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Learn the Secret Power of Google Analytics Custom Alerts

by Tim Leighton-Boyce

Abstract photograph of light shining on wallHere’s a quick way to get Google Analytics to shine a light on problems on your site and help you sort them out. You can also use this tip to spot promising sources of new customers and other good news like that.

In the practical example you’ll learn how easy it is to set GA to alert you when new visitors are landing on a 404 (“Page Not Found”) error page and give you a one-click route to the source of the problem so you can head over there and fix it.

That’s powerful stuff. If someone comes to your site and all they get is an error they may not give you a second chance.

To adapt a well-known analytics phrase: “They came, you slapped them in the face, they left”. So a quick fix for these problems is very valuable indeed. Using this approach, GA gives you a great way of sorting things out fast.

Once you’ve tried this very practical example, you’ll probably find that you want to apply the same method to other key events on your site, including good ones. It’s and easy but powerful technique — let Google Analytics do some of the tricky work for you!

The secret is to combine micro-conversion goals with GA Custom Alerts. The hidden super-power of this combination is that it uses the cleverness of Google to give you clues as to ‘why’ something unusual has happened, not just to flag up the fact that it ‘has’ happened.

First I’d like to thank @mattycurry for really driving this point home in a @boagworld podcast I heard a while back.

Example: How to Spot and Fix Broken Links from External Web Sites

Use this simple technique to make a “Read and React” report for spotting accidentally broken links from external web sites. In the age of user-generated-content there’s a lot of this about. I often see it with links being posted in forums on voucher or coupon code sites.

Using Custom Alerts I can not only see that there’s been a sudden increase in 404 pages:

Screenshot: Google Analytics Custom Alert Lightbox Overlay

But GA also provides me with an instant analysis of the source of these visits:

Screenshot: Google Analytics Custom Alert Major Contributors

And, since these visitors are being referred from another site, there’s also a handy button to take me to the referring page with the dodgy link. So I can click straight over there and try to sort things out.

In short: GA tells me something’s wrong, suggests what the cause may be and even helps me on my way to providing a fix. Nice.

How to Set Up a Custom Alert Based on a Goal

The first thing you need to do is to make sure that your 404 page is being tracked in Google Analytics. I’ve written about this already in another post, which also contains an interesting discussion in the comments about how to get the best out of error tracking if you’re starting from scratch. But this time round I’ll assume that you can identify your 404 page as either a pageview or an event in Google Analytics.

Once you know how your 404 page is being tracked, you need to set up a Goal for it in Google Analytics.

The next thing to do is to set up a Custom Alert based on that Goal. It’s true that GA will show you automatic alerts for unusual Goal data without you needing to configure anything. But I currently recommend using a Custom Alert for two reasons:

  1. Custom Alerts allow you to fine tune the timing and scale of the change which will trigger the alert
  2. Custom Alerts generate the oh-so-helpful ‘Major Contributors’ report

Here’s a video showing you how to do those two stages:

And that’s it.

Now all you need to do is check the Google Analytics Intelligence reports each day and watch for those alerts. When you spot one, look at the “Major Contributors” then click through to the source and try to fix the problem. If it’s something someone has posted in a forum you’ve got a golden opportunity to sort out the problem and generally demonstrate your willingness to listen and to help.

I’ve seen discussions with broken links to a promotional offer start to turn hostile because people assume that the offer has been suddenly withdrawn. This situation is a classic example of where you can turn the impression of your brand all the way from negative, through neutral, and right round to positive just by showing up and being helpful. You can rescue thousands of visits by using this technique if you move fast and handle things well.

Final point on ‘what to do’ — don’t forget to add a Google Analytics Annotation to note what happened:

Screenshot: Google Analytics Annotation for Custom Alert

Why You Shouldn’t Rely Just on Email Alerts

To repeat one point from the video: at the moment I think you need to check the reports rather than rely on the automatic email and SMS alert options.

The Intelligence processing takes time and (in my UK time-zone) those emails don’t arrive until more than a day after the trouble began. With this particular alert you need to react as quickly as possible.

In fact I also add the 404 Page Goal Conversion Rate to my morning dashboard so that I can spot anything nasty as soon as I start work. I use a desktop dashboard client which is configured to include the current day as well as the last last month so that I can spot what’s happening in almost real time. That’s good in case something really bad is happening. But then I need to do some manual work right away to track down the source because I don’t have access to that handy one-click route via the “Major Contributors” report.

Use the Custom Alerts and Goals Combination Again and Again

The example I’ve given above is a very specific and practical one which should be relevant to many sites and which can help you take action to fix something which is broken.

You can also use the same technique to tell you when something good is happening and suggest why.

For example: you may well already have a Goal set up for the “Add To Cart” micro-conversion. This approach could point you at the source of an unexpected increase in purchases.

Better still, if you have a goal which matches the start of a “new customer” checkout, the “Major Contributors” report could alert you to a promising new referral source of business. This is the kind of thing you might not normally see buried in all the campaign activity to recruit new customers.

Google Analytics Intelligence is a really powerful tool for spotting things that you may not be actively monitoring. It shows you things you weren’t looking for. You can take a look at that unexpected source and see if there’s anything you can do to get more of those people interested in you. In the age of social networking, simply showing up and showing you care can bring big rewards. Intelligence Alerts can help you take an interest in things you would not normally have noticed. Give it a try!

Resources Related to Using Google Analytics Custom Alerts and Goals

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Intrigued August 26, 2013 at 2:48 pm

Why do you select goal 17?? it doesn’t make sense…

Tim Leighton-Boyce September 5, 2013 at 11:28 am

My choice of goal slots (in the days when this was easy to do) must seem strange. But I chose goal 17 because I work across many sites and try (sort-of) to use the same goals so that things like Custom Reports will work for different clients. It makes it easy to share reports with more people.

Diana Worthington June 16, 2019 at 1:25 pm

I really like being able to set goals and have them tracked with alerts, but as my business changes and grows, or when certain days behave out of the norm my alerts go haywire. I need a specialist just to deal with alerts alone and makes it hard when scaling my business. Instead I decided to take the machine learning route, with – found it interesting that I don’t need to tweak or manage rules anymore they just let me know when something is out of the norm and more importantly where it stems from – so no more top-down digging! Wanted to share in case anyone share the same issues.

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