Google Signals in Analytics – what is it and should you use it? 

8 Minute Read
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Learn how Google Signals can enhance your marketing strategy – especially as the web moves towards cookieless browsing.

Google Signals is a standalone Google product that enables cross-device tracking and reporting. Integrated with Google Analytics, Signals helps you understand how users interact with your website across multiple devices and sessions.

This data can provide valuable insights into how people navigate your marketing funnel, which you can use to optimise the cross-device experience and show relevant ads to users at every stage of the consumer journey.

Google Signals isn’t a particularly new product but its anonymised process for collecting data could make it a crucial tool as Google and the internet, as a whole, becomes cookieless.

What is Google Signals?

First announced in July 2018, Google Signals is the name given to the Google product that enables cross-device reporting and remarketing. Enabling Google Signals allows you to take advantage of new and improved advertising and reporting features across different devices.

Here’s Google’s own summary of the feature in Google Analytics 4:

“Google signals are session data from sites and apps that Google associates with users who have signed in to their Google accounts, and who have turned on Ads Personalization. This association of data with these signed-in users is used to enable cross-device reporting, cross-device remarketing, and cross-device conversion export to Ads.”

When you activate Google Signals, existing Google Analytics features are upgraded to include more information from Google users, but only for those who have turned on Ads Personalization.

These are the areas where more information is gathered when Google Signals is activated (but only for users with Ads Personalization enabled):

  1. Cross Platform reporting: Connect data about devices and activities from different sessions using your User-ID or Google-signals data so you can get an understanding of user behavior at each step of the conversion process, from initial contact to conversion and beyond.
  2. Remarketing with Google Analytics: Create remarketing audiences from your Google Analytics data, and share those audiences with your linked advertising accounts.
  3. Advertising Reporting features: Google Analytics collects information per your tracking-code configuration, as well as Google-signals data and Google advertising cookies that are present.
  4. Demographics & Interests: Google Analytics collects additional information about demographics and interests from Device AdvertisingIDs and from users who are signed in to their Google accounts and who have turned on Ads Personalization.

In Google’s own words, “when users have Ads Personalization turned on, Google is able to develop a holistic view of how those users interact with an online property from multiple browsers and multiple devices.”

For example, you can see how users discover your website and browse some products on mobile before returning to your website at a future date to complete a purchase from a tablet or desktop.

What can I do with Google Signals?

To give you an idea of what you can do with the features listed in the previous section, here are some examples of practical things you can do with the insights available to you by activating Google Signals.

  • Report cross-device user accounts: Accurately report on the number of users instead of devices (including 1-Day, 7-Day, 30-Day actives).
  • Audience targeting: Report and understand different groups of users based on the different device combinations they use so you can focus resources on the most valuable set of users.
  • Funnel analysis: Understand the customer journey across devices by analysing user-based reports (active users, funnels, pathing), allowing you to optimise the experience across the entire funnel.
  • Allocate budgets: Report on and understand cross-device marketing performance (e.g., channels, campaigns, etc.) and optimise ad spend for the touch points that matter most.
  • Cross-device remarketing: Offer highly relevant ads based on cross-device usage.

That gives you an idea of some of the practical marketing actions you can enhance by activating Google Signals in Analytics.

Given the complexity of modern consumer journeys, marketers need systems that enable them to track users across multiple devices and sessions, even for basic functions like accurately measuring the number of unique users each campaign is reaching – “basics” that aren’t so simple these days.

These challenges are only increasing as the web moves into cookieless browsing and the likes of Google are switching to alternative tracking methods that don’t rely on using personal data.

Which brings us to another important point about Google Signals.

Google Signals is ready for cookieless tracking

Complex consumer journeys aren’t the only thing making it harder for marketers to track users across the web. New (and old) privacy regulations are protecting the rights of individuals over their personal data and tech companies are responding to growing concern among internet users about their online safety.

Google has committed to removing cookies from its Chrome browser while Firefox, Brave and Safari already block third-party cookies and Apple’s iOS14.5 update introduced a series of new privacy features, namely App Tracking Transparency, which forces apps like Facebook to get permission from users before tracking their data across other apps and websites.

While Google has delayed its initial 2022 deadline for stripping cookies from Chrome, Google Signals is ready to play a key role in cookieless tracking.

In Google Analytics 4 (GA4), you can use Google Signals as a Reporting Identity when User ID is unavailable, which allows you piece together cross-device user journeys without using their personal data.

If you haven’t already, we strongly recommend migrating to Google Analytics 4 but make sure you switch to the latest version properly to minimise any data loss.

Once you’re set up with GA4, you’ll see that Google Signals is included as one of three Reporting Identities:

  1. User ID
  2. Device ID
  3. Google Signals

Of course, User ID is the most reliable method of tracking individual users across multiple devices but, without cookies, it only works for users who are authenticated or logged into your website/app during each session.

Device ID is also problematic without cookies and we’re already seeing issues where the same user is being reported multiple times due to cookie duration limits in certain browsers.

Google Signals, on the other hand, collects aggregated data so there’s no issue with cookies or personal data. No, it doesn’t replace the full tracking capabilities of cookies (nothing will manage that without tracking personal data) but it fills in some key gaps left behind by the loss of cookies.

In Google Analytics 4, you also set Reporting Identities in order of priority so that your preferred choice is always selected when available. For example, you can set User ID as your preferred tracking system and GA4 will use this when available (eg: users are logged in).

At the same time, you can set Google Signals as the second option with Device ID as the third and GA4 will automatically switch to Google Signals when User ID isn;t available.

Does Google Signals and Ads Personalization affect GDPR?

The short answer to this question is no.

Google Signals uses aggregate data, meaning personal data is anonymised and never exposed. This places the technology outside of the scope of GDPR regulations, which aim to protect the personal data of individuals.

That being said, using Google Signals still comes with certain privacy considerations. By activating the feature, you enter into an agreement with Google that states you must have all the necessary privacy disclosures in place to ensure users are aware their data is being collected and they consent to it being collected, stored and used for advertising purposes.

This relates to another set of privacy regulations that predate GDPR, called the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR).

On another note, the retention of data collected through Google Signals is limited to 26 months although you can set the retention period to a shorter time frame.

How to activate Google Signals

You can read Google’s documentation on activating Google Signals for a step-by-step guide and access to more information about the tool. However, we’ve compiled a quick setup guide based on Google’s documentation for you right here, so you can get right to it.

To activate Google Signals, log in to Google Analytics and click on the ADMIN tab at the bottom of the left-hand menu.

With Google Analytics, you can manage multiple accounts and each account can have multiple properties (website, storefront, blog, mobile app, etc.). Now, Google Signals is applied to individual properties, so – if you have multiple properties on Google Analytics – you need to choose which one to activate it on.

Once you’ve selected the correct property, click on the Tracking Info tab in the same column and then click Data Collection. Next, you’ll see a blue notification banner at the top of the page with a Get Started button – give that a click and follow the prompt instructions until you see the following screen:

Make sure you read and understand the text on this page before clicking Continue or click the Learn more about Google Signals link if anything is unclear. Next, click Continue and you’ll see the following screen:

Again, read through this and make sure you understand everything before clicking the Activate button. Also, make sure you confirm which property you want to apply Google Signals to before activating it. By default, this is set to “all properties” in the account you selected (a little counter-intuitive) but you can change this to “this property” or select specific properties assigned to that account.

As long as all the properties are for the same company, there shouldn’t be an issue with enabling for all, but if you are an agency that has other companies’ data in your account, you may have to be more specific with this setting. You will need to have admin access to the account level (or you’ll get “Access denied”) in order to set this. If you don’t have account-level access, you will be able to set it for the properties for which you do have admin access.

If you have not enabled Data Sharing in your Google Analytics account, you will see a different second paragraph asking you to turn this on, as Google Signals only works if you have this enabled.

Google also asks you to make sure you are letting your users know.

Finally, click the Activate button and you’re all done.

When should you turn on Google Signals?

Like much Google Analytics data, collection of the information only starts from when you activate the information, so if you want to make use of it, you should activate it as soon as possible. If you are doing remarketing or using the behaviour reports already, this is a no-brainer.

Is Google Signals useful for SEO?

If you read the information about Google Signals, most of it pertains to the additional information you get for your Google Ads campaigns. However, the cross-device reports work for all users, whatever source or medium they used (as long as they have Ads Personalization enabled), so this information is available, even if they came from organic. This is the Device Overlap report:

And this is the Channels report:

However, there doesn’t appear to be any cross-device information in that report that we can see. Perhaps there’s more to come, as the product is a beta, after all.

There’s clearly a current push in terms of rolling out the availability of the beta to different Google Analytics accounts. It won’t get enabled by default because of the requirement to enable data sharing and to make sure your privacy policy is up to scratch, so if you want these features and the data it brings, it is going to take your manual intervention.

Need help?

If you need help with anything covered in this article, call us on 02392 830281 or send us your details and we’ll call you.

Callum Coard profile picture
Callum Coard

Callum is a PPC Specialist and joined Vertical Leap in early 2019. He believes the future of commerce and business will continue to innovate online and no other industry is as exciting or changes as much day by day. Already in his career Callum has worked closely with many of the UKs top institutions, from a range of industries and successfully managed large projects from inception and nurtured throughout. Callum holds a Biology Degree from the University of Exeter where he’s worked with many of the country’s leading ecology, developmental and marine biologists. Now he applies his analytical and scientific approach to the digital industry. Callum is also Swindon born, obsessed with running, Tottenham Hotspur and the world of craft beer.

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