Essential Google Analytics Alerts & How to Set Them Up
Editor’s note: this is a guest post by our good friend Jean-Philippe Boily, founder of Metrics Watch. JP’s a Google Analytics master, as you can see in his first article on GA reports.
Picture this nightmarish scenario:
A dev on your team just pushed a modification to your site… and broke your e-commerce integration.
People can’t buy.
You leave for lunch, maybe even work a few hours after that before you realize what happened.
Meanwhile, BIG money is being lost.
Panic ensues among the developer team: “OMG, how could that happen to us? We do unit tests, heck, we even have some integration tests— they all passed!”
You have a monitoring tool telling you that your servers are up. PagerDuty didn’t call you: the site isn’t down, so your typical monitoring systems weren’t triggered.
You fix everything quickly, but the damage’s already done. Disastrous business day.
After gobbling down a few chill pills, it’s time for a post-mortem.
“How can we avoid that in the future? How can we know when there is an issue with our online money-making machine?”
That’s where Google Analytics alerts come to the rescue.
How? By monitoring the symptoms of such breakdowns: drop in conversions and sales, for example.
I’ve seen real-life horror stories just like the one above. People losing thousands of dollars before even noticing there was something wrong! Today I want to make sure it doesn’t happen to you. I'm going to do so by listing essential Google analytics alerts and showing you how to set them up.
Why use Google Analytics custom alerts?
I won’t spend too much time introducing the feature as the name itself is pretty self-explanatory. In a nutshell, GA custom alerts are notifications sent to you, by email or SMS, when selected metric’s thresholds are triggered. I’ll explain how to set them up in GA further down.
As in my prior example, I know that some devs might argue that they already do unit and integration tests, that it should be enough to know everything’s working fine. Sadly, this isn’t true. You should absolutely do them, as much as possible. No question. But they won’t assure you nothing will break, ever.
And the day something does break, analytics alerts might be the last barrier before disaster. At least, you’ll know way quicker something isn't right.
If it were possible to monitor your bank account, it would be great (but it’s not!). Your payment gateway? That could sort of work, but their APIs aren’t built with that in mind. It'd be tricky.
Your analytics? Yup, that’s close enough to money!
Alerts can be used for whatever you want, but the following custom alerts examples serve a vital purpose. Making sure money is coming in as expected—or as close as you can get to this.
Setting up Google Analytics alerts
I have good news and not so good news here.
Let’s start with the good news. You can create alerts for free in Google Analytics! Amazing, right?
Yes, but the bad news is: you can only create alerts for yesterday’s data. You can’t set real-time data or even hourly data natively in Google Analytics. Luckily, there are other solutions available to do so, as we’ll see later on.
But first, let’s focus on native GA custom alerts.
You have two ways to create new alerts in Google Analytics.
First, in the left menu, click on “Customization” and then click on “Custom Alerts”.
Once there, click on “Manage custom alerts” at the top left of the table. This will get you in the admin, in “Custom Alerts” under the view settings (third column in admin).
Or, you can go directly to the admin and look for the “Custom Alerts” section.
You can then click on the “+ NEW ALERT” button to create a custom alert.
Easy, sure. But the hard part is knowing what alerts are relevant to set up. Let’s go through the key metrics to monitor and how to do so.
Best Google Analytics custom alerts to set up
1. Organic traffic & other significant sources of traffic
First, ask yourself: “Where are my sales coming from?” I hope you can answer that question at this point. If not, maybe your analytics reporting isn’t on point?
No matter what are your main acquisition channels, you should monitor them with Google Analytics to make sure you are getting a minimum number of visits and sales from them continually.
If your marketing strategy is centered around SEO, like most e-commerce websites, you really don’t want to miss out on drops in organic traffic. Or worse: indexation problems. To avoid late surprises, you want to at least monitor organic traffic. Other sources of traffic to monitor depends on a business’ acquisition strategy.
But here’s the point: you should monitor your core acquisition channels.
To do so, you’ll need to filter the metrics below to organic traffic and/or other channels using the “source/medium”.
Take organic sessions for example. Determine the average number of sessions over a period of time coming from Google and the percentage that would feel to you like a significant drop—50% is a good starting point that you can then adjust. You want to get alerted if the number of sessions falls below this threshold.
Metrics to monitor:
How to set up organic traffic alerts in GA
For Snipcart, organic traffic is where most of the money’s at—so they need to keep a close eye on it!
So, what are we seeing here?
First, the alert’s name is explicit.
When you receive it, you know exactly what the problem is!
Second, it’s applied to their MASTER view—the one they use to monitor all traffic and activity. It’s the view they base their business decisions on.
Third, it’s based on a relevant time frame. Notice how it’s set to “Month” here? Personally, I would suggest my Snipcart pals to opt for a shorter feedback loop so they can react quickly if something breaks on their side. Once per day at the minimum is what I suggest!
Fourth, the alert goes out to all key members: if one of them’s on vacation, another one will receive the alert.
Fifth, it is scoped to the right traffic source; organic.
Last but definitely not least, it is a trigger that requires ACTION.
2. Sales & conversions
Sales and conversions are the most important things to monitor because they’re what make businesses thrive.
For heavy-traffic e-commerce websites, you should make sure, by setting up alerts, that there are always at least X active visitors that converted or at least Y people that bought in the last hour. For these businesses, every minute counts because transactions are constantly occurring.
If you have less traffic, your window for getting relevant feedback is probably a bit wider. Monitoring by the hour might be overkill. You could set up an alert if you didn’t do at least X sales yesterday or Y amount of money yesterday. It may sound like a long feedback loop, but it’s massively faster than noticing you didn’t have sales when you look at your numbers a few days after the drop.
You should also monitor the conversion rate to make sure it’s not catastrophic. For instance, if you typically have a 2% conversion rate that suddenly drops under 1%, there’s probably something unusual going on that deserves your attention.
Metrics to monitor:
Specific goal conversions
Events (filtered on category and action)
How to set up sales & conversion alerts in GA
Here’s an example of a low conversion rate alert:
In native GA alerts, you can’t use a number of conversions as an alert threshold, only conversion rate and value. But you should be fine with this in most cases.
Here’s another example of a Low revenue alert:
These can be checked once per day, the shortest period of time we can do with native Google Analytics alerts. Or you can select “week” and “month”, which are—admittedly—pretty useless for most people. Stick with “day” as your main focus for these alerts.
3. High error rate
In a perfect world (often referred to as “theory”), we would never have any errors on our sites or apps. A world without 404 or 500 sounds fantastic, right? Well, this doesn’t exist. Sorry to burst your bubble.
It’s okay to have some errors, but what if you suddenly have hundreds or thousands of 500 errors? It could be the symptom of a major issue. You might (and should) use an error reporting tool.
But what about 404’s? You should create a GA alert for that too. You should set alert thresholds so you know ASAP when you get an issue and can start fixing it right away.
Metrics to monitor:
Visits to a 404.html or /404 page
Events filtered on something like category=error action=404. This one will vary quite a bit for each site and app.
How to set up error rates alerts in GA
Here’s what your newly created /404 alert might look like in GA:
4. High bounce rate on advertising traffic
Ads for cold target audiences typically result in high bounce rates, and you can live with it.
However, when it comes to highly specific retargeting on engaged leads or intention-based advertising (i.e., Google ads based on keywords) bounce rates are way more concerning. These should have a much higher conversion rate.
You’re probably already putting a significant amount of money in these ads, so you want to know as soon as possible when they’re performing poorly.
The metrics you’ll decide to monitor here depend on the goals of your ads campaigns (conversions, leads, etc.)
Metrics to monitor:
Bounce rate and/or average session duration.
How to set up ad traffic bounce rate alerts in GA
Here’s what a typical ad traffic monitoring alert could look like in GA:
Above, we’re monitoring if bounce rate on the landing pages for a specific Ad Group in Google Ads increases by more than 15% on a daily basis.
What if it does? Well my friend, you better review that Ad campaign targeting of yours and/or landing pages real quick! Because money’s flying out of your window hehe.
5. What else should you monitor in Google Analytics?
Okay, I said five, but this part is as important as the four previous examples.
To answer the question, well... it depends ¯_(ツ)_/¯. The ball’s entirely in your court here.
Take a second to ask yourself these questions: “What scenario would be catastrophic for my business? What problems would I need to learn about ASAP?”
It can vary a LOT. I’ve seen people monitor things from traffic spikes to real-time conversions—hell, even 404 errors on automated Google Ads campaigns at scale (yes, that can be a thing, ads pointing to 404’s!).
I strongly suggest starting with the few examples above if they apply to your project. You definitely don’t want to find yourself drowning under alerts either.
Beware: Alert fatigue’s lurking around the corner
There is such a thing as too many alerts. Trust me.
I’ve just given you a few examples of them that I think you should consider. But now let me help you remove superfluous ones. By doing so, you’ll avoid alert fatigue. It’s easy! There’s just one golden rule to remember at all times.
Golden Rule: You should take action on every alert.
If you receive it, it should have a relevant issue behind it. If you archive it, it’s probably not strong enough. Then what will happen? Over time, you will likely archive it again… And again… You could become so used to receiving false alerts that the day you'll receive a critical one, you’ll ignore it completely.
That’s alert fatigue. Over time, if you don’t take actions on alerts they end up just being noise.
If you start to archive some alerts, ask yourself why it’s configured in the first place. The thresholds you’ve set on your alerts may also be the problem here. Doing $5,000 in sales in the last day or last hour may not be ideal, but might not the end of the world for you either. So what would be really bad then? $2,000, or maybe even $500?
Typically, you’ll have to adjust your thresholds a bit in the days and weeks after you’ve set up alerts. Every time you receive one without feeling the need to take action, you should go back and move that threshold, or even remove this specific alert altogether.
Ignoring alerts is worse than not having them at all. It’s a false sense of safety.
Another, more flexible option to set up GA alerts
As I mentioned earlier, Google Analytics won’t be able to help you if you need alerts on shorter periods of time. Some merchants may want to monitor these metrics by the hour or even in real-time.
We, at Metrics Watch, designed an alert system based on Google Analytics which allows creating alerts for real-time & hourly metrics. That being said, unlike native GA, it’s not free.
Real-time alerts aren’t relevant to all merchants. You need to have a very popular site to find value in real-time monitoring. However, I think that hourly alerts aren't overkill in most cases, even for small to mid-sized businesses. In this case, out-of-the-box GA custom alerts are a bit restraining.
Let’s take a look at a few examples within Metrics Watch showcasing its flexibility.
Here’s an example if your revenue for the last hour is much lower than you expect:
Do you want to know if you have a problem with organic traffic? No problem, let’s use these filters:
You can then push your alert system further with a few important details: email recipients, SMS recipients and the chosen days (and specific hours) the alert is enabled.
Also, notice that the interval here is set at “Real-time”, meaning that it’s based on the real-time data from your GA account.
I’ll finish with a little bonus for Snipcart users. 🙂
You could set a real-time alert on some Google Analytics events because the e-commerce metrics are not available in the real-time GA API. Conversions and events are good workarounds.
Something like this:
Closing thoughts & takeaways
Monitoring is an incredible backup. You don’t see the value until the day you get a major issue putting your online business on the spot. Don’t wait for catastrophe, take a small step today to see some significant results tomorrow.
What I want you to take away from this post:
Don’t rely entirely on unit and integration tests.
Improve your monitoring process and do it as close as possible to your money.
Make sure it’s as responsive and fast as possible.
Take action on every alerts—avoid alert fatigue.
Go on and give the native GA alerts a shot. If it doesn’t answer all your needs, feel free to start a Metrics Watch free trial right away!
Hoping that you can now go back to business, with peace of mind. 😉
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