Tracking email metrics is not as straightforward as many would like to think. Open rates are misleading; links can be clicked multiple times by the same person; and on top of all that, it can be difficult to know which metrics actually merit your attention, and which metrics just aren’t that important. Everyone has their own opinion on which email metrics are the most important. However, those various arguments will have to wait for another blog post. Today we are going to discuss a slightly different email tracking dilemma: Is Google Analytics a good tool for analyzing the success of an email campaign? Today we will examine both its strengths and its limitations as it relates to email marketing.

Many websites utilize Google Analytics to track their web traffic, and for good reason: it is a very powerful traffic analysis tool that also happens to be free. However, every once in a while, one of our clients will have us deploy an email campaign on their behalf, and then watch Google Analytics expecting to see identical results to the email tracking report. When this happens, they are usually disappointed, because the hard truth is that email metrics tracking and web traffic tracking are two very different things. Google Analytics is not, in and of itself, an automatic email tracker, and attempting to use it this way generally causes more confusion than insight.

Why is this? Well, a click in an email operates differently than a click on a web page. When you click a link on a web page, that information is sent to the browser; if you click a link in an email, however, that process will be server-based. This means that, when that link is clicked, it will be sent to the server, recorded, and then you will be redirected to the correct URL. When that happens, the browser is only aware of the end result; it cannot accurately gather information on the referring URL.

Google Analytics, as you might have guessed by now, is only capable of accurately tracking browser-based processes. Since a click in an email is server-based rather than browser-based, Google Analytics malfunctions, resulting in those clicks getting lost. This is why you will see a discrepancy between an email tracking report and the resulting web traffic report in Google Analytics. GA is not a good indicator of email metrics… that is, unless you have prepared for it.

As it turns out, Google Analytics actually can be used to track an email campaign fairly accurately. In fact, it can give you lots of valuable information if you set it up correctly, even tracking email clicks to conversions on your website. However, it will only work in this capacity if you design your email links to report specifically to GA rather than to a server. This means you have to manually put GA tracking links in your email, rather than using the automatic tracking links that most email programs use. Google provides a convenient URL Builder to create these links for you, so all you have to do is use the URL it generates instead of a normal tracking URL. This will ensure that the click is sent directly to Google Analytics, so that it can accurately measure your email metrics.

That said, it should be noted that Google Analytics does not provide real-time tracking like many email programs do. Google Analytics generally has a delay of 48-72 hours, so if you do decide to use GA as your email metrics tracker, don’t confuse it with a real-time tracker.

Google Analytics and email marketing actually can work together to give you a sense of the success of your email campaign. However, you cannot assume that, just because you sent out an email campaign, GA will automatically be able to accurately report how much web traffic it caused. Attempting to use it that way is misunderstanding what kind of tool it is. If you have not used Google Analytics links in your email, then you are much better off trusting the tracking report generated by your email program for an accurate assessment of your email metrics.