Google Analytics Annotations: Power Guide

Google Analytics with Annotations

Google Analytics Annotations are one of the most awesome and powerful features in the analytics kit bag,  but the problem is that they are so often ignored. I personally love the features and power that come from them and it’s frustrating to see this crucial bit of Google Analytics so often skipped over.  I thought I would create a quick guide about Google Analytics Annotations and why they are the proverbial missing link between WHAT google analytics tells you is happening on a website, and WHY it is happening.

What are Google Analytics Annotations?

Since it was released from beta back in 2010, annotations are the Google Analytics(GA)  way to document a website’s history.  They are the diary of your website that can tell a consistent and detailed back story for how your website has progressed over the years.  They help explain the good times, bad times, the ups and the downs.

These “mini stories ” are found along the bottom of the bottom of the blue “explorer” graphs as handy clickable speech bubble icons.

You can read the detail that relates to them by either:

  1. Clicking on the speech bubble to make an individual annotation show up
  2. Clicking the down arrow to make them all show up.   

Google Analytics with Annotations

Why Are Annotations so important?

Annotations are one of the features that can take a business to the next level by bringing together all the potential information related to the website exactly where it is needed, in the analytics system where the data is reported.  By keeping a diary of what happened on any one day on the website  this information is ready to access for all users from within Google Analytics. Every possible stakeholder is able to get a full history across the business for all the elements that affect the site at any  time.  Crucially any users will also be able to quickly correlate spikes in traffic on the site with the activities that generate them.  You now know what’s happening on your site, who initiated it and even potentially even why it’s happening.  Powerful!

When to use Annotations

Typically I like to use Google Analytics Annotations  to track information like:

  • New development releases versions
  • List what features are being released at a very high level.
  • Press Releases
  • Digital Marketing Campaigns
  • Website Downtime(if any)
  • Key calendar events such as “Black Friday” in UK, or “Singles day” in China
  • I have even seen people put weather reports in if their business is affected directly by it.

How to Add Annotations

Adding a new Google Analytics Annotation

  1. Click the down arrow at the bottom of the Explorer Graph to start adding an annotation.
  2. Click “Create new Annotation”
  3. In the text field next to the annotation put in the description of the event that happened to the website on that day. I can also select whether the annotation should be shared to all users of that GA account or private to my account.  Personally I always opt for shared to make sure it gives value to our teams.

A good annotation is simple, concise and clear and steers away from any technical or private terms. I also like to put my first two initials next to the annotation so people know who to contact if they need more information. Eg : GK- New Website Design Go live.

The shortcomings of annotations

Annotations are one of google analytics’ oldest features and I personally believe in need of a massive overhaul.  There are a couple of shortcomings that hold it back from being a truly magnificent showcase features of Analytics.

  1. Sharing Permissions– Currently, they only have one type of annotation sharing permission.  An annotation can be shared with everyone  or not shared at all. They need more granular sharing options similar to what we have on google drive.  I want to be able to share only certain annotations with certain people to help filter out the noise.  I also want to make sure that only some of the annotations are accessible using something like an API or 3rd party system.
  2. Different Types of Annotations – Currently there is only one type, take it or leave it.  We should have different types of annotations based on the business use.  Eg Technical annotations can show things like down time and releases, whereas marketing annotations can focus in on digital marketing campaigns.  Each business function doesn’t need to see both by default.  They can be enabled/ disabled to show a series of overlays on the data much like Segments do already.
  3. 3rd Party Integration – Currently annotations are entered into GA and they are locked in tight.   You can’t get access to them from any 3rd party Dashboard tool or application.  They are locked in. I would love to have a good API – so that I can automatically pull in annotations into my reports and dashboards that can be shown on Screen.  With the amount of data that is being generated by websites, that GA can no longer be the only source for all the insight.  Being able to pull all our data from GA into a BI tool would be a massively useful feature and cut the administration efforts that go into producing reports.
  4. Customisable Markers – This is an easy one to get started for the GA team.  Currently we can just do the speech bubble icon and that’s it.  Google maps has custom pins, I want custom annotation icons in GA.  Having different colours and a variety of icons would give a crucial time-saving shortcut to quickly find the annotation that I am after without needing to resort to clicking a multitude of speech bubbles and filtering a long list of text.  I would personally love a myriad of fully customisable types as standard, plus the ability to upload my own.  Who says that data can’t be fun at the same time.

Hopefully above is useful, and over the next few posts, I will talk a little about some of the innovations that we are doing to improve on annotations at work and bypass some of the shortcomings.  I hope that this little guide has opened up the potential that is behind annotations and makes it just that little bit more important to keep up to date.

Remember knowledge is power, and power in GA comes from annotations!