Google loves data. Google loves sharing data. But can we trust the data that Google shares with us?
Over the past few days I’ve found myself confronted with inconsistencies, suspicions, and downright inaccuracies in the data that Google chooses to share with us, its users.
First of all let me say that I love what Google is doing with its tools. The new Webmaster Tools features are all very welcome and extremely helpful, Google Adwords is improving with every iteration, and Google Analytics is made of pure awesomeness topped off with awesomesauce.
But can we trust these tools to give us the full picture? Let’s look at some of Google’s tools and the data it provides.
The Google Adwords Keyword Tool has for a long time been viewed with some degree of suspicion, the data it yielded on search volumes not to be entirely relied on.
And now with the latest update to the tool any pretence of accurate, unbiased data is thrown entirely out the window. It’s a tool designed purely to help boost Google’s PPC revenue, and as such it has lost a lot of its relevance and value for SEOs.
But it’s not just the keyword tool that raises questions. Recently I was handed control over an existing Google Adwords account that hadn’t had any active campaigns for over 6 months. My first action was to restart one of the existing campaigns that had been dormant for half a year, with the intention of tweaking and improving it along the way.
The first week of this restarted campaign turned out to be a very good week, with a high amount of clicks, a very good CTR, and much lower CPC than the campaign had originally achieved.
But then things changed. In the second week, before I had made any alteration to the campaign, all metrics changed for the worse. Clicks and CTR dropped, CPC went up, and all for no discernible reason. The keywords the campaign was bidding on were not seasonal by any means, so I couldn’t identify any reason for this sudden and quite pronounced drop in campaign performance.
The drop continued in week 3, after which the campaign stabilised on a level of performance significantly lower than that of its first week.
Now a cynic (like me) could possibly suspect Google of having gamed the system a bit. It sees the re-activation of a dormant Adwords account and decides to ‘welcome’ the lapsed user back with suitably high metrics so as to instil a level of confidence with PPC advertising. It then quickly reverts to its normal performance, having done its duty, leaving the campaign’s manager to strive to achieve that first burst of phenomenal performance.
I love Google Analytics. It’s a great web analytics tool that can provide its users with enormous amounts of highly useful data, which when interpreted correctly can yield incredibly valuable insights.
But I don’t trust Google Analytics very much. Too often I find discrepancies in its data, gaps in its reporting, and flaws in its figures.
Here’s one example I came across very recently. As part of my work for the Belfast Telegraph I do a weekly report on which articles performed the best, and there was one article that stood out in more ways than one. It was the most viewed article of the week – it was an article featuring a video of the Chile miners’ rescue – but Google Analytics gave me two entirely different pageview numbers, depending on how I approached the metric.
In one view (Top Content) the article was reported as having a bit over 9k pageviews, while in another view (Content Detail with a focus on Entrance Sources) it was shown to have over 33k pageviews.
While some discrepancies of numbers between different views are to be expected, I’m pretty sure a discrepancy of over a factor 3 is more than a bit excessive.
As it turns out the 33k number was the more accurate figure (as reported by our secondary analytics system HBX), but that number was only gained from Google Analytics after some additional digging. The original number as shown in the Top Content report was that much smaller (and highly inaccurate) 9k figure.
Needless to say this kind of highly inaccurate reporting can lead to a distorted view of a website’s performance, which in turn can lead to the wrong actions being taken.
Google Webmaster Tools
I don’t know about you but I find myself spending more and more time looking at the shiny reports conjured forth by Google Webmaster Tools. Over time it’s changed from a handy little toolset in to a full-fledged must-have toolkit, useful in a variety of ways.
The most recent improvements to GWT have been the most useful to SEOs – data on search query rankings & clicks and improved reporting on incoming links.
Yet once again we find ourselves wondering how accurate this data really is. Comparing the search query clicks as reported in GWT to the keyword data in Google Analytics there’s a discrepancy ranging from 45% to more than 100% on many keywords, as well as some keywords being omitted entirely from the GWT report.
We’ve already established that Google Analytics can’t be relied on entirely, and the numbers reported by Google Webmaster Tools are too generic (reminiscent of the data provided by the Google Keyword Tool), so we’re left wondering which figure to put our faith in.
The Struggle for Data
I realise that with data like this it’s not so much the actual figures we should be looking at as much as the trends they provide us, but in some cases those actual numbers really do matter. And it’s becoming painfully obvious that Google is unable, or unwilling, to provide us with truly accurate data.
These are just three minor examples of how Google presents us with a distorted view of what’s actually happening on the SERPs and on our websites. I’m sure there are many more such stories out there, and if you have one of your own to share by all means leave a comment.
The struggle to get accurate and reliable data on the performance of our sites continues, and while I applaud Google’s efforts to help webmasters and internet professionals with more data and insights, the fact remains that we can’t entirely trust what the big G is telling us.