicked’ may not be enough of a data point for analysis. Marketers may want to understand in association with what product ‘Add to Cart’ was clicked. This information can be found in the data layer as a pathway to the product information from the ‘Add to Cart’ button. This method is called DOM scraping.
Click details — DOM scraping — GTM interface
DOM scraping is a bit unstable, as web sites are constantly updated, and code on the page may change. This means that the relationship between two elements may move on the page, and the pathways between them may no longer be the same. The solution is to utilise data layer pro gramming. By inputting custom data layer events, a marketer can rest easy knowing that no matter how often the page code changes, the data layer events will still fire because they are set up separately and do not rely on the page code. These events can be used as triggers and send custom variable information such as product name and price. This information can then be utilised by a tag and sent on to GA or other third-party services. Having a solid data layer implementation is essential to getting the most out of GTM.
YOU CAN SPY ON ME, BUT ONLY A LITTLE
With the ease of collecting massive amounts of digital data, the distinction between what tracking is a violation of privacy and what is fair game is somewhat unclear. The term personally identifiable information (PII) refers to any data that can potentially identify a specific individual. This data include names, e-mail addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers and so on. GA’s policy on PII prohibits sending this information into GA. As GTM makes tracking much easier, one needs to carefully set up one’s tags in accordance with GA’s PII policy, as one’s GA account could be terminated if one is caught sending PII into GA, even by mis take.
GTM can capture a powerful amount of personal data, and while Google prohibits the use of this data for marketing purposes, other platforms (including self-made analytics systems) do not. GTM has the ability to send this data to any plat form the administrator chooses. This raises
security, privacy and ethical concerns. With so much data available, it is up to the administrator to decide how ethically compliant he or she intends to be with it. Since digital tracking is incredibly new and continues to evolve daily, laws have not completely caught up yet. Law is a traditionally slow process, while technology continues to pick up pace, and the struggle between the two is of increasing concern. Data privacy continues to be a grey area when it comes to what is and is not acceptable in the world of digital marketing.
As website functionalities are improving, analytics solutions continue to evolve alongside them. Every website has a goal, whether it is to provide information, services or a product. Understanding how visitors are receiving that information and whether they are following the intended pathways, interacting with the right handles and levers, and completing the web site goals is central to an effective website. GTM, along with GA, provides a robust solution for tracking a website experience. The data collection possibilities are end less, and with strategic implementation the resulting insights on how people are utilising a website can revolutionise a marketing campaign.
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Manager’, Google Analytics Solutions, 1st October, available at: https://analytics.googleblog
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