Conversion Goals and Events in Google Analytics: What’s The Difference and When To Use Them

Conversion Goals and Events in Google AnalyticsAs online marketing evolves, more and more companies are realizing the power of effectively tracking their marketing efforts via web analytics.  I’m finding myself doing a lot more analytics strategy work for clients and I absolutely love it (on multiple levels). I’ve worked with a wide range of web analytics packages since 1995 and it’s amazing to see how the industry and technologies have progressed.

Assisting companies with Web Analytics is a core service of mine and I believe it’s critically important for understanding how your marketing efforts are impacting (or not impacting) your business.  When I’m developing strategies for clients, I always begin by identifying various KPI’s for the site at hand.  Then I develop a plan for tracking those KPI’s via a number of conversion goals and events.  After I complete this process and present my plan, it’s not long before I hear the following question:

“What exactly are conversion goals and events and what’s the core difference between the two?”

It’s a great question, and I’ve received the question so often that I’ve decided to write this post to thoroughly cover the topic.  For this post, I’ll focus on Google Analytics, although the core concepts are similar across web analytics packages.  How you set up and track your conversions and events across packages is the main difference.  Let’s begin with conversion goals.

Defining Conversion Goals
Conversion goals are success events that occur on your website.  They represent key actions that users take on your site and they are typically represented by reaching a certain page. For example, a simple conversion to understand is successfully buying something on an e-commerce website.  The “Thank You” page would be your conversion goal (page-wise) and can be tracked in Google Analytics by using the URL destination.  Now, that specific conversion (a purchase) would be achieved after going through a multi-step process to reach the goal (a conversion funnel), and I’ll cover that topic in more depth later in the post.  Note, you can also set up conversion goals that are engagement-based (time on site and number of pages per session), but I’m going to focus on conversions that are triggered by reaching a page on your site.

The Difference Between Macro and Micro-Conversions

When mapping out conversions for your website, you can identify and track both macro and micro-conversions.  An example of a macro-conversion would be a purchase on your site or someone contacting you via a submit form.  These are the critical conversions for your specific business.  But not all conversions are as obvious (and important) as a purchase.  For example, you might consider downloading podcast a micro-conversion for your site.  You might also track RSS subscriptions and registering for an email newsletter as conversions.  You can even track reaching an important page on your website as a micro-conversion.  The exact conversion goals you decide to track will be dictated by your specific website and the goals of your business.  That’s why you should develop an analytics strategy BEFORE setting up your conversions and events.

Conversion Funnels

Earlier I mentioned the multi-step process for buying something on an e-commerce website.  The four required steps in that process can be tracked as a conversion funnel in Google Analytics.  For example, Shopping Cart, Shipping Information, Billing Information, and Thank You Page.  Using a conversion funnel enables you to analyze the process for reaching a certain goal.  For example, do people significantly drop off after step two for some reason?  Analyzing a conversion funnel can arm you with data to go and fix various problems that are present in the multi-step process.  And fixing those problems can end up impacting a lot of revenue for your business.

A Sample Conversion Funnel in Google Analytics:

Conversion Funnels in Google Analytics

Virtual Pageviews and Conversion
What if I told you that you can track a conversion goal on your site by using a page that doesn’t actually exist?  Well, using what’s called a “virtual pageview”, you can do just that.  And there are times that using a virtual pageview makes complete sense.  For example, let’s say you used a service like feedburner to manage your RSS subscriptions.  Since your feed actually resides on another site, your RSS button could trigger a virtual pageview that can be tracked in Google Analytics just like the page actually was present on your site (when in reality, it doesn’t even exist.)  Taking this one step further, you could use that virtual pageview as the URL destination for a conversion goal.  Then you can view reporting for how many people are clicking through to your feed.  You can use this approach to track any click off of your website as a conversion goal.  It’s handy, to say the least.

Conversions Are Unique Per Session

I receive a lot of questions from marketers that see a discrepancy between pageview count and conversions (comparing the content reporting for the page that actually triggers the conversion with the number of conversions being reported in Google Analytics).  For example, seeing a page that has 425 pageviews, but Google Analytics only shows 75 conversions.  Theoretically, those numbers should match, right?  Not so fast…  The reason for the discrepancy is that Google Analytics tracks conversions uniquely by session.  So if a person reaches Goal A during a visit, a conversion is triggered.  But, if that person goes back through the site and triggers the goal again, it’s not counted as a second conversion.  Therefore, if you need to see how many times an action is triggered, use events instead.

Number of Conversions Per Profile

Once clients get excited about the various tracking possibilities, I’m often asked how many conversion goals can be set up in Google Analytics.  There is a limit of 20 conversion goals per profile.  In case you’re wondering, that’s a good amount of conversion goals and most sites will fall short of requiring that number.  Again, it depends on your specific site and business.  That said, you can always create additional profiles and add more conversion goals if needed.  For example, you could have two profiles with 40 conversion goals set up.  I doubt you would need that many goals, but it is possible to set up, if needed.  Goals are broken down in Google Analytics by “goal sets”, which include up to five goals per set.

Goals Are Organized by Goal Sets in Google Analytics:

Conversion Goal Sets in Google Analytics



Defining Events (and Event Tracking)

Events also represent important actions on your website.  The core difference between events and conversion goals is that events are typically tied to website elements and not reaching certain pages (or URL destinations).  Event Tracking has become more important in recent years as web technologies have evolved and websites now rely on non-pageview events more often.  For example, tracking AJAX or Flash-based applications that don’t rely on refreshing the page.  Instead, they load data on-demand via form elements or links.  Event tracking enables you to tag specific actions on your site (such as links or buttons) and then view granular reporting for those actions.  Examples of events include clicking a link to download a pdf, clicking the play button in a video, tracking specific form elements like radio buttons, clicking a link on a webpage that dynamically loads additional information, etc.  Event tracking is extremely versatile and the strategies I develop often include a number of events to track (again, the actual events are based on the site at hand).

Categories, Actions, and Labels
One of the core benefits of event tracking in Google Analytics is the ability to categorize each event.  When you tag an event, you can add a Category, Action, and Label in the code (with Category and Action being required).  This enables you to logically categorize each event that’s triggered.  For example, a rewind button in a video of a keynote presentation might be categorized like:

Category: Videos
Actions: Rewind
Label: Keynote2010

This would enable you to quickly view reporting for all video events, then rewind click actions across videos, and then which videos triggered those actions.  A structure like this comes in very handy when you a lot of videos on your site and you want to view how many people are rewinding specific videos.

An Example of Event Tracking Reporting in Google Analytics:

Event Tracking in Google Analytics

Tracking Flash Applications Via The GAforFlash Component
If you are interested in learning how to track flash applications, check out my two part tutorial about using the GAforFlash component.  Adobe has worked with Google on creating a component that lets you seamlessly track flash events via ActionScript.  I think you’ll dig both the component and my tutorial.  :)

Number of Events Per Session
Don’t go crazy with event tracking.  Just because you can track many actions on your site doesn’t mean you should.  There is a limit on the number of events that can be tracked per session in Google Analytics, which is 500.  That should be plenty for most sites, but be aware of that number if you are triggering events programmatically.

Events Versus Unique Events

As mentioned above, conversions are unique per session and there are times that events make more sense (such as when you want to track how many times per session something is triggered).  When you are reviewing the event tracking reporting in Google Analytics, the metric Total Events will give you the raw number of events triggered.  For example, if someone clicked an important link 25 times in a session, then that would show up as 25 events triggered.  However, you will also see a metric titled Unique Events in your reporting.  This will show the unique sessions that triggered events.  In my example above, a person clicked a link 25 times (which is 25 events), but that will show up as 1 Unique Event.

Summary: The Power of Using Both Conversion Goals & Events

I hope this post demystified conversion goals and events in Google Analytics.  Both are important tools to have in your web analytics arsenal.  If you are just getting started, my recommendation is that you thoroughly map out an analytics strategy.  This will help you determine when conversion goals and events make sense.  Without a solid strategy in place, you run the risk of tracking dozens of actions that have relatively little impact on your business.  Definitely stay tuned if you’re eager to learn more about goals and events. I plan to write more about each topic in future posts.  If you have any questions, please post a comment below. You can also read my previous posts about Google Analytics by visiting my tag page.


18 thoughts on “Conversion Goals and Events in Google Analytics: What’s The Difference and When To Use Them”

  1. Hi Stephen. Thanks for your comment.

    It would be similar to pageviews vs. unique pageviews. One person can generate 10 pageviews for a single page, but it would only be 1 unique pageview.


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  3. You mention “virtual pageviews” (that’s exacltly what I need to track a link to an external site). Where can I find info about them? Thanks

  4. Thanks for your answer. After my question I kept looking around and I found the article you mention. It’s great, I’m already implementing it. Thanks!

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