Troubleshooting with Real Time Reports


It’s been about a year since Google Analytics launched Real Time reports. At first, they were cool to look at but provided seemingly limited functionality and actionable insights. One of the few examples of usefulness was measuring the immediate impact to your site from social media activities.

Real Time Reports in Google Analytics

But lately, I’ve been turning to Real Time reports for a different use: research and troubleshooting. There is one area in particular that you can use Real Time reports to help with – tracking down traffic sources. If you think visits may be showing up as Direct when they should be showing up as Referral visits, for instance, you can use Real Time reports to do some detective work.

Let me give an example to get you started:

How do visits from Google organic show up in GA when the user is on an iPhone running iOS 6? Does it change if they use the built in search bar in Safari vs. navigating to Google and doing the search there?

This is an issue that came up shortly after Apple launched its latest mobile operating system update. As it turns out, searches done using the built in search bar show up as Direct, while searches done from in Safari show up as Google / organic. Even more noteworthy is that even if the user is logged in to a Google account, we get to see the keyword they used – as opposed to the (not provided) that has plagued us for more almost a year now.

How to use Real Time reports for troubleshooting

For the purpose of diagnosing traffic sources, go to your Real Time reports (Home > Real Time > Traffic Sources). Then, in a different browser (or from your phone or tablet), go to your site using the method in question. For example, if you want to see how Google organic visits will show up for logged in users, go to Google, log in, and do a search for your brand. Then click on your listing, and monitor your Real Time reports to see how it shows up.


  • Real Time reports ignore any filters you have on your profile.
  • UPDATE: Real Time reports now obey any filters applied to your view (profile). This update was rolled out in October 2012.
  • Real Time reports are most helpful with diagnosing mobile visits. For desktop/laptop visits, you can use the HttpFox Firefox plugin or the Developer Tools for Chrome to troubleshoot.
  • For sites with heavy traffic, you’ll need to be able to segment out your visit from the hundreds or thousands of other visits currently on your site. To do this, visit your site using whichever method you’re investigating. Then, tack on a query parameter to the end of the URL and load the page. For example, if you first land on, change the URL to be and load the page. Then go to the Content reports in Real Time and search for active pages that include testing=fun. Now you can go to the other reports in Real Time (i.e. Traffic Sources) and it will show the data just for that active page.

Do you think Realtime Reports are a useful feature, or a worthless gimmick? Let us know in the comments.

Jim Gianoglio is a Manager for the Analytics & Insight department. He works with implementation, analysis and training of Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager. Before focusing on analytics, he led the SEO campaigns of Fortune 500 companies in the insurance, retail and CPG industries. Things you didn’t know about Jim: he’s biked from Pittsburgh to Washington DC in 41 hours, roasts coffee beans and has done voiceovers for TV commercials.

  • Bronwyn

    “Even more noteworthy is that even if the user is logged in to a Google account, we get to see the keyword they used – as opposed to the (not provided) that has plagued us for more almost a year now.”

    watch them now find some way to block/remove that real quick!

    Good article though, thank you!

  • Hi Jim, thanks for sharing the article.
    It’s probably safe to say that the jury is still out on real time web analytics.

    It’s less to do with the technology and more related to business process and their ability to adapt quickly and change based on findings.

    Use of web analytics data for the most part is still in it’s infancy based on many client observations. Despite all the industry noise, companies need to learn to walk before they run.

    This troubleshooting angle is a really useful tip for those embarking on the real time journey. There’s a rather tongue-in-cheek post to compliment this one with some other use cases for real time here:

    Would love to hear your feedback.
    Thanks again!

  • @Bronwyn – I assume that they are already working on a way to remove all keyword data (unless it’s paid for, of course).

    @Alex – I love the analogy of the lava lamp – perfect! I agree with you, most companies aren’t even good at using 1-day-behind analytics, let alone real-time analytics. However, I believe the companies that survive and thrive in today’s environment will be those that are smart about how they collect and use data from all sources, whether it’s real-time or not.

    Thanks to both of you for your comments!

  • Hi i am using google analytics and some plugin for viewing statistics , plugins shows more visitors then analytics can you tell me what could be the problem.

  • @Daniyal –

    There are a lot of reasons why the numbers could be different. Without knowing which plugin you’re using, it’s impossible to say what is causing your differences.

    Some common things to consider: are your date ranges the same? Are you using filters in GA?

  • Luis Miguel

    I’ve been searching for answers to my question but it has been worthless (even with GA!). So I decided to give a try with you if you don’t mind?

    GA real time report for my website shows the origin of a “direct” source (i.e. writing the url in the browser) as “social network”? Can’t understand why and it behaves differently in browsers and computers. This is what I tried for debugging:

    1. In laptop and desktop I logged out from any social network (FB, G+, linkedin)
    2. In desktop I opened GA real time for monitoring and in laptop I accessed the url directly in IE, FF and Chrome.
    3. Done the same actions but inverted in laptop.

    From laptop: IE shows as “Direct”; FF and Chrome shows as “Social Network”

    From desktop: IE and FF shows as “Direct”; Chrome shows as “Social Network”

    Now the results are curious and I can’t understand why! If you might have a clue I would appreciate your help or tip.

    Thank you.
    Luis M.

  • Lea Synefakis-Pica

    We are just getting to know GA and have already found real-time analytics critical for testing purposes, but nothing else. Knowing that it collects activity outside of filters is essential for us as we have many on our views.

    Real-time analytics would grow infinitely more useful as a testing tool if browsers and devices were included as report dimensions.

    These tips are fantastic, thank you!

  • @Louis – I don’t know how your comment slipped past me, but I apologize for not answering it sooner!

    What is happening is that whenever you visit a site directly (typing the URL in your browser) it will only show up as a Direct visit in GA if there is no http referrer.

    In other words, if you visit a site from a Twitter, and then go back to the site directly the next day, the second (direct) visit will actually show up as a visit from Twitter.

    If you clear the cookies in all 6 browsers you’re using (3 on the laptop and 3 on the desktop) and then run your test again, you should find that they all show up as Direct.

    Hope that helps!

  • @Lea –

    The Real Time reports now obey view (profile) filters – I updated the post to reflect that update (which happened in October of last year).

    Sorry for the confusion! If you still want to see the real-time activity outside of filters, you can set up a new view (profile) and just don’t apply any filters to it (you may already have a view like this).

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