Ten Years of Google Analytics: How it changed my career – and yours

Ostersund, Sweden - August 1, 2015: Close up of Google analytics main page on a computer screen. Google Analytics is a service offered by Google that generates statistics about a website's traffic.

Google Analytics is ten years old today. On November 11, 2005, Google officially launched Google Analytics. Google had recently acquired a company called Urchin Software and then rolled out a free version of the tool for public use. Before Google Analytics, web analytics tools were primarily only used by large tech and e-commerce companies – they were the only ones who could afford them.

Free analytics tools existed such as AWStats, but they weren’t always easy to implement for the less technologically-inclined, and the data was raw, unsegmented, and harder to interpret. With its colorful charts and graphs, Google Analytics made web traffic data more attractive, even fun, for lay people.

At the time Google Analytics was first released, I was working as a web content manager at an arts non-profit and blogging/freelance writing on the side.  I remember compiling reports on “most viewed content” for my job and literally chasing people around the office with the ugly pie charts that AWStats had to offer. No one cared. A friend of mine, in passing, suggested that I use Google Analytics for a personal blog than I now no longer even keep up. Little did I know at the time Google Analytics would completely change the trajectory of my career. It also kind of ruined my writing career. If you’re a blogger, writer or digital content creator, it’s probably done both for you as well.

It’s hard to imagine a digital world that’s not completely dominated by data. Data is the fuel that (ostensibly) runs large businesses and small non-profits.  The strength and viability of digital ventures is evaluated by web traffic data. Media startups live and die by tracking traffic data and the virality of content. Individual writers are encouraged to keep track of the pageviews that their content generates; these days, many writers’ livelihoods are based around the pageviews generated by their writing.  You can lose your job if your work doesn’t generate a large enough audience. The concept of “writing for pageviews” is largely derided, but definitely understood.

But ten years ago, analytics was the great unknown for a lot of businesses and organizations, especially smaller ones. Digital was seen as a nebulous space, the “wild west,” and analytics seemed too technical and intimidating to be regularly tracked and evaluated. The general notion was that analytics, rather than being seen as an essential tool, had to be justified. At another job I had at a university, I had to repeatedly “make the case” for evaluating the performance of content via web analytics; I can’t imagine that being true at anywhere I’d work now. It happened so gradually I didn’t really notice it, because it all made sense. Of course analytics is important! It allows us to make sense of online user behavior and track trends. It legitimized digital for those fearful of investing in it, especially in those the media industry, which for years looked at the web and social media as frivolous and ephemeral. Google Analytics, in particular, emerged as the market leader for web analytics, in part because it was available for free and relatively easy to use.

GA made web analytics accessible to many entities (particularly small and medium sized businesses) that didn’t even realize such a tool existed, and educated professionals in a cross-section of industries about the basics of web traffic lingo. Now discussions of pageviews, unique visitors, and bounce rates became the norm in offices around the world. It’s used by more than half of all websites, and has become the standard by which all other tools are measured, because it’s one that most of us know.

In the years since I had to argue in defense of analytics at my job, it slowly became more and more of my work until it became the focus of my career. I put on workshops and training sessions on Google Analytics, I wrote articles, I enrolled in courses in Javascript, Excel, and data analysis. I even started a business focused on teaching people about web analytics.  Analytics has been good to me, but somehow along the way, analytics became a much more insidious tool, especially  for those of us who are content creators. For me, the tool I championed as a web content manager eventually came back to bite me in the ass as a writer. Pageviews, or at least volume of pageviews, became a shorthand for  audience interest. In 2008, when Gawker’s Nick Denton started to pay writers based around the traffic they generated, the standard had been set. The age of pageview publishing  and content mills had begun and, at least for awhile, there was no going back.

As a writer that also worked as a data analyst, I sometimes regret how much of a champion I was of analytics in the early days, at least when it comes to blogging and content. When I teach classes about writing for the web, it’s troubling to me how much more interested some students are in learning about how to analyze pageviews than how to actually be a good writer. It bugs me that in addition to doing content based work, so many writers are now expected to work as one-person web analytics departments and that the number of pageviews a post gets is sometimes viewed as the only measure of its value. A lot of fantastic writing gets overlooked that way. Sometimes I feel like my early hyper-enthusiasm among bloggers and publishers about Google Analytics as a tool contributed to that perspective.

To be fair, I’m not saying that Google Analytics specifically led to the rise of clickbait, but the availability of Google Analytics contributed to a mainstream understanding of web traffic data that I think was misused by many industries eager to find a way to prove value to their digital efforts.

I semi-retired from web analytics work about two years ago, for multiple reasons, but the most important one was that becoming data-driven turned me into a data analyst, when I am in fact, a writer. Even though I returned to writing and editing as a career, Google Analytics is still a daily part of my life. I still teach workshops and write about analytics regularly but instead of being a cheerleader and evangelist, I spend a lot of time talking about it’s limitations and encouraging writers to put more stock in their own writing voice than pageviews. For good or ill, all of us who work in digital publishing are data-focused now, but it’s also up to us to push back when we can individually and as an industry, letting data guide us, but not drive us in directions we aren’t meant to go.

That being said, happy birthday to you, Google Analytics. You did change my life, and definitely increased my hourly rate, so I am super-grateful to you for that.

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