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Editorial

The Evolution of Web Analytics

3 minute read
Brian Wallace avatar
Though web analytics is almost as old as the internet itself, the field has transformed dramatically since inception.

Before the decade is out, the data analytics market is expected to be worth $550 billion. Today, millions of businesses around the world rely on Google Analytics (or comparable software) to better understand customer wishes and optimize their web experiences. Though web analytics is almost as old as the internet itself, the field has transformed dramatically since inception.

Let's take a look at the history of web analytics, how Google took over and where it's going next.

The Birth of Analytics

Three years after the internet was born, the first analytics solutions appeared. Hit counters, or simple code that can display the number of page views, came first. They were simple to use without any IT experience.

Slightly more complex at this time was log analysis, which could interpret server logs and help identify sources of web traffic. As websites grew more complex, so too did server logs. Caching, or temporarily storing a file in the system to avoid multiple HTTP requests, didn’t show up on the log, leaving gaps in the data.

This was a problem until JavaScript came along. JavaScript allowed tag-based tracking, which kept track of far more than just hits. Thanks to tag-based tracking, analytics moved into the domain of marketing. Marketers began to create targeted advertising, optimize their website copy, and more.

Related Article: Google's Move Away From Universal Analytics: What It Means for Digital Marketers

Google Analytics Makes Its Arrival

Around the turn of the century, it could take up to 24 hours for large companies to process their website data. That is, until Urchin came along and did it in as short a time as 15 minutes. Urchin quickly expanded its client base and offerings until Google bought them in 2005. And so Google Analytics was born.

Learning Opportunities

Google Analytics was built as a hosted analytics solution that is heavily focused on quantitative data. The service ties in directly with Google’s other web marketing offers and provides in depth, tag-based data. Its farthest reaching effort has been Universal Analytics, which was introduced in 2012. Universal Analytics lived up to its name by allowing for the tracking of users across multiple devices and platforms through the assignment of user IDs. Through this software, offline behavior monitoring, demographics, and (as of 2016) machine learning provided consumer insight with incredible detail at the cost of user privacy.

Related Article: Google Is Forcing the Switch to GA4 — and Many Brands Aren't Happy

What's Next for Google Analytics?

Partially in response to Universal Analytics’ far reach, some governments passed new online privacy laws. The most well-known example is the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which went into effect in 2018.

To better comply with the new rules, Google released Google Analytics 4 (GA4) in 2020. GA4 only uses first-party cookies, and its Consent Mode adjusts the types of data collected based on user permissions. However, GA4 is still able to offer detailed consumer insight by reverting (in a way) to a previous mode of tracking: hit collection. GA4 considers every event a hit, collecting data that stretches far beyond page views. 

GA4 also makes upgrades unrelated to privacy like collecting data in the same way for both web and mobile. Other new features include real-time reports, cross-platform reporting, and the ability to exclude users for certain behaviors. Universal Analytics shuts down July 2023 in favor of GA4.

About the author

Brian Wallace

Brian Wallace is the Founder and President of NowSourcing, an industry leading infographic design agency based in Louisville, KY and Cincinnati, OH which works with companies that range from startups to Fortune 500s. Brian also runs #LinkedInLocal events nationwide, hosts the Next Action Podcast, and has been named a Google Small Business Advisor for 2016-2018.