What are Google Signals and do you need them? 

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Learn how Google Signals can enhance your marketing strategy – especially as the web moves towards cookieless browsing (updated July 2023).

Google Signals enhance cross-device tracking in Google Analytics 4 (GA4). It helps you measure the total number of users – rather than devices – as people progress through the customer journey.

As Google moves away from cookie-based tracking, these signals can help plug in some of the data gap as you migrate from Universal Analytics to GA4.

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What are Google Signals?

First announced in July 2018, Google Signals were launched as an integration for GA4. The latest version of Google Analytics steps away from identifying and tracking individual users. Google Signals is one of several methods available in Google Analytics 4 to enhance cross-device tracking, in adherence with privacy regulations like GDPR.

Here’s Google’s own summary of the feature in GA4:

“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.”

Google Analytics 4 uses a combination of four methods to unify data from multiple devices and sessions into a single user journey:

  1. User-ID: Allows you to associate your own identifiers with individual users so you can connect their behaviour across different sessions and on various devices and platforms – the most accurate method, because it uses data you collect to identify your users.
  2. Google signals: Collects event data from users who are signed into their Google account and have Ads Personalization turned on – allowing you to track them across devices, browsers, etc.
  3. Device-ID: Assigns an ID to the device being used – capable of tracking multiple sessions on the same device but not sessions across multiple devices.
  4. Modelling: When users decline Analytics identifiers, GA4 uses the data of similar users who do accept (from the same website/app) to model the behaviour of the users who decline.

Each identity space in GA4 has its own strengths and weaknesses. For example, User-ID is the most accurate way to track users across the customer journey but you have to gain their consent to adhere to privacy regulations.

Google Signals don’t require the same consent settings but they rely on users being signed into their Google account and having Ads Personalization enabled.

What can I do with Google Signals?

When Google Signals are available, existing Google Analytics features are upgraded to include more information from Google users in four key areas:

  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 behaviour 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.”

Here are some practical examples of what you can do with this additional data:

  • 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.

Essentially, Google Signals act as a backup to User-ID when users decline consent, allowing you to track them across multiple devices using anonymised data. The caveat, of course, is not all users are signed into their Google account on every device or browser and not all of them have Ads Personalization enabled.

Luckily, GA4 modelling acts as the next backup when neither User-ID nor Google Signals are available.

Are Google Signals GDPR-compliant?

The short answer to this question is yes.

Google Signals use 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. Whether you’re already running ads or you’re looking to run ads for the first time, our team can offer you PPC services for better ads performance.

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Above all, keep in mind that Google Analytics 4 is a GDPR-compliant product but you – the data handler – are responsible for collecting, storing and using data in adherence to GDPR and other privacy regulations.

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.

google signals

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

Google signals

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:

Activate Google Signals

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:

activate Google Signals

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.

google signals activate

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 work 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.

Are 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:

Google signals device overlap report

And this is the Channels report:

Google signals channel report
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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 get back to you.

Chantelle Riley profile picture
Chantelle Riley

Chantelle is a PPC Specialist at Vertical Leap.

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