Annotation is one of the lesser used and discussed functions in analytics. But it is an extremely valuable function for any web analyst. Annotation helps save time, improves ability to find root causes of problems, and provides context to reported data. There are many ways to annotate data for web analytics. For a comprehensive list, see our article on the best practices for annotating data.
Google Analytics, also known as Universal Analytics, provides in-tool annotation to help analysts quickly document events that may affect site performance. The advantage of using the annotation feature built into Google Analytics is that it provides easy context to reports without having to use any external reference.
Let’s take a look at how to use annotation in Google Analytics.
Using Annotation in Google Analytics
It is possible to create annotations in Google Analytics for accounts with the most basic privileges (“Read & Analyze” privileges). To create annotations, go to any canned report, and click on the arrow at the bottom of the graph.
Clicking the arrow displays the annotation controls. If annotations are already present, they will be listed in tabular form here. To create a new annotation, click “+ Create new annotation” at the bottom right of the graph.
The options available are to “star” the annotation, which indicates a different priority on the annotation and can later be used to filter out non-starred annotations. A date within the current report’s date range can be selected. To select a historical date outside the allowed range, expand the date range for the current report and then create the annotation. To select a date in the future, the admin menu needs to be used. Adding annotations for future dates is discussed in a subsequent section of this guide.
Enter a brief description of the event to be recorded. Google Analytics annotation allows for a maximum of 160 characters in the description field.
If you are not able to share annotations in Google Analytics, the reason is that the account you are using does not have “Collaborate” privileges. Once “Collaborate” privileges are assigned, the annotation can be set to “shared” so that it can be viewed by all other users that have access to the current view.
Once added, the annotations are displayed on the graph’s timeline as dialog balloons.
As mentioned, only annotations within the viewed report’s date range can be added using this method. To add annotations in the past or future, the annotation needs to be added through the “Admin” menu in Google Analytics.
To add an annotation, click on “Admin” in the menu at the top, and then on “Annotations” in the “View” menu (3rdcolumn) that is displayed. Then click on the red “+ NEW ANNOTATION” button in the main annotation menu.
The options available in this menu are the same as the options available through the report’s annotation menu before. The only difference is that here there is no limitation on the date that can be selected to enter the annotation for. If for some strange reason you want to create an annotation for a date before this Google Analytics view ever had data, it is possible through this menu.
Things to remember
- There is a 160 character limitation on each annotation’s description.
- Annotations are limited to a particular view and cannot be shared across views. So care should be taken to use the same view as all other analysts if annotations need to be shared
- The ability to create shared annotations is controlled by the “Collaborate” privilege on an account.
Tips on best practices for annotating in Google Analytics
Annotating events related to a website can be a very powerful way to drive fast insights into web analytics for a website. The most common challenge analysts run into is the lack of participation from teams outside of analytics to document changes that could impact site performance.
These changes can include external events, marketing promotions, technology changes, etc. In such cases, consider using other methods of annotation that provide a more collaborative and flexible approach to sharing information.
Another important aspect of annotation is the need for a consistent and easy to understand format for annotating events. The goal of annotation is to provide enough relevant information that an analyst can use for drawing conclusions. If more information is needed, then the analyst should have enough information about the change as well as the resources responsible for the change so that follow up conversations can occur. We recommend the following format for storing annotations:
MMDDYY-MMDDYY | Type of change | Brief description of change | Person responsible | Web analytics assets affected | Adjustments needed to reports if any
Google Analytics provides a user-friendly annotation feature whose biggest advantage is ability to view the annotations within the context of a web analytics report. Such an approach is suitable for smaller teams where there are a limited number of resources involved in changes that could impact website performance.