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How to track mobile phone users with Google Analytics

Categories: Plugins & Hacks / Comments: 23

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Designing a web site for a mobile audience with a 3 inch screen and potentially slower data connection is clearly very different from other users. Therefore studying this segment of visitors can have important implications for your web development.

Visits from older generations of Internet enabled mobile phones cannot be tracked by web analytics tools that use page tags – including Google Analytics – as they do not execute JavaScript or cookies. The traditional solution to this was to use a Log analyzer such as Urchin. However the lack of cookie and JavaScript support was precisely the reason so few people used their phone for web access. In many cases sites just failed to work, so tracking the few mobile visitors out there was never a priority – until now.

The newer generation of Smartphones (iPhone, Blackberry etc.) have driven the recent proliferation of web usage via mobile devices by supporting cookies and JavaScript. Therefore visitors accessing your site from a Smartphone can now be tracked – in the exact same way as a desktop or laptop user.

Mobile Web audience statistics

  • Mobile web browsing as a proportion of total web browsing is currently very small at 0.72 percent, though growing. [NetMarketingShare via Econsultancy.com blog, March 2009]
  • US Smartphone users spent an average of 4.6 hours per month on mobile Internet sites. [M:Metrics via Marketing Charts, May 2008]
  • In the US, 63.2m people used their mobiles to find news and information in January 2009, more than double that of January 2008. [comScore, March 2009]
  • Of 182 million people in China with Web-enabled mobile phones, 102 million (56 percent) use the devices to connect to the Web. [Netpop Research via Clickz, April 2009]

How to track mobile visitors

As stated, by default Smartphone mobile visitors are tracked just as any other visitor to your website – you don’t have to do anything! However, the caveat is that these are a relatively small proportion of traffic, so are be buried deep in your reports.

In order to bubble these up to the top, you need to create an advanced segment. (If this means nothing to you, take a look at the advanced segment article on the GA Help Centre). The Figure below shows how to create an advanced segment in Google Analytics to highlight your mobile visitors. It detects either the visitor’s operating system or browser type and matches it against a known lookup list. Just as for profile filters, it uses the regular expression pipe character “|” to separate multiple possible matches for the same metric or dimension.

mobile-adv-segment.jpg

Figure 1 – custom segment to highlight mobile phone visits

Expanded from screenshot: OS and Browser type match:

android|black|HTC|iphone|ipod|lg|nokia|palm|samsung|sony|symbian|vodafone|treo|xda|netfront

Copy & paste this line into the two value fields (Browser and Operating System) for your advanced segment.

The same lookup list is used for both operating system and browser type fields as not all Smartphones set these logically. For example, many do not broadcast their operating system name when viewing websites, while others identify their browsers as regular types e.g. Safari (Symbian, Andriod), which cannot be distinguished from ordinary desktop or laptop users. The use of both fields combined with an “or” statement therefore ensures you capture most mobile visitors.

With your Advanced Segment define, you can then view mobile visits at a click as the following screenshot shows.

mobile visitors

Note: The mobile lookup list for the advanced segment example was compiled by analyzing the browser and operating system combinations of over 10 million visits during July-August 2009 from five independent websites. These were publisher websites i.e. those most likely to receive mobile visitors with a targeted audience of US (1), UK (2) and Swedish (2) visitors.

Let me know if you find this useful – a star rating or comment always goes down well.

BTW, if you have a great idea for an advanced segment, please contact me directly as I would love to see guest posts here from readers.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for the clarification on the new GA reporting. While reading this, I was like “I thought GA did this from within”, then I looked at the date of this post (2009) LOL. I have to say though it was a pretty good way of tracking before GA got their game together.

  2. Pieter says:

    End of May Google changed its structure a bit, so the above segment for mobile doesnt work anymore, it only captures ~30% of mobile traffic. Any suggestions for a segment that will now work?

    • @Peter – this is an old article (2009). GA now has a dedicated set of reports just for mobile. Effectively it does the same thing, but using GA to automatically do this for yo is the way to go.

  3. Elmer Cagape says:

    I think using Users > Mobile dimension value to ‘Yes’ yields similar results. The risk of identifying each browser value is that new ones (as sracano pointed iPad) might be left off.

    Thanks for this nice post.

  4. Hey great post Brian.I didn’t know that we could do that with analytics.Can we also track conversions by setting a goal specifically for the mobile traffic ?
    Seb.

  5. Very useful post, mobile traffic is no doubt the future of digital marketing, and we should be using metrics for tracking user data just as extensively in the mobile space as in the desktop space. Thanks for the great post Brian!

  6. sracano says:

    This is great for mobile segmentation. I had to add a few other brands/phones to your list. I found these through visitors > mobile devices.

    Be sure to include the ipad

  7. Good information. Tracking mobile users has become very necessary. Facebook statistics shows that they have more than 400 million users and 100 million of those also access the facebook from mobile phone.
    http://www.facebook.com/press/info.php?statistics

  8. RentCompass says:

    Great article if you are only trying to track mobile users connecting to a website. But in the smartphone world, it is more important to track application usage. Mobile device users spend way more time running mobile applications than browsing websites. And for that flurry and admob (Also a Google company now) come to play.

  9. Good points, great article and very useful for me (I am acting in the auto second hand industry with a website with thousands of auto listed and about 0.9% of traffic comes from mobile phones )

  10. Keith WIlkinson says:

    Re. the note at bottom of p.250 in the 2nd Edn. of your book, maybe the URL should be http://analytics.blogspot.com/2009/10/google-analytics-now-more-powerful.html ?

  11. Even if I am a beginner in the field of Adwords & Analytics, I must admit I found few new interesting ideas in this article. I will try such a segmentation idea (even if I do not believe I have many mobile phone users since my site is just a new one). Thank you, Brian. ( for all articles you share on your blog)

  12. divorcio says:

    mobile segment is just crazy. good topic, good points
    thanks!

  13. mobile marketing market will be huge, no doubt about it. this post made it clear to me!

  14. Great information for me and thanks for the post. I would like to find out if we track using this method, is it possible to track what visitors have been clicking as well?

    • Google Sniper: All the visit info – clicks, goals, transactions, events etc. are available for you. The mobile tracking described here is simply a method for segmentation. I hope that makes sense.

  15. Iveck says:

    That is awesome! I will definitely be adding this advanced segment to my accounts.

  16. Comment updated 09-Nov-2009

    Kamal: Yes, the new server side tracking script can pick up legacy (i.e. non-JavaScript/non-cookie) phone users. However it is not aimed at tracking these visitors to your regular website. The new GATC snippet is for dedicated mobile sites such as m.google.com, bbc.com/mobile etc., as well as tracking the use of mobile apps. You don’t need it for your regular site – read on for more info…

    Launched alongside Google’s server-side announcement (http://www.google.com/analytics/googleanalyticsformobile.zip), was a dedicated report just for visitors from mobile devices – see the new report in the Visitors > Mobile section of your GA account :0). Essentially this is the same technique as I describe here. I have done some testing and the numbers are very close between this and the advanced segment. Of course prefer the later so you can compare this segment in other reports – but then I am bias…

    You are on the right line for your Advanced Segment. Also, take a look at the Brand Engagement KPI described in Chapter 10 (pg 244)

  17. Kamal says:

    Excellent article Brian. I suppose more mobile-based visitors will be captured with the new server-side tracking for mobile visitors without javascript enabled (files available at http://www.google.com/analytics/googleanalyticsformobile.zip).

    My suggestion for an advanced segment that can be created and would be useful for analysis (especially for sites with a lot of search engine traffic) is “Branded Search”. This can be defined as:
    Medium matches “Organic”
    Keyword contains “BrandName1|BrandName2|BrandName3″

    Or it can be expanded to “Familiar Traffic” as:
    Medium matches “Organic”
    Keyword contains “BrandName1|BrandName2|BrandName3″
    OR
    Medium matches “Referral”
    Source matches “microsite-blog.com|another-microsite.com”
    OR
    Direct

    Would love to know your thoughts!

  18. ginko says:

    Hi,
    This is a real utility! I’m amazed that you could keep this in so long.Thanks for providing us with this beautiful write.

  19. Ikroh SEO says:

    Useful info. Mobile searches are only going to grow as the technology catches up with what users actually want – user-friendly interent wherever they are.

  20. Great article. The market for cellular advertising will be HUGE as soon as someone figures out how to target specific markets and/or users.

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