Google Analytics Smart Goals: Should You Use Them?

Mike Baranowski
May 6, 2016
What are Google Analytics Smart Goals? When and why should marketers use this feature? Check out the agency blog to learn more.


At the end of 2015, Google Analytics (GA) Smart Goals were released, a pseudo conversion tracking tool that measures the visits GA determines are most likely to result in a conversion. Since the launch of the capability, Google’s intent for its usage has changed and many experts in the analytics field have conflicting opinions as to whether Smart Goals should be used or avoided. To effectively answer this question, it’s critical to first understand what Smart Goals are, and why and when they should be used.

How Google Analytics Smart Goals Work

Smart Goals are yet another goal type that can be used within a Google Analytics view.

Google analytics smart goals

Smart Goals use Google Analytics data to determine which factors lead a website user to convert. Machine learning is applied across thousands of websites that use and share their Google Analytics data, so that Google can determine what factors correlate with a likelihood to convert. Such factors include the basic engagement metrics, like session duration and pages per session, as well as visit contextual data, such as device, browser, and location. According to Google, “The easiest way to think about Smart Goals is that they reflect your website visits that our model indicates are most likely to lead to conversions.” Ultimately, Google Analytics is measuring ‘conversions’ based on highly engaged users.

Once Smart Goals are enabled, there is a Smart Goals report that helps distinguish between visits that ended up in a Smart Goal and those that did not. Overall, visits that lead to a Smart Goal conversion are incredibly engaged with a website.

Google Smart Goals 2

Some prerequisites for using Smart Goals include:

  • Linking Google Analytics and AdWords accounts
  • The AdWords accounts must have sent at least 500 clicks into the selected Analytics view over the past 30 days
  • The reporting view must not receive more than 10 million sessions in 30 days
  • The data sharing ‘Google Products and Services’ must be turned on in the Analytics account

Once the perquisites are met, there are several steps that must be taken to enable the Smart Goals to start collecting data. For more information regarding setup, click here.


Google Analytics Smart Goals Usage Intent

When Smart Goals were launched it appeared as though the intent was to provide conversion measurement for small to medium businesses who may not or do not have the ability to measure website conversions. Not all websites have conversion actions – for example, a lead form or documents to download – nor does everyone have the ability to quickly track that information because of analytics or IT resources restrictions.

That said, now it appears as though Smart Goals usage is more focused on advertising, especially as it relates to Google AdWords. Google states that Smart Goals were specifically created to help AdWords advertisers who may not have the conversion volume to use AdWords optimization tools. Specifically, Google focuses on a particular optimization tool known as ‘Maximize Clicks’, previously known as ‘automatic bidding’, which is one of the many ways to automate bids in AdWords. With Smart Goals, one has the ability to optimize AdWords spend based on the likelihood of conversion. In a way, Smart Goals helps maximize advertising costs for Google by automating the use of Smart Goals and AdWords.

After extensive testing and analysis of using Smart Goals within AdWords accounts, the NHI team is not sold. In many cases where Smart Goals were enabled, the conversion volume associated with them was so incredibly high that conversion rates were unrealistic. In cases where conversion tracking is already in place, the Smart Goals conversions dwarfed the other lead numbers in comparison.

Some advertisers like having better control and understanding of how their advertising budget is spent and what qualifies as a conversion. Automated bidding focuses on modeling and data without other contextual information (think website updates and competitor changes) that advertisers may be able to bake into a manual bidding strategy. Engagement goals, such as pages/screen per session or duration goals, could be used in place of Smart Goals for better control of conversion tracking.

When to Use Smart Goals

If your Google Analytics views are not measuring any conversions, then Smart Goals may be a short-term solution before conversion actions are created on a website. It may be worth turning on Smart Goals to understand what GA tracks as an ‘engaged’ visitor, or to use the Smart Goal report to confirm what engagements qualify a Smart Goal conversion and if there is enough conversion volume to make it worthwhile. Additionally, if your Google Analytics views are tracking conversions but they generally have low volumes, then Smart Goals can help supplement those figures. that said, it may be wise to control the conversion measurement by using the pages/screen per session or duration goals based on your own website engagement benchmarks or goals.

Overall, NHI would not recommend using Smart Goals unless special circumstances exist. If your Google Analytics views have goals set up and are tracking a considerable volume of conversions, there is no reason to use Smart Goals. To maintain greater control over how conversions are tracked and measured, stick with leveraging current capabilities in Google Analytics and AdWords.

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