Ecommerce Dashboards for Google Analytics: Buy or Build?

By: on November 17, 2016

Unless your e-commerce business serves a specific niche—see hipster crafts on Etsy or vintage Transformers on eBay—chances are good that you face some pretty intense competition. Even vendors of bulk cat food on Amazon Marketplace have to contend with dozens of similar outfits trying to undersell them.

Online retailers of hipster crafts might not need web analytics—yet…
(20/52 Geek necklace by Delphine is licensed under CC BY 2.0)


Web analytics is key to outperforming your competitors. Chingho Wu, our content data analytics guru here at Gartner, puts it well: “Just because we’ve transitioned to ecommerce doesn’t mean the human behaviors have changed. People visit your website just the same way they’d walk into a store to make a purchase.”

You probably know already that many options out there are pretty expensive, especially for smaller retailers. Thus it’s easy to see one reason why Google Analytics (GA) has become such a popular web analytics tool: The basic version is free.

But, say you’re graduating past basic KPIs such as revenue per customer and average order value into detailed KPIs related to shopping cart abandonment and customer lifetime value.

You can use GA to report on these metrics. However, to really move toward data-driven decision-making at your ecommerce business, you’ll need to move beyond GA’s native features and look into third-party dashboard options, which we’ll explore in this report.

Which Native GA Features Help Online Retailers Set Up Detailed Reports?

We’re not going to focus here on how to implement basic e-commerce tracking, cuz Google has you covered there. Instead, let’s look at some of the advanced features for e-commerce analytics in GA, using research from the advisory firm Gartner:

  • Attribution modeling. GA now offers a tool that allows you to compare how many conversions you assign to different channels under different conversion attribution models. For instance, you may see that under first-click attribution, 50,000 of your conversions come from Facebook, whereas under last-click attribution, only 40,000 come from Facebook.
    NOTE: Attribution modeling requires you to implement enhanced e-commerce tracking on your website.
  • Shopping cart analysis. GA can now perform analysis of shopping behavior in order to calculate crucial e-commerce metrics such as shopping cart abandonment rate. This feature can be found in the “Checkout Behavior Analysis” report.
    NOTE: Checkout behavior analysis requires you to implement enhanced e-commerce tracking on your website.
  • SKU tracking. You can import SKUs into GA to track customer engagement and conversion metrics at the product level.
    NOTE: Checkout behavior analysis requires you to implement enhanced e-commerce tracking on your website.
  • Native dashboards. GA does offer a native dashboard builder, and you can customize dashboards for different roles and purposes. But there are some limits that we’ll explore in the next section.
  • Lookup table import. In “When to Use Google Analytics for Web Analytics Initiatives” (the full report is available to Gartner clients), Lisa Kart explains that new import features allow you to upload a variety of lookup tables beyond SKUs via API or .CSV/text files. This feature can considerably widen the dimensions you can use to build e-commerce reports natively in GA.

    Kart continues that “although you still can’t load personally identifiable information, you can include impersonal IDs to create customer segments. If your Web applications have a user ID, you can encrypt it and send it to Google as part of a variable. When you pull down a dataset, the IDs will be there for you to decrypt. For example, you can pull in data about offline conversions from your telesales call center and add encrypted IDs to help you understand online and offline activity.”
  • User/session segmentation. Gartner notes that GA also supports segmentation of both sessions and users across multiple visits to your site. This useful feature allows you to create segments such as “visitors who put a camera in their shopping cart and come back for another visit but still don’t buy.”

That’s a ton of useful features for doing web analytics on e-commerce sites. Please note, however, that using GA’s enhanced e-commerce plug-in requires the addition of new code to your site.

Now, let’s move on to looking at the best ways to present your GA data.

What Are the Limits of Native GA Dashboards?

GA has an interface that allows you to easily build visually appealing dashboards with your GA data.

Web analytics dashboard built in Google Analytics


Do I hear someone in the back shouting “What’s the catch?”

No?!? Well, here it is anyway: You’re limited to the data that’s either been collected by, or imported into, GA when building dashboards.

For e-commerce retailers, that’s a significant drawback. Additional data resides in your accounting system, advertising networks, hosted e-commerce platforms etc. Some of this data can be imported, of course, but that’s not the most efficient process out there for scheduled reports and dashboard refreshes.

Mark Hansen, CEO of Megalytic (a provider of a dashboard platform that sits on top of GA as well as outsourced GA reporting services), explains that siloed GA data can be a major headache in e-commerce reporting.

“Many of our clients were traditionally doing reports by dumping data into Excel and creating their own charts and graphs, or even taking screenshots from Google Analytics and copying those images into a Word document.”

He also points out another major limitation of GA dashboards for scheduled reports—all the widgets in the dashboard have to have the same date ranges.

“If you want to have a single dashboard that shows the previous week, month, and then zooms out to the whole year, you won’t be able to do that,” Hansen notes.

Expanded historical reporting with Google Analytics data in Megalytic Dashboard


In addition to these limitations, Himanshu Sharma, founder of Optimize Smart (a consultancy that assists businesses with Google Analytics and web analytics), explains that third-party e-commerce platforms also pose major tracking challenges:

“Marketplaces like Amazon provide very basic analytics. The analytics is so basic that sellers can’t really track anything more than ad clicks, ad impressions and product-specific sales. Since Amazon does not let you add any tracking code on its website, it creates lot of data integration issues.”

This issues have to be resolved—to the extent that they can be—via third-party dashboards, since without tracking code you won’t be able to use GA for Amazon.

Finally, John Leslie, a research manager here at Software Advice/Gartner, notes that “you can only go two dimensions deep when looking at analytics data” in dashboard widgets.

What Are My Options for Building GA Dashboards?

Lots of businesses thus take to building dashboards on top of GA data instead of within GA’s interface. You have a number of options here:

1. Excel. Microsoft Excel is of course the most widely used analytics tool in business, and it natively supports charts and graphs. Wu, our content analytics expert, explains that “Excel is still the most commonly used tool for GA dashboarding, because finance also heavily uses Excel. Go with Excel first until you completely exhaust its capabilities.”

2. BI tools for dashboarding. Popular BI tools such as Tableau and Microsoft Power BI also allow you to build dashboards. Wu notes that “if you’re passing the same Excel file between 100 different people, it may be time to consider BI software.”
BI software can also help to ease the integration challenges posed by creating dashboards from blends of GA data with data from other sources.

3. Outsourcing. Hansen’s company Megalytic provides outsourced reporting services for businesses on GA. He explains that “For a lot of people the decision to outsource comes down to cost—if you’re not big enough to afford someone to do reporting full-time, you’ll need to outsource. It’s not a trivial task. If you just want the high-level numbers on revenue and traffic from the e-commerce server, Google Analytics will give that to you out-of-the-box. If you need to get into the nitty gritty details, however, even if it’s only 5-10 hours of work, you’ll need someone who’s an expert.”

One important word of advice when building your dashboard: While GA offers rich options for analyzing website traffic, Sharma recommends that smaller retailers in particular should begin analytics initiatives with a focus squarely on conversions.

He observes that “For small retailers a high conversion rate is much more important than more traffic, as they can’t afford to acquire customers at high cost. Consequently, their analytics efforts should be conversion-centric. They should run A/B and usability tests all of the time and/or before making considerable changes to their website.”

Which Version of GA Is Right for Your E-Commerce Business?

There are two versions of GA: basic GA, and Google Analytics 360.

Basic GA is free, but it has some major limits:

  • You can only send 10 million website “hits” (the basic tracking unit in GA) per month.
    • Reports are built using limited samples of your data, whereas 360 gives you access to “unsampled reports” that are more accurate.
      • You don’t have access to support. With 360, you’ll get support with service-level agreements (SLAs).

      There are also a number of advanced attribution and reporting features in 360.

      The catch, Gartner notes, is the price tag: “At $150,000 per year, Google Analytics Premium [rebranded as 360] targets a sophisticated market with high traffic volume and more complex requirements.”

      Six figures may be too steep for a small e-commerce retailer—hence the importance of third-party dashboards.

      Thus concludes part 1 of our series on how smaller businesses can get the most out of Google Analytics. In part 2, we’ll move on to looking at GA data from a marketing perspective.

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