Integrating External Data into Google Analytics: Good Idea or Bad Idea?

Let’s assume for a minute that you are using Google Analytics on your website. And let’s also assume that you are doing paid advertising in other marketing channels such as Facebook, Bing and/or LinkedIn and you would like to know the ROI for these marketing channel investments. The question becomes, is uploading the data into Google Analytics to try and understand ROI a good idea?

Google-AnalyticsLet’s start with the logistics of doing this process. First, you will need to construct a standardized file to be imported into Google Analytics. When you configure a file to be imported, you create a Data Set, which defines one or more dimensions to use as a key. Data Import uses this key to match values in the uploaded data to values within your Google Analytics data. The rest of your imported data you upload is stored in the dimensions or metrics you define in the Data Set. Imported data can use either default or custom dimensions and metrics. Imported data can be used in reports, remarketing audiences, and other Google Analytics tools alongside standard data collected by the website tracking code, mobile SDK, or Measurement Protocol.

As you can see, while the process is a little cumbersome, it is definitely doable. We also know that the need to connect these disparate data sets is important to understand the investment return on these marketing channels. So the question is putting data into Google Analytics a good idea?

Overall, I don’t think importing data into a “tool” is ever a good idea to truly understand the ROI of marketing – there are many reasons which I will explain. However, there are few scenarios that could make sense for a process like this.

  • If you are a business with a smaller marketing budget, a lot of extra time on your hands and limited analytics resources, this process would be a good first step to allow you to potentially create a single view of performance.
  • If you are looking to understand a one-time situation where web traffic and/or conversions were important for a specific ad-hoc analysis, this could make sense.

Beyond these two scenarios, importing your data into Google Analytics is a bad idea to sustain a long-term repeatable analytics strategy. Here’s why:

  • Ultimately, we want machines to integrate this data automatically – not people. While this process is doable, it is somewhat cumbersome and not easily repeated every day for example by a person.
  • The data import is completely dependent on having a common key between your data set. What happens when campaign tracking is wrong? What happens if the key simply doesn’t exist? This process falls apart.
  • Importing data into another canned interface like Google Analytics immediately limits your ability to perform robust data visualization, analysis, and sophisticated modeling activities because the tool will be limited to predetermined canned reporting capabilities.

Instead of importing data into Google Analytics, I encourage you to look at extracting data from all of your marketing channel tools including Google Analytics into a centralized data aggregation platform. This strategy allows you to own your data, delivers automated and robust data integration across all sources, and gives you maximum flexibility in choosing how you want to visualize, analyze and model performance.