Updated on 8/17/22 to include Google Analytics 4 content.
What comes to mind when you think of the word “goal”?
Most people, myself included, think of personal goals or ambitions for their own life: obtaining a master’s degree, running a marathon, or traveling to every continent.
Others think of business goals: reaching an annual sales target, launching a new product or service, or expanding from selling in local to global markets. Analytics goals are different, although they can help measure and track progress toward your business goals.
In this post, we’ll untangle the definition of goals and help you understand what to configure as a goal in your analytics platform. We’ll use Google Analytics (Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4) as an example today, but you can configure similar goals in most analytics tools.
We will use the term “goal” to include GA4’s “conversions” since “conversions” are meant to replace “goals” in the latest Google Analytics product.
How Do Analytics Goals Differ From Business Goals?
To tease out a proper distinction between an analytics goal and a business goal, we need to understand how it’s defined in the platform you work in. Google Analytics defines a goal as:
…a completed activity, called a conversion, that contributes to the success of your business.
Since Google Analytics primarily tracks websites and apps, the implication is that the “completed activities” they mention as goals are online activities. Whereas business goals can (and do) often include offline measures that are impossible for a user of your website or app to accomplish.
Naturally, there’s a lot of overlap in analytics goals and business goals for companies that do a large percentage of their sales online, like e-commerce retailers or gaming app developers.
And for companies that do a large percentage of sales offline, it’s also possible to connect CRM systems to web analytics platforms and better understand how those offline sales goals are influenced by online marketing.
Generally speaking, some analytics goals can be business goals, but most analytics goals are online behaviors at least a few degrees of separation from your offline business goals.
How Do You Configure an Analytics Goal?
Now that we’ve made the distinction between an analytics goal and a business goal let’s look at how to configure a goal in Google Analytics. There are several ways to do this, but the three most popular ways are:
- Destination Pages (also known as “confirmation”, “receipt”, or “thank you” pages)
- Event Tracking (which requires additional configuration in Google Tag Manager)
- GA4 automatically tracks events out of the box so additional configuration is not always required (more info on GA4 events)
Destination Pages – Universal Analytics
Destination Pages are the easiest way to get up and running. These are typically pages that a user is directed to after a desired action, such as a thank-you page after a user has completed a purchase on a site.
A good way to start is by making a list of all the destination pages that a user could reach on your site and which activities they map to (i.e. a completed sale, a demo request, a trial request, or a download of a gated asset). The list is a useful aid in determining which pages should be tracked as goals.
Note: Note: GA4 takes a different approach to destination-based goals, addressed further down.
Destination pages aren’t always enough to track all of your goals. Depending on how your site is built, some online activities don’t result in a unique page being reached. Forms can be submitted without the URL in the browser changing. Call-to-action buttons can be clicked without the user being whisked away to another page. In those instances, Event Tracking is the fix.
Google Tag Manager enables marketers to listen for those form fills and clicks and send an event into Google Analytics with a category, action, label, and value. Custom Event Tracking in GA4 differs slightly from Universal Analytics, but the concept is the same.
Conversion Tracking in GA4
Google Analytics 4 takes a different approach to goals. I won’t go into the rabbit hole that is the difference between Universal Analytics and GA4, but I will touch on the relevant ones for conversion tracking.
The main difference between the two Google Analytics platforms is that UA data collection is “hit-based” while GA4 is “event-based.” In GA4, pageviews are events, so there are no destination-specific goals. GA4 also replaces the “goal” terminology and just defaults to using the word “conversion.”
Configuring goals in GA4 takes a path of its own. To create a conversion in GA4, navigate to Configure > Events from the menu on the left side. From there, you will see a list of all events.
Once there, you can toggle on the “Mark as conversion” slider to track any event as a conversion. The finicky part here is that an event has to be feeding in data before it can be marked as a conversion from this window.
To get around this issue, you can also create a conversion by going to Configure > Conversions and setting a “New Conversion Event” from there. When creating a conversion from this window, be sure that the event already exists or that the name matches a future event that will be created.
I prefer creating conversions from the existing events list just to be sure the event already exists. If the event doesn’t already exist or if you need to narrow down an existing event to mark for conversion, you can create an event from the Configure > Events window.
Any event created will have to be based on an existing event. Take the example below.
The ‘diversity_send_us_a_message_form_submission’ conversion below is GA4’s equivalent of a destination-based goal. In this case, we created a new event based on the existing page_view event but narrowed the new event to fire only on the thank you page. One thing to note, there currently is no regex operator in these configuration options.
What Are Some Prerequisites for Analytics Goals?
Knowing how to configure goals is only one piece of the puzzle. I’m sure you’re all tempted to race to your Google Analytics admin and add all the thank you pages you can find. But before you do, you should ask yourself if those pages or events meet a few criteria.
Here are some good rules of thumb when considering whether a certain activity should be set up as a goal:
1. A Goal Must Be Evergreen
A visitor should be able to accomplish them as long as your website (or app) exists. Google Analytics only allows you 20 goal slots per view. You don’t want to occupy one of your 20 goal slots with a “thank you” page for a temporary campaign that will only be live for one month. GA4 bumps this number up to 30 total conversions that can be configured, but you should still think carefully when setting up goals.
2. A Goal Must Require Action on the Part of the Visitor
Views of a category or product page, even if they’re important for you to measure, are not good goals because people can accomplish them sometimes just by landing on your website, without any engagement at all. Pages that can only be reached with an action—a form fill or a purchase—are better candidates.
3. A Goal Must Map to Your Business Objectives
I already mentioned why business goals and analytics goals aren’t always the same, but they should always have some kind of relationship. If you can’t demonstrate how a visitor achieving your analytics goal has an impact on brand awareness, customer loyalty, or revenue, it’s probably too generic.
4. A Goal Must Result in a Conversion Rate of Less than 20%
This seems counterintuitive, but hear me out: If more than a fifth of your visitors are able to accomplish an analytics goal, it’s too easy of an action for them to take and probably not a meaningful way for you to segment them versus an average user of your site.
There are some exceptions to this rate, as some sites are purpose-built to navigate a visitor to a specific action. For example, a subdomain or landing page that is built to get users to fill out a free quote request form.
In this case, a higher conversion rate is the norm as the site was built to get people to submit a free quote form. Tracking this as a goal is still recommended since conversion data can feed to other platforms that might tailor their algorithm to attract users that are likely to complete the same action (think Google AdWords).
Once you’re sure a goal meets the prerequisites above, you should prioritize which ones you set up first. I call these primary goals. They have a direct connection to how much money your business makes.
Some examples of primary goals include:
If you run an eCommerce business, this might go without saying. And you may already be measuring revenue by virtue of your enhanced eCommerce configuration. But there’s value in setting up goals for your cart thank you page. Why? Funnels.
Funnels allow you to configure a linear path from a cart summary page to a sale and report on drop-off at each step, which is valuable in determining where you have friction in your cart process.
GA4 does not have an option to set up a funnel-based goal. Instead, GA4 has Funnel Exploration, which accomplishes the same thing as far as letting you visualize and explore drop-off in steps to a conversion.
If you run a subscription model business, sign-ups where you gain a customer’s credit card information work here. If it’s a free trial where no credit card is required at the time of sign-up, I would consider holding off configuring that goal until later (see secondary goals below).
For a B2B business, where it’s impossible to close a sale online, lead form measurement is key. But not all lead forms are created equal. Some only require an email address. The ones you need to measure here are forms that generate enough information for you to evaluate whether the prospect is a Marketing Qualified Lead or Sales Qualified Lead. That means you need to be collecting a name, a company, an email, a title, and potentially a phone number.
The same goes for events. If somebody RSVPs for a free meetup, that doesn’t qualify here. It needs to be a paid event only.
For goals that don’t have a direct connection to revenue, but are still important to moving people along in discovery of your product or service, consider configuring those next. Secondary goals (aka micro conversions) are tipping points to sales, socially sharing your products or services in the marketplace, or building your house list for future marketing efforts.
Good choices for secondary goals include:
If somebody wants to give you an email address to receive future discounts, news, or product information, that’s gold. It gives you a touchpoint for reaching back out to a user who may have otherwise just left your website.
Collecting emails in exchange for a useful ebook, webinar, or whitepaper is also super common.
You might also have other forms on your site that have fewer fields or a generic “contact us” form that really doesn’t give you any sort of implied intent on the part of the user. These might create leads that require more vetting on the part of the sales team.
Shares of Blog Posts or Products
Don’t forget amplification of your message by interested parties via social or email. Even if the person visiting your site isn’t in the market for what you offer, they might share it with someone who is. That reach is just as valuable.
Registrations for Free Events
As with gated assets, you might provide tickets to a meetup in exchange for an email or a follow on social.
Lastly, we have goals that indicate a higher level of engagement from the visitor to your site or app, but do not constitute a contact or a sale.
Folks who watch videos about a product or service may just be curious, but studies find that they tend to purchase at a higher rate than most website visitors.
Many businesses offer free tools or downloads where no email is required. There’s something to be said for being useful to your target audience without a quid-pro-quo so that they’ll remember you when they want to buy.
Clicks of Major CTA Buttons
Online marketing and merchandising only works if we can convince people to click on “learn more” or “buy now” buttons. Upper-funnel content on websites might not have a form to fill out or another more substantial action to take, so recognizing which CTA buttons work to encourage people to move deeper into the site is paramount.
Average Session Duration
I’m generally not a fan of pageview or time on site-based goals. More pageviews can indicate a person is lost on your site and can’t find what they need. Higher time on site could mean they stepped away from their laptop to make a sandwich. But when you add some qualifiers and look at averages across your entire visitor base, they can become more helpful. Look for users who exceed 3x the site average (excluding bounces).
While these are just a few examples of how and why goals are tiered, it’s not always as black and white as every business has different priorities. Our blog on micro vs. macro conversions is a great resource to help you prioritize your goals.
What To Do With Your Goal Data
So you’ve established these goals. Now what? Your data is only as valuable as what you do with it, and here are some ideas for action:
- Build segments for any user that accomplishes a secondary or tertiary goal. Use those segments to understand how much more likely those users are to accomplish primary goals than your average site user.
- Build audiences for any user that accomplishes a secondary or tertiary goal, but none of the primary goals. Use those audiences to run remarketing campaigns in Google Ads.
- Set incremental growth targets for these goals every year. If you know that 1,000/month convert to a lead form, set a target to improve that by 10% on top of your current pace. We set these goals because we care about improving these metrics.
- Leverage goals in AB testing. Goals and conversions that have been configured in either UA or GA4 can be used in tandem with CRO products (such as Google Optimize) to help improve conversion rates.
Trust Your Gut With Goals
This isn’t an exhaustive list or a be-all and end-all set of rules. You know what’s meaningful to your business and what really moves the needle.
Experiment with additional Google Analytics views that can house another set of 20 goals if you’re not sure about what you’ve got in your main view. Or make the transition to GA4 to take advantage of the additional conversion slots along with other benefits.