Custom variables are one of the most (if not the most) powerful tools Google Analytics has to offer to better understand your audiences from search and social. Unfortunately, they’re also one of the most underrated and underused.

google analyticsSo, if they’re so useful, why do so few sites utilize them? For the same reason that custom variables (CVs) are so powerful: they’re infinitely customizable. In other words: there is no one-size-fits-all variable.

It doesn’t come equipped straight out of the gate; additional assembly is required. You’ll need to set it up yourself to match your site’s audience and goals — which means, of course, that you’ll be rewarded with data uniquely tailored to your site’s audience and goals.

It’s frustrating to see such a powerful tool seem so neglected. Though “How to Use Custom Variables” articles abound, there’s a serious shortage of “How We Use Custom Variables” articles, and concrete examples of CVs in use can be hard to come by.

In the spirit of sparking more discussion on the topic, let’s take a look at some of the potential benefits CVs can bring to your site.

Things To Remember When Using Custom Variables

I don’t want to devote a lot of time to the inner workings of Google Analytics custom variables — for that, there’s Google’s own guide, the three-part Lunametrics guide (which starts here), and countless others.

But as a brief refresher course, Google Analytics is already equipped to track a number of useful information on your site: visitor locations, referrals, keywords, social/event tracking, etc. These are relatively easy-to-use and immensely helpful, but this one-size-fits-all-sites approach can’t answer specific questions or track site-specific groups, pages, or activity. For that, there are custom variables.

Custom variables generally operate on three levels, or scopes: Visitor, Session, and Activity.

  1. Visitor: A specific client (visitor) on a specific browser/device. This will stay active throughout each of a client’s visits to your site (unless the client clears its cookies).
  2. Session: Stays active for the period of time a visitor is on your site.
  3. Page: Tracks a certain activity on a certain page.

Standard (free) Google Analytics users only have five slots for custom variables. This allows plenty of room for customization, but it does limit how much you can measure: users must choose what’s absolutely essential. Premium users, however, have a whopping 50 slots to play with.

Finally, remember that you can only apply a custom variable if the user actively does something on your site. Google is not psychic, and Analytics will not tell you if a user is male or female: they would have to check a box, fill out a form, or click a link identifying  themselves as such.

Breaking Down The Data

“…If you simply sit and ponder for a few minutes it will be clear that your website exists to do many different jobs and people come to your website to accomplish many different goals. So why analyze your data as one big ugly glob?” -Avinash Kanshik, The Choice is Stark—Segment or Die!

Any site — from huge e-commerce sites to a one-man blog — can benefit from more-customized data analysis because it allows you to better understand your audience. Here are some possibilities of what you could be tracking on your site using CVs.

Social/Content Variables To Track

1.  Users who Share via a Social Button

Though you can use Event Tracking to track a single click of a social button, you can’t track the users who clicked that button. Find out: which articles are the social sharers drawn to? Are social sharers more likely to buy or become premium members?

Tracking these social sharers can help you refine your social strategy in the long run; as you find out more about their habits and preferences, you can increasingly tailor your social activity to that audience.

Example of Social Share buttons on Digital Highrise

2.  Which content does the best on Social Networks?

Which pages have the highest social activity overall (a combination of Google+, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)? CVs also allow you to track categories as a whole, so you can see how one section on your site compares to another (i.e., Tutorials vs. News; Music vs. Movies; iPod accessories vs. Macbook accessories vs. iPad accessories vs… etc.).

If one category does better on Facebook, for example, you may want to share that category more often on your Facebook fan page.

3.  New Users vs. Returning users on Social Networks

Who’s sharing your content — the same five loyal sharers, or a mix of returning and new users? Are people who are logged into your site more likely to share on social networks than standard visitors?

4.  Commenters

Similarly, who comments on your site? Have they commented in the past? Do they comment on multiple posts per visit? Are return visitors more likely to comment than new users? Likewise, are commenters more likely to come back?

5.  Subscribers

Custom variables allow you to track users who’ve subscribed to your RSS feed and/or your email newsletter. How do they interact with your site differently from non-subscribers? Are they more likely to browse around? Are they more likely to purchase?

6.  Which authors are the most successful?

Custom variables allow you to instantly compare author performance on your blog. Which writers are driving the most comments? Which get the most shares? Which have the highest number of pageviews? CVs make it easy to track performance and offer performance incentives.

This isn’t only important with your in-house writers — as Rob Millard recently pointed out on SEOmoz, you can use it to evaluate your freelancers’ performance or find out which guest bloggers are consistently successful (and thus might be worth offering a permanent position).

7.  Track your promotional/sales codes

Which bring you more sales: an exclusive Facebook promotional code or a public sales announcement you made on Twitter? How much, on average, do people buy with each code? Which are used the most?

8.  Post Year (or Post Month)

Analyze your blog traffic by post year to find out which years were the most successful times for your blog. For a more in-depth look, organize them by month + year. Which months still bring traffic? Which types of old content remains evergreen? Which brought all-time highs? And how can you repeat past months’ success?

Search Variables

9.  Who’s using your internal search?

Do they find what they’re looking for quickly or do they leave without buying anything? Must they perform several searches before they make a final purchase? How often does an internal search lead to a sale?

10.  Track ranking keywords based on location

 John Doherty and Michael King report that not only can you track keyword rankings via CVs, but you can also break down ranking keywords based on international location as well.

Variables To Help You Find Out More About Your Audience

Though not traditionally search or social, these variables can do wonders in informing future campaigns. A group of female Facebook users won’t act the same as a group of males who are members of your sites, and the 60+ demographic will use your site differently than the 18-25 age group. Use these stats to tailor your social media and SEO strategies to your site’s individual demographics.

11.  Gender

This is one of the biggies for any site owner. Men and women behave very differently online in nearly every activity, from shopping to social media. Tracking how the genders are interacting with your site will help you understand what both men and women want from you and your company.

12.  Age

Similarly, figuring out a visitor’s age (by asking for their birthday or having them identify themselves as a certain age group) is an important factor in figuring out your audience. Which areas of your site are hits with certain age groups?

The data may surprise you: though you thought your target age range was 35 to 50-year-old women, your blog may be a surprise hit with the 25-to-35 crowd. Likewise, you can discover what topics are turning certain age groups away or what products are a flop with your biggest-selling age group.

 

13.  Repeat Customers

Creating a CV that tracks both new (0 prior sales), returning (1-2) and loyal (3 or more) customers to help you understand what’s bringing you new customers — as well as what’s bringing them back.

14.  Membership Level

Who’s a registered member and who’s a premium member? How do site members interact with your site differently from non-members? What social posts or content brings the most membership conversions?

I think these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg — there’s a whole world of potential uses for custom variables we just haven’t explored (or reported on yet).

So I’m curious: what do you use Google Analytics custom variables for? Which have been the most successful? What have you learned from tracking your results?

For more information (including specific coding for many of these custom variables), check out these excellent resources:

  1. Analytics Talk: Mastering Google Analytics Custom Variables
  2. Lunametrics: 20 Ways to Use Google Analytics Custom Variables
  3. TechPad: 16 Interesting Ways to Use Google Analytics Custom Variables
  4. Who Writes the Most Popular Content on Your Blog?
  5. Getting Rankings Into GA Using Custom Variables

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

Related Topics: Channel: Analytics | How To | How To: Analytics | Intermediate | Search & Social

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About The Author: is the Senior SEO Manager for the agency, Red Door Interactive.

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  • Ryan Aslett

    Whoa, Im pretty sure you aren’t *allowed* to do a lot of what you are suggesting. Anytime you store information that allows you to uniquely identify a specific user, it is a violation of Google Analytics TOS. First line on chapter 7 (privacy):

    http://www.google.com/analytics/terms/us.html

    You will not (and will not allow any third party to) use the Service to track, collect or upload any data that personally identifies an individual (such as a name, email address or billing information), or other data which can be reasonably linked to such information by Google

    Or am I misinformed?

 

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