Cross-Domain Tracking In Google Analytics

By: Guest | December 12, 2011 | 

Today’s guest post is written by Tim Frick.

Google analytics  offers a wealth of tools for tracking website performance.

But what if the most important site functions—such as e-commerce, donations, event registration, or ticket purchases—take place on another site?

You’re in luck, Google has a powerful data tracking app for this.

Tracking Third-Party Web Services

Many of Mightybytes’ clients are nonprofit, education, or cause-driven organizations and as such are often funded by grants, giving them limited resources for their online endeavors.

To compensate, most turn to hosted third-party systems such a DonorDrive, TicketSage, and Eventbrite, to keep costs down.

These tools are often more cost effective in handling critical business-related tasks such as ticket sales, donations, and event registration than turnkey systems or proprietary solutions.

This presents a particular challenge for benchmarking any sort of site success measurements, however. Most of the critical user behavior that would mark success for these organizations—such as making a donation or signing up for a webinar—are now taking place on another domain and out of the site owner’s control (and the default reach of most analytics tools).

Some third-party systems offer their own analytics tools but tracking this would involve the manual scraping and cross-referencing of data between two separate analytics tracking systems, a time-consuming and annoying effort fraught with the potential for human error.

Cross-Domain Tracking: A Potential Solution

Luckily, Google analytics offers tools for treating a visitor who clicks from your website to a third-party system on another domain as a single visit. As such, the data provided by Google analytics becomes a more accurate representation of actual site visitors and their behavior.

This is done using cross-domain tracking.

Not all third-party systems for ticketing, e-commerce, donations, and so on are willing to offer this level of customization (more on that in a bit), but for those that do, cross-domain tracking used in tandem with goals and funnels  can provide valuable information to help you make informed business decisions, such as:

  • Should we run that holiday email marketing campaign again this year?
  • Are our social media campaigns resulting in sign-ups or purchases?
  • How many people downloaded a support guide, fact sheet, etc.?
  • Were forms abandoned during the event registration process?

And perhaps most importantly:

  • Did this year’s investment in our website provide a tangible, measurable return on the efforts we put into it?

Making it Work

Let’s look a little bit deeper into how this works.

Because this process involves customization of your site’s code and the code of whichever third-party system you’re using, you may want to enlist the help of a seasoned web developer. I’ve left out the gory code details here but for those of you who want to dive even deeper, there is plenty of valuable information on the Google analytics help pages on this topic.

  1. Implement Custom Tracking Codes.
    Set up custom tracking codes on all relevant pages of both domains. This will allow Google to track domain-to-domain traffic as a single visit.
  2. Create Cross-Domain Links.
    Add a bit of custom code to any link that leads from one domain to the other. This includes buttons, hypertext, etc.
  3. Customize Your Forms.
    If any of these pages use forms (and let’s face it, have you seen a registration, donation, or e-commerce solution that doesn’t?), you will need to configure custom code on each form’s submit button (or whenever the form uses GET or POST methods for you web geeks out there).
  4. Show Your Domain Names.
    By default, Google only shows path and page name when generating reports. To view the effectiveness of your cross-domain tracking consider customizing reports to show full domain names by creating an “advanced filter.” This will alleviate confusion when generating reports, especially if the two domain names are similar in nature.

Once you have cross-domain tracking set up and the ability to generate easy-to-understand reports, start measuring over time. Are you noticing trends where people drop off forms? Can you use this data to make informed decisions on how to improve user experience?

In some cases, the fixes will be out of your control if the usability issues are on the end of the third-party system, but at least you can approach the software vendor armed with tangible data for why they should improve their system (or lose you as a customer).

Have you tried this with any sites you’re working on? Did you learn anything that I haven’t covered here? I would love to hear about your experience.

Tim Frick is the owner of Mightybytes and author of two books, including Return on Engagement: Content, Strategy and Design Techniques for Digital Marketing. He’ll be speaking on measurement and analytics at next month’s Content Marketing Retreat in Seattle.


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  • Hi Tim

    How does this differ from the DATR tracking cookie Facebook put on their user computers tracking them across the web? This sounds more like different web properties working together to combine activity into one output/report to study performance vs something that follows me wherever I go. Am I right in that assumption?

    • @HowieSPM You are correct, Howie. This has everything to do with domains that you have control over…or at least can play an active role in tracking to meet key performance measurements.

  • ginidietrich

    Hey Tim! I think you and I are soul mates. I’ve never known anyone else to hack analytics to get them to do what you want. My team makes fun of me all the time. Now I can just point to your blog post and say, “SEE!”

    • @ginidietrich We’ll still find ways to make fun of you.

      • @Lisa Gerber@ginidietrich Glad to hear it, Lisa. Don’t let her slide :). That said, I love posts like this one. I’ll take all the GA help I can get.

        • ginidietrich

          @JGoldsborough@Lisa Gerber My friend Harry once told me I’m too pretty to like numbers as much as I do. I wear that badge with great honor.

    • @ginidietrich actually, I knew you would like this post because it fits in with a lot of what we’ve been talking about lately; not only that you are becoming an adept programmer (LOL) but also how marketing professionals have to become good technologists. Even though this makes my eyes roll into the back of my head, especially when Tim said “custom code,” it’s part of our jobs to understand.

      • @Lisa Gerber@ginidietrich Glad you both liked the post. It is so crucial that marketers become good technologists these days (and vice versa). Most people install Google Analytics on their sites and think that’s enough. Its true value lies in customizing it to track metrics like completed forms, downloaded PDFs, or even who watched your video (and how much of it they watched).

      • ginidietrich

        @Lisa Gerber It’s a good thing you have me to understand this stuff for you. I’ve become indispensable to you. Woo hoo!

  • DTCchicago

    Fantastic post Tim, this is one of the more complex features of GA, and you broke it down in an easy to digest manor – we will be book marking this as required reading for new hires 🙂

    • @DTCchicago Thanks so much. Really glad you enjoyed it.

  • I wish GA was as easy to use as Google+. I seldom understand how to use some of their tracking metrics and I feel that it is complex to use. I am not sure if I am alone in this… I still use the in-built wordpress stats in Jetpack. I feel that’s all I need on a daily basis. But the complex tracking systems offered by GA could be very useful in certain situations. Only if they make it easier for the users to implement.

    • roderickbarnessr

      @Raj-PB I created a tool based on Jetpack. It uses the traffic data from GA to give you an interactive dashboard

      What the author says in this article is great. Cross-domain tracking is tricky. My little tool enables cross-domain tracking for the novice. Simply select more than one site from the list. However, it does not approach the sophistication mentioned in the article.

      • @roderickbarnessr@Raj-PB Thanks Roderick. I’ll have to check this out.

  • crestodina

    Smart, Tim. Good advice and well written.

    For any readers who are interested taking GA to the next level, I recommend taking the GAIQ test. I know of a few companies (@DTCchicago is one) where everyone must pass just to join the team…

    • DTCchicago

      @crestodina@DTCchicago Solid advice Andy. For budget conscious Analytics hounds – The GAIQ is $50 a pop. If you want to test your knowledge and save a little money while preparing for the GAIQ, check out gglanalytcstest It’s free and the questions get pretty advanced ^jh

    • @crestodina@DTCchicago Thanks guys. GAIQ test is a great reference for getting up to speed fast.

  • KyleAkerman


    Analytics posts can easily make people’s eyes glaze over but you did an excellent job simplifying this particular topic. This is one area of Google Analytics I’m not that very familiar with, but definitely want to understand better.

    @DTCchicago , thanks for the GA Test site link. I think my GAIQ certification is about to expire so it will be nice to get in some practice questions before I take the real test.

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  • The link to Google analytics help pages does not work. Trying to solve this problem right now with GA goal tracking through eventbrite. Not getting all the data I want yet.

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