What are annotations in Google Analytics?
icture this: you log into your Google Analytics account & see a spike in traffic on Tuesday. What caused it? You think back to Monday & Tuesday, trying to remember what you did & what happened. You go through Google Analytics reports, log into all of your social media channels, review your weekly to-do list, sign into Mailchimp & read back through Google Alerts… Still, you can’t find a reason for the temporary increase in traffic.
Have you ever been in the same situation? Have you wasted precious time trying to remember day-by-day activities so you can explain spikes or dips in traffic? Sounds like you need to start using annotations.
WHAT ARE ANNOTATIONS IN GOOGLE ANALYTICS?
Annotations are notes that you can attach to specific dates in your Google Analytics account. When you use this feature, you can easily add & save details about events, promotions, meetings, website updates & more – anything that can affect website traffic.
When you add annotations, it makes it much easier to find reasons for spikes & dips in traffic, without having to recall what happened days, weeks, or months ago. What’s more, unless edited or removed, your annotations remain in your account indefinitely. So, at a later date, if you’re comparing this year’s performance to a future year’s, you’ll have notes to help you make more meaningful interpretations of data.
However, as helpful as annotations can be, it’s important to remember that they come with limitations. If you suspect that a specific event has caused a traffic spike or dip, you’ll want to ensure that there are analytics available to back this assumption up – or at least some other form of reliable evidence. Without this, you’re simply finding a potential cause & effect correlation that’s really useful, but not always 100% reliable. This is a really important point to remember if you’re thinking of using annotations to justify something like an expensive promotion.
HOW TO VIEW ANNOTATIONS
If you’ve inherited a well-populated Google Analytics account, or your colleagues are doing an amazing job at keeping it all up to date, you might find that your account already features annotations.
How can you tell when annotations have been added? Annotations look like little message bubbles; you can see a number of them on the screenshot below, on the dates axis. As you can see, each annotation is attached to a specific date. Some also appear to overlap slightly; this occurs when you add more than one annotation for a single date.
To view annotations, you can do 1 of 2 things. You can:
1.) Click on the drop down arrow (circled in the screenshot below). This will display all available notes for the time period that you’re viewing.
2.) Click on the annotation that you want to view.
In the image below, you can see a row that is highlighted yellow (4 Aug 2018). When you click on a specific annotation, all available notes are displayed. The entry that’s related to the annotation that you clicked on is highlighted to help you find it quickly. You’ll appreciate this little feature a lot if you have a number of different annotations & little time to find answers!
HOW TO ADD ANNOTATIONS
Adding annotations is easy. To get started, ensure that all notes are displaying & click on ‘+ create new annotation’.
You’ll then see the note form pop up. Add the date & the note that you would like to include. Note: you can backdate annotations, but you can’t add them for dates in the future.
When you’re adding an annotation, you can also:
1.) Choose whether you want the note to be private (available only to you) or shared (available for all of your account’s administrators).
2.) Star the annotation. This can come in handy when you’re adding really important details (or monitoring the performance of a really expensive campaign). It’s also great if, after performance analysis, you’ve pinpointed the most reliable cause of a spike or dip in traffic & want to highlight it for future reference. To star an entry, simply click on the star icon that’s located to the left of the date picker.
WHAT TO INCLUDE IN ANNOTATIONS
You don’t want to record everything in annotations. Add notes about the events & activities that can impact website traffic & are relevant to your brand. This includes events & activities that you can & can’t control. For example, negative reviews published in the local paper might be outside of your control, but they can definitely cause a dip in visits & sales.
So, what should you include in annotations? While I can’t tell you exactly what you need to add (that’s unique to your business & the industry that you operate in), I can give you a few tips to help you get started.
1. Add marketing activities
It goes without saying that you should use annotations to make note of marketing activities that impact traffic & sales. These can help you pinpoint how users & sessions changed when you sent out your last email campaign, launched a new Facebook ad or added a new ad group on Google Ads.
2. Include offline activities
Although they can be much harder to measure, offline activities can have a big impact on your site’s traffic. Where possible, do what you can to monitor the internal & external offline activities & events that influence your website’s performance.
3. Make note of major changes to your website or app
Whether you’re adding / removing pages or making your way through a tricky HTTPS migration, changes to site traffic can sometimes be attributable to technical issues or the addition of new content.
4. Consider events that are outside of your control
Depending on what your brand does, anything from the weather & train strikes to school holidays & Google algorithm changes can cause spikes or dips in website traffic or conversions. & they’re all totally outside of your control. Understanding your product/services & the nature of the industry you operate in, can help you identify & monitor these events.
COMPANY BEST PRACTICE
It’s always a good idea to create a brief process / usage document for marketing activities & measurement processes – annotations are no exception. If you’re the first person in your organisation to start using annotations, spend some time creating a brief best practice process that helps future company marketers use & add annotations.
In your process document, you can cover things like:
1. What to include
Take some time to think about the types of annotations that are going to be most helpful & important to your brand. Should they all b annotated? Ask colleagues & senior managers for feedback too. Find out about other events & offline activities that can impact website traffic & conversions.
2. Format guidelines
How will you structure your annotations? For example, I like to categorise mine. Before writing any detail, I’ll categorise with EMAIL, PR, CONFERENCE, NETWORKING EVENT or whatever medium I’m associating my note with. After this, I’ll include some additional detail. There’s no right or wrong way to format your annotations, find what’s useful for you & any colleagues that you share the account with. Be sure to keep future employees who’ll use your annotations in mind, too – what will make their lives easier?
3. Initialling annotations
This isn’t relevant for everyone, especially if you’re using your own gmail login to view & update Google Analytics. If, however, multiple people are sharing the same account & using the same email address to sign in, it will be difficult to tell who added the annotation – each will show as being added by the same email address. This won’t be a problem until someone’s annotations need explaining. When more detail is required, having initials alongside each entry helps everyone know who they need to speak with.
4. Level of detail
There’s nothing worse than vague notes. For example, ‘launched ad campaign’ can leave you with more questions than answers. Which ad campaign was it, where was it launched? Be specific about the type of detail that should be included. If you’re adding an annotation about an email campaign, should it include the segment it was sent to? The campaign name? You only have 160 characters available per annotation, so don’t try to include every little detail – just add what’s necessary to help you understand & follow up quickly.
TO ANNOTATE OR NOT TO ANNOTATE
As you can see, annotations are simple to use & they can make your life much easier when interpreting marketing performance results. What’s more, they’re 100% free. Sure, they might add a little extra admin time to your day, but compare the tiny amount of time it takes to add an annotation to the hours it can take to investigate spikes & dips in traffic or conversions… ♦
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Amanda Beylkin is the founder of Words on Marketing. She began her marketing career in Australia in 2005, working for an early stage startup. Since this time, she’s worked with brands big & small, from Microsoft & Montcalm Luxury Hotels to Quiz Clothing & cranberry panda. Now based in London, she spends her days helping individuals & brands achieve more with marketing.