Event Tracking or Social Tracking or Both?


Using Google Analytics to Track Social Interactions on Your Site

With so many different social media buttons and boxes and plugins, deciding which ones to include on your site can be overwhelming. And it’s even more daunting to track your visitors’ interactions with those buttons, especially if the data ends up scattered across multiple reports.

Google Analytics’ new Social reports, populated with data using the new _trackSocial method, raise the question: When should you use event tracking and when should you use social tracking?

You might be influenced by the fact that Google +1s are automatically captured in the Social reports. So why not just use _trackSocial for everything instead of _trackEvent or some combination of both? Let’s look at some of the differences.

Visitor Data vs. Content Data

GA’s user interface distinguishes the two methods, _trackSocial and _trackEvent, by placing the resulting reports in separate sections. Event reports reside in the Content section alongside Pages and Site Search, while Social reports live in the Visitors section along with reports for Demographics and Behavior.

We get a little more insight from the official documentation which implies that “social interactions” are a subset of “general content interactions” and explicitly states that the advantage of using _trackSocial is in the framework it provides:

“While event tracking can track general content interactions as well, Social Analytics provides a consistent framework for recording social interactions.”

Before we look at that framework, I want to discuss what counts as a “social interaction.” The _trackSocial method was introduced as a way to track social plugins, but I think it could be applied to other social media buttons as well.

Socially Engaged or Not?

The documentation includes only examples for specific types of clicks – where the social media platform actually confirms a successful like or tweet or +1. But visitors may click on other types of buttons, such as “connect with us” icons that are nothing more than external links. They take the visitor to your Facebook page or your Twitter page, for example, where she may or may not click the Like button or the Follow button.

The Social reports identify visits by two Social Types – a visit is either from a visitor who is “Socially Engaged” or not. So you could decide that only successful likes or tweets or +1s truly indicate a visitor is Socially Engaged, and only use _trackSocial for those types of clicks.

In contrast, a visitor who clicks the link to go to your Facebook page might be less engaged. The problem is that once the visitor leaves your site, information about what happens next – such as whether she clicks Like or not – is beyond the reach of Google Analytics. GA can only record that she clicked the button to go to Facebook (or any other social media page you may have).

Consequently you could decide to exclude these clicks from the “Socially Engaged” data in Social reports, and instead use _trackEvent to populate that data in Event reports.

I’m inclined to count clicks on all social media buttons, boxes, and plugins as “social interactions” and try to put them all in the new Social reports, but you may have a different view. And I’m still experimenting to see what works for me.

Granularity and Flexibility

While you can build a good framework with event tracking, less granular than with social tracking but still pretty close, ultimately the edge goes to social tracking for its combination of granularity and flexibility.

For example, with the framework provided by _trackSocial, you could see the following in your Social reports (for a Facebook like):

  • Social Source (Facebook)
  • Social Action (like)
  • optional Social Entity (page being liked)
  • optional Page (page where the like occurred, potentially different from the page being liked)

Set up a similar framework using _trackEvent, and you could see this type of data in your Event reports:

  • Event Category (Facebook)
  • Event Action (like)
  • optional Event Label (concatenate the page being liked with page where the like occurred)

Obviously the event framework has less granularity since one event slot (Label) has to cover two social slots (Entity and Page). You can search by event label to view data for entities or pages – it’s just a little more work than using Social reports where it’s already broken out for you.

Another disadvantage of this particular event framework is that all the categories for social events, like Facebook and Twitter, are mixed together with categories for other events you might track, like downloads and video plays. On the other hand, the Social reports separate them quite nicely.

Perhaps most significantly, Event reports come with data for site usage and ecommerce, but do not contain goal data. Social reports have tabs for all three. That means more flexibility for analysis right out of the box. Click on that Goal Set tab and see right away how well your Socially Engaged visitors converted across different goals, and which types of engagement correlated with more or fewer conversions.

The Fly in the Ointment

Sounds good, right? Not so fast. There’s one potentially major drawback to consider.

Unlike events, social actions appear in every profile regardless of how it’s filtered. If I have a profile that includes only pages where no social actions appear, I’ll still have data in my Social reports. There’s a similar drawback with transactions, but not a similar workaround. Unfortunately, social actions are not available as filter fields, yet. (I’m still waiting for custom variables to be available in filters, too.)

Whether you choose event tracking or social tracking, all types of buttons can be tracked. I’m definitely leaning toward covering everything with _trackSocial. I’ll cover the details of my experiments in a follow-up post.

What’s your approach for tracking social interactions in Google Analytics? Which features are influencing your decisions? Please share in the comments.

Dorcas Alexander is a Manager for the Analytics & Insight department. Her path to LunaMetrics followed stints in ad agency creative, math, and computer science. Dorcas has a master's degree in language and information technologies from Carnegie Mellon University, where she helped build precursors to a Universal Translator. One of the top-rated tournament Scrabble players in Pennsylvania, Dorcas has an insatiable drive to compete and win.

  • Despite of the lack of filtering (for now hopefully), I track all social interactions using _trackSocial.

    The only exception is Facebook Connect (Log In & Log Out). I track those actions as Events since they aren’t “social actions” (and non PII data from Facebook Connect I track using Custom Variables).

    If I consider the action to be “social”, I use _trackSocial, if not I use Events.

    • Dorcas Alexander

      Makes perfect sense, Eivind. I like your idea to use Custom Variables for capturing non-personally identifiable info from Facebook Connect logins, too!

  • Johann de Boer

    Is another advantage of social tracking vs event tracking for social interactions, that social tracking spans across visits/sessions by the same visitor, whereas events do not? E.g. if a visitor made a social interaction in their first visit, but not in their second, then would their second visit also be counted when using advanced segmentation where visits are socially engaged?

    • Dorcas Alexander

      Hi Johann, social tracking does not span visits/sessions by the same visitor. You can’t create advanced segments for socially engaged visits (yet), but you can filter custom reports by Social Type. Try testing with your own data and look at a custom report to confirm. Think of “social interaction” as a specific kind of event associated with a page or visit, instead of a visitor characteristic (if it were, we’d be saving it in the visitor cookie). Hope that helps!

  • First off, nice evaluation of the benefits and drawbacks of tracking social interactions using Event tracking vs. Social tracking.

    I do think that the ideal solution will eventually be to track all social interactions using the _trackSocial method. Since it’s a new feature in GA, however, there are still drawbacks that will prohibit some users from implementing the _trackSocial method. You’ve outlined some, but I’d like to add two additional drawbacks.

    1) If social interactions are a goal of your site, you will be limited by the _trackSocial method since the interactions can’t be defined as goals.

    2) If you use the API to extract your data from GA, the _trackSocial method will not work for you since it is not yet part of the API.

    I’m sure both of these drawbacks will eventually be resolved, but they may prevent some GA users from implementing the _trackSocial method at this time.

    • Dorcas Alexander

      Hi Nathan, Good additions and undoubtedly important considerations for many folks, including me. As more clients clamor for social media measurement, I want to be sure I’m thoroughly weighing my options. Thanks for contributing to the discussion!

  • Rob

    Hi, I was all ready to use _trackSocial instead of _trackEvent for my Twitter Follow buttons (surely a social engagement indicator right) but then realised that only with _trackEvent do I have the ‘label’ value where I can record the name of the user that followed me using Twitter Web Intents events. Is this correct?

    • Dorcas Alexander

      Hi Rob, _trackSocial actually has 4 slots for storing that type of information versus _trackEvent which only has 3; and you are not bound by the names of those fields as to what you actually record there (although you want to be consistent so it’s easier to analyze the resulting data). However, you are bound by GA’s Terms of Service not to record any personally identifiable information in your Google Analytics data, and so that means you should not record Twitter usernames in any case.

  • Rob

    Hadn’t though of that! _trackSocial it is then.

  • Rob

    But why then looking at the source code of this page are you doing the exact same thing on the Twitter follow button in the right hand column? And also using _trackEvent instead of _trackSocial?

    • Dorcas Alexander

      We’re still using _trackEvent instead of _trackSocial because (you caught me) I haven’t gotten around to implementing it yet on the LunaMetrics site. The “label” you see in the source code is not the user who is following us, but rather our own Twitter user ID. When I look at what this code produced in GA, I do not see the Twitter usernames of people who followed us.

  • Rob

    Hi Dorcas, I have been in contact with the guys over at Distilled as they talk about the Web Intents ‘intent_event.data.screen_name’ variable on a post of theirs with regards to capturing the username of the person who follows you.

    You can read their post and mine and their comments here.

    It seems that Google may be ok with it.

    I’m not sure why you are not seeing this variable in your stats.

    I think I’ll just have to test this out for myself and see what occurs.

    I will let you know. It would be good to clear it up for others.

  • Rob

    Hi Dorcas, you were right! 😉 It does not record the username of the person that followed you. But the username of the button clicked. I shall add a comment to the Distilled post. Thanks for being patient with me and helping me get to the bottom of it.

    • Dorcas Alexander

      Thanks for all your comments, Rob. Glad you were able to replicate my results in your data!

  • Ishan Jayman

    is there anyway that i can query _trackSocial using client apis.
    I can track _traveEvents.
    in the google api we cannot find any dimensions and metrics for _trackSocial.

    • Dorcas Alexander

      Unfortunately social metrics and dimensions are not yet available in the API; however, you can access them in the Custom Reporting section of the GA interface.

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