Complete Guide To Universal Analytics – Should You Upgrade?

Now that Universal Analytics has been around for some time, many people are considering making the switch. It just has so much more to offer than the soon-to-be-legacy Google Analytics installation. Being an analytics junkie, I am very excited about this upgrade in features and data.

This post is the ultimate guide to Universal Analytics. We will talk about the benefits, installation and all the important ins and outs.

Why Switch To Universal Analytics

There are many reasons why making the switch to Universal Analytics is a good choice. Aside from the added functionality, the tracking code is also more flexible and easier to implement on a variety of levels.

According to Google, there are three versions of new tracking code:

Use the analytics.js JavaScript library for websites, the Google Analytics SDKs (v2.x or higher) for mobile app tracking, and the Measurement Protocol for other digital devices, like game consoles and information kiosks.

Additionally, it is much easier to set up cross-domain or subdomain tracking. For anyone who has done this in the past, they know it used to be a chore on multiple levels for complex websites.

Anyone who has set up cross domain or subdomain tracking for a large complex website knows it can be a chore.

The new Universal Analytics also gives you access to new configuration options. These are organic search sources, session and campaign timeout handling, referral exclusions and search term exclusion.  We will talk about each of these areas later, but each is exciting in its own way.

Finally, the new Universal Analytics gives you access to custom dimensions, metrics and new features which you just won’t get with an older collection method like the ga.js JavaScript library.

Of course, there are always some quirks — which we will cover this more in-depth later on.

How Do You Know If You Are Using Universal Analytics Already?

Most people will not be on Universal Analytics because they have not transferred yet. But if you want to check, just sign into your account and then navigate to the Admin page. Select your property from the dropdown in the property column. According to Google:

A Classic Google Analytics account has an option in this column called Tracking Code. A Universal Analytics account has an option called Tracking Info that includes more Admin settings like Session Settings and Organic Search Sources. These additional settings are only available to Universal Analytics properties. If you have these settings, you have a Universal Analytics property.

We actually tested this Tracking Code vs. Tracking Info statement from Google and found that it is not true in all cases. In at least one case, we saw an analytics account that was not upgraded which had the Tracking Info option. Because of this, we recommend instead looking for the green text that says Transfer Complete, as pictured below.

Universal Analytics

Universal Analytics Verification

If you are using Google Analytics to track your application, good news! You are already on Universal Analytics. All applications using Google Analytics are automatically on Universal Analytics.

How To Set Up The New Universal Analytics

So first things first: how do you set it up?

Here, we see simple documentation from Google on how to upgrade below.

  1. Sign in to Google Analytics. From the Admin page, select the account and property you want to upgrade.
  2. In the property column, click Universal Analytics Upgrade.
  3. In the section called Transfer to Universal Analytics, click Transfer.
  4. Read the information in the pop-up. If you can confirm that you’re ready to transfer your property to Universal Analytics, click Upgrade. If you’re not ready, click Cancel.
  5. (Optional) Click Show timeout settings and configure your session and campaign timeout handling. If you don’t configure these settings, the default values will be used. Learn more about configuring the timeout settings.
  6. Allow 24 – 48 hours for the transfer to finish. When a note that says Property transfer complete appears in your account, the transfer to Universal Analytics is done.

Following this, all you need to do is add the new tracking code. It should be noted that Universal Analytics is still in beta, so it is not covered by the Google Analytics Premium Service Level Agreement. If you have a premium account, they ask you wait until Phase 3 before you upgrade. Google also recommends that you wait if you plan on using, or are using, any of the following features.

  • Remarketing
  • Google Display Network Impression Reporting
  • DoubleClick Campaign Manager Integration
  • Google Analytics Demographics and Interests Reports

None of these features currently work in Universal Analytics (as of the date this article was published). Also, once you start the transfer, there is no way to go back — so make sure you are ready!

Session & Campaign Timeouts

Session and campaign timeout handling is a new feature within Universal Analytics. According to Google:

By default, sessions end after 30 minutes and campaigns end after 6 months. You can change the settings so sessions and campaigns end after the specified amount of time has passed.

In some cases, webmasters may want to change their sessions and timeouts so that they can collect better data. For example, a news site might keep visitors more engaged than a site that tells you a basic piece of information like sunrise and sunset.

To change session and timeout settings follow these instructions:

  1. Navigate to a property. If you’re not in the settings menu, click Admin. Select the account and property you want to edit.
  2. From the property column, click Tracking Info then Session Settings.
  3. Under Timeout Handling, use the controls to set Session timeout and Campaign timeout.
  4. Click Apply.

Organic Search Data Customization

The first time I read this title in the Universal Analytics help documentation, I got really excited. For one short glimmering moment, I thought Google might give us access to [not provided] data or help SEOs in reporting in some way. Unfortunately, this is really not the case. All this functionality actually allows you to do is simplify the report (as opposed to getting more out of it). Let me explain what you can do.

We are all familiar with the Google organic traffic report. Well, this report is the same thing, but you can make the following edits to the data if you like:

  • You can consolidate search traffic to one source
  • You can remove search engines from your list
  • You can add a search engine that’s not on the default list, such as if you get traffic from a specialty engine specific to your industry and want to classify it as search traffic
  • You can make a search engine instead appear as a source of referring site traffic

Although these new capabilities are not groundbreaking, it is nice to have them in the tool bag. Here is exactly how you change these settings, per Google:

Change your organic search traffic settings

This setting is controlled applied in the admin settings of each property in your account. To add, edit, reorder, or remove search engines:

  1. Navigate to a property. If you’re not in the settings menu, click Admin. Select the account and property you want to edit.
  2. From the property column, click Tracking Info then Organic Search Sources.
  3. Click +Add Search Engine.
  4. In the form, specify what the Domain Name Contains and the Query Parameter. You can also specify a Search Engine Name and what the Path Contains.
  5. Click Create.

Click edit or delete to change or remove a search engine you’ve already added. To reorder the list, drag and drop the order of each row by using the mouse to grab the dots left of the search engine name.

Referral Exclusions

The referral exclusions in Universal Analytics allows you to remove traffic that comes from a referring source. For example, say you don’t want to see the traffic that is being sent to you from another website you own or a third-party shopping cart or scheduling system, you can exclude that.

If you do decide to exclude a referrer, and a visitor comes from that site, it will simply not trigger a new session. Here is how to set up referral exclusions in Universal Analytics per Google documentation. Please read this closely; there are some pretty important limitations to this.

Add or Remove Referral Traffic Sources

This setting is controlled applied in the admin settings of each property in your account. To exclude traffic from specific domains as referral traffic:

Any hostname that contains the string you add will be excluded. For example, if you add to the list of referral exclusions, will also be excluded from your referral traffic.

  1. Navigate to a property. If you’re not in the settings screen, click Admin.
  2. Click Tracking Info then Referral Exclusion List.
  3. Enter the Domain.
  4. Click Apply to save.

Search Term Exclusions

This is an interesting feature by Google. Essentially, it allows you to exclude organic keyword searches for a particular term from your organic keyword report and instead show those visits as direct traffic.

So if I want all the people who search for Ignite Visibility (our company name) or mistakenly type our URL into a search engine to be seen as direct traffic, I can set this up.  However, GA can only detect keywords when they’re passed by the search engines, so this keyword exclusion wouldn’t work for searches on Google and (by the end of March) Yahoo — these secure searches would still fall under (not provided) rather than being counted as direct traffic.

Here is how you exclude search terms from Google Analytics:

How to Exclude Search Terms

This setting is controlled applied in the admin settings of each property in your account. To exclude traffic entering your site with these search terms as referral traffic:

  1. Navigate to a property. If you’re not in the settings screen, click Admin.
  2. Click Tracking Info then Search Term Exclusion List tab.
  3. Click +Add Search Term
  4. Enter a word, phrase, or string as a Search Term.
  5. Click Create to save.

You can edit these terms any time by following the same steps. Note that this only applies to organic and not paid search traffic.

Security & Privacy In Universal Analytics

Google states that their security and privacy is pretty much the same in Universal Analytics. They still have, “Safeguards like IP masking, the Google Analytics browser opt-out add-on, data confidentiality, and security work with analytics.js, the Universal Analytics JavaScript library.”

There is a new measurement protocol enabled by Universal Analytics that is pretty interesting. According to Google, “Developers can then use the Measurement Protocol to:

  • Measure user activity in new environments.
  • Tie online to offline behavior.
  • Send data from both the web and server.”

Any application or device that is collecting data using the measurement protocol needs to provide notice and a choice to users.

It is also interesting to note that Universal Analytics collection methods (analytics.js and the Measurement Protocol) can collect data without cookies.

Summing Up Universal Analytics

Universal Analytics is here to stay. Soon the Google Analytics we have used for years will be a thing of the past. Universal Analytics has a great deal to offer. I encourage everyone to take full advantage of this new tool set. But before you jump in, make sure all of your marketing efforts will still be able to be tracked with Universal Analytics.

What do you think? Is it still too soon for your company to switch?

Opinions expressed in the article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Marketing Land.

Related Topics: Analytics | Analytics & Marketing Column | Channel: Analytics | Google | Google: Analytics


About The Author: is Founder and President of SEO and Social Media at Ignite Visibility, a premier Internet marketing wcompany focusing on providing the highest level of service and strategies in the industry. In addition to his role at Ignite Visibility, Lincoln teaches a quarterly course at UC San Diego on SEO, social media and analytics.

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  • Amarjeet Sharma

    Thanks John for making it easier to understand. Although I haven’t changed all my client’s properties to Universal Analytics for remarketing & GDN tracking. But it is a very helpful article for someone who’s contemplating the change

  • John E Lincoln

    Yes I think that remarketing glitch is pretty important to keep in mind… Obviously, many sites use remarketing.

  • Lee Blankenship

    John, great post. You should also let people know that there are other options in making the migration. Airlock.js can be used to either speed the manual re-implementation process or postpone it indefinitely by allowing Airlock.js to translate the old Google analytics calls into Universal Analytics calls on the fly. It’s a free open source technology. If you want to see it in action you can upload your old ga.js code into the translator and it will translate it into the new UA syntax.

  • James

    Really great post. I have a strange occurance happening with one of my sites. Universal tracking code only tracks organic traffic and doesn’t monitor any real time traffic – even if organic. However, the classic tracking code works 100%. Anyone else seen this? I have no funny filters or anything on either profile.


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