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.