Tags: scripts

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Heisenberg

I wrote about Google Analytics yesterday. As usual, I syndicated the post to Ev’s blog, and I got an interesting response over there. Kelly Burgett set me straight on some of the finer details of how goals work, and finished with this thought:

You mention “delivering a performant, accessible, responsive, scalable website isn’t enough” as if it should be, and I have to disagree. It’s not enough for a business to simply have a great website if you are unable to understand performance of channel marketing, track user demographics and behavior on-site, and optimize your site/brand based on that data. I’ve seen a lot of ugly sites who have done exceptionally well in terms of ROI, simply because they are getting the data they need from the site in order make better business decisions. If your site cannot do that (ie. through data collection, often third party scripts), then your beautifully-designed site can only take you so far.

That makes an excellent case for having analytics. But that’s not necessarily the same as having Google analytics, or even JavaScript-driven analytics at all.

By far the most useful information you get from analytics is around where people have come from, where did they go next, and what kind of device are they using. None of that information requires JavaScript. It’s all available from your server logs.

I don’t want to come across all old-man-yell-at-cloud here, but I’m trying to remember at what point self-hosted software for analysing your log traffic became not good enough.

Here’s the thing: logging on the server has no effect on the user experience. It’s basically free, in terms of performance. Logging via JavaScript, by its very nature, has some cost. Even if its negligible, that’s one more request, and that’s one more bit of processing for the CPU.

All of the data that you can only get via JavaScript (in-page actions, heat maps, etc.) are, in my experience, better handled by dedicated software. To me, that kind of more precise data feels different to analytics in the sense of funnels, conversions, goals and all that stuff.

So in order to get more fine-grained data to analyse, our analytics software has now doubled down on a technology—JavaScript—that has an impact on the end user, where previously the act of observation could be done at a distance.

There are also blind spots that come with JavaScript-based tracking. According to Google Analytics, 0% of your customers don’t have JavaScript. That’s not necessarily true, but there’s literally no way for Google Analytics—which relies on JavaScript—to even do its job in the absence of JavaScript. That can lead to a dangerous situation where you might be led to think that 100% of your potential customers are getting by, when actually a proportion might be struggling, but you’ll never find out about it.

Related: according to Google Analytics, 0% of your customers are using ad-blockers that block requests to Google’s servers. Again, that’s not necessarily a true fact.

So I completely agree than analytics are a good thing to have for your business. But it does not follow that Google Analytics is a good thing for your business. Other options are available.

I feel like the assumption that “analytics = Google Analytics” is like the slippery slope in reverse. If we’re all agreed that analytics are important, then aren’t we also all agreed that JavaScript-based tracking is important?

In a word, no.

This reminds me of the arguments made in favour of intrusive, bloated advertising scripts. All of the arguments focus on the need for advertising—to stay in business, to pay the writers—which are all great reasons for advertising, but have nothing to do with JavaScript, which is at the root of the problem. Everyone I know who uses an ad-blocker—including me—doesn’t use it to stop seeing adverts, but to stop the performance of the page being degraded (and to avoid being tracked across domains).

So let’s not confuse the means with the ends. If you need to have advertising, that doesn’t mean you need to have horribly bloated JavaScript-based advertising. If you need analytics, that doesn’t mean you need an analytics script on your front end.

Analysing analytics

Hell is other people’s JavaScript.

There’s nothing quite so crushing as building a beautifully performant website only to have it infested with a plague of third-party scripts that add to the weight of each page and reduce the responsiveness, making a mockery of your well-considered performance budget.

Trent has been writing about this:

My latest realization is that delivering a performant, accessible, responsive, scalable website isn’t enough: I also need to consider the impact of third-party scripts.

He’s started the process by itemising third-party scripts. Frustratingly though, there’s rarely one single culprit that you can point to—it’s the cumulative effect of “just one more beacon” and “just one more analytics script” and “just one more A/B testing tool” that adds up to a crappy experience that warms your user’s hands by ensuring your site is constantly draining their battery.

Actually, having just said that there’s rarely one single culprit, Adobe Tag Manager is often at the root of third-party problems. That and adverts. It’s like opening the door of your beautifully curated dream home, and inviting a pack of diarrhetic elephants in: “Please, crap wherever you like.”

But even the more well-behaved third-party scripts can get out of hand. Google Analytics is so ubiquitous that it’s hardly even considered in the list of potentially harmful third-party scripts. On the whole, it’s a fairly well-behaved citizen of your site’s population of third-party scripts (y’know, leaving aside the whole surveillance capitalism business model that allows you to use such a useful tool for free in exchange for Google tracking your site’s visitors across the web and selling the insights from that data to advertisers).

The initial analytics script that you—asynchronously—load into your page isn’t very big. But depending on how you’ve configured your Google Analytics account, that might just be the start of a longer chain of downloads and event handlers.

Ed recently gave a lunchtime presentation at Clearleft on using Google Analytics—he professes modesty but he really knows his stuff. He was making sure that everyone knew how to set up goals’n’stuff.

As I understand it, there are two main categories of goals: events and destinations (there are also durations and pages, but they feel similar to destinations). You use events to answer questions like “Did the user click on this button?” or “Did the user click on that search field?”. You use destinations to answer questions like “Did the user arrive at this page?” or “Did the user come from that page?”

You can add as many goals to your site’s analytics as you want. That’s an intoxicating offer. The problem is that there is potentially a cost for each goal you create. It’s an invisible cost. It’s paid by the user in the currency of JavaScript sent down the wire (I wish that the Google Analytics admin interface were more like the old interface for Google Fonts, where each extra file you added literally pushed a needle higher on a dial).

It strikes me that the event-based goals would necessarily require more JavaScript in order to listen out for those clicks and fire off that information. The destination-based goals should be able to get all the information needed from regular page navigations.

So I have a hypothesis. I think that destination-based goals are less harmful to performance than event-based goals. I might well be wrong about that, and if I am, please let me know.

With that hypothesis in mind, and until I learn otherwise, I’ve got two rules of thumb to offer when it comes to using Google Analytics:

  1. Try to keep the number of goals to a minimum.
  2. If you must create a goal, favour destinations over events.