Free vs Paid Analytics Tools. When to Upgrade

Marketers, Product Managers, and Analysts have a wide selection of powerful measurement platforms at their disposal.  Like Google Analytics 360, most tools offer both paid and free editions.

Truth is, you can do pretty well for a while using the free versions of many analytics tools before it’s time to upgrade.  Robust, free versions of popular measurement platforms allow organizations to try different providers and customizations cheaply before it’s time to select a paid solution.

But, how do you know when it’s time to upgrade to a paid analytics tool? And, which paid analytics platform will best fit your needs?

There are common milestones for organizations considering the switch from free to paid.  As Google Analytics (GA) is by far the most widely installed analytics tool on the market, we’ll look at the common limitations and upgrade scenarios that occur in that platform.  See a comparison of other, comparable paid analytics tools at the end of this article.

Google Analytics Free Edition

The free version of Google Analytics, especially when combined with the free edition of Google Tag Manager, offers robust reporting features and generally sufficient capacity for small-to-medium organizations just getting started with reporting and attribution.

In fact, most businesses are not using the free edition to its full potential.  Our analytics audits look for this and show organizations how to get much more out of the free edition.  Incomplete or faulty setups are sometimes to blame, but most often teams simply aren’t aware of what’s possible with even a little customization.

However, despite its impressive abilities, the free version of Google Analytics can only take you so far.

Eventually, growing organizations struggle with these typical limitations of GA free edition:

  1. Tying offline conversions to online marketing efforts generally requires deeper integration with other tools in your marketing stack.  Integration is a real differentiator with GA 360.
  2. GA Free is pretty limited when it comes to providing granular detail on key customer traits.  
  3. The most frequent complaint, however, occurs when users run into severe data sampling limits.  This can quickly erode trust, especially when an organization goes beyond exploration and needs actionable findings.


As your traffic grows and your team seeks deeper and more reliable insights, it becomes more important to plan your migration to a premium tool like Analytics 360, Adobe Analytics, Mixpanel, or Parse.ly.  Our recommendation is to start considering this long before you start bumping up against the limits in free tools.

What Is Data Sampling in Google Analytics and Why Is It Important?

For non-default reports, the GA free edition selects a representative sample of data and estimates totals based on that smaller set.  The tool does this to reduce computational load and processing time whenever a GA Property includes more than a half-million sessions for any given date range.

To check data sampling in Google Analytics free edition, look for the small badge icon near the report title.  Green is good. Yellow means you should check.
Keep an eye on the data sampling badge at the top of each Google Analytics free report. If it’s yellow, check the sampling rate for that date range.

Default reports, which lack useful customizations like row filters, segments and secondary dimensions, are pre-aggregated and not subject to sampling.  That’s great until you need to create an ad-hoc report.

For example, if you add a location dimension so you can view your site’s most popular pages broken out by city, Google has to go back and calculate those numbers.  Over any length of time, it really adds up. So, the tool pulls a sample in order to deliver your report quickly and efficiently. The wider the date range, the greater the sampling. So, you might see a report in which 80% or 50% or even 3% of available sessions are being used to answer the query.

As mentioned, sampled data is one of the biggest frustration for GA Free users—often an important signal that it’s time to look for an alternative.

How Much Data Sampling is Too Much?

In some cases, the sample size is large enough to preserve confidence.  Sample sizes of 80% to 95% of sessions may be enough to draw reasonable conclusions.  Samples in the single digits are a big red flag.

An international media client of ours needed to generate a complex report of profiles made up of browser types, traffic sources, and other user traits. Because of this publisher’s heavy site traffic, querying a single day’s worth of sessions would return a sample size of just 3%. To get around this limit, we extracted trended data against smaller, suspect segments. In the end, the picture became clearer, but it was a workaround that relied too heavily on custom reporting.

Workarounds for Sampled Data in Google Analytics

Premium tools can be cost-prohibitive for smaller organizations.  So, we work with clients using the free edition of GA to solve data sampling problems with custom workarounds:

1) Problem: The business wants to see multiple websites or parts of a website, like a job board, a blog, and a shopping cart, rolled up into one aggregated view.  Because of complexity and volume, reporting is subject to heavy sampling.

Solution: Add separate GA properties for each major site section.  This likely won’t completely get rid of sampling, but it can provide more accurate analysis which confirms or challenges the more highly sampled data in the roll-up property.

2) Problem: Stakeholders need to see daily recurring reports on key, custom metrics normally subject to data sampling in the Google Analytics console.  

Solution: Export unsampled data from GA every 24 hrs and build a spreadsheet or BigQuery table that collects that data daily.  We typically use a tool like Domo, Tableau, or Data Studio to show those important metrics on an unsampled basis outside of the Google Analytics interface.

When Is It Time to Upgrade to a Premium Analytics Tool?

For higher traffic sites and more sophisticated analysts, the limitations of GA Free will quickly become problematic.  Perhaps leadership has grown skeptical of estimated or sampled analytics reports. Or, maybe engineering custom workarounds for every important metric is no longer worth the effort.

Those are pretty common signals that it’s time to upgrade, but your organization may be running up against other issues with the free version:

  • You are ready for more advanced marketing attribution, that connects more of the dots that matter to you.
  • You need to roll up reporting for multiple websites or significant site sections.
  • You need to retroactively add properties to historical hit data.
  • You want to keep tracking your mobile app with Google Analytics instead of Firebase.
  • You need to implement high-frequency event tracking like page scroll depth or element visibility.

Finally, you may be wanting to use other Google or non-Google products like display advertising, big data, or CRM tools—that only integrate with premium analytics.  Those products can work independently to give you information, but it often means labor-intensive and error-prone manual workflows. If you want everything in one place, you need a premium package that integrates all your data sources and provides that richer, more detailed view for much less effort.

Premium Web Analytics Upgrade Options

Google Analytics 360

Bar Chart Logo Google Analytics and Google Analytics 360
Google Analytics 360 makes the transition from the free edition fast and painless.

One of the key advantages of Analytics 360, of course, is the more seamless upgrade path from GA Free.  For minimal disruption to your existing Google Analytics reporting workflows, consult a Certified Analytics Sales Partner like Empirical Path.  We’ll switch your account on, and get you running immediately with the built-in benefits of 360. Upon activation, you’ll experience the benefits of greater speed, dedicated support, and service level agreements.

With a little work, 360 integrates with your other Google products, including Display & Video 360 and Ad Manager, so you can connect downstream revenue to site performance.  Importantly, GA 360 interfaces with Salesforce Sales & Marketing Cloud solutions. This is a popular integration organizations are just starting to leverage. Salesforce integration means you easily can import offline traits using any of your 200 Custom Dimensions.  You can create and export Audiences in GA for SFMC targeted campaigns. And, you can attribute offline conversions back to online efforts.

Finally, upgrading to 360 significantly raises the threshold for data sampling.  Where GA Free samples your data above 500K sessions at the property level in a given date range, the GA 360  ceiling is 200 times higher at 100M sessions, and at the view level!

Mixpanel

Mixpanel Analytics Logo - An Empirical Path Partnership

One of a class of analytics tools aimed at product managers, Mixpanel’s event tracking plans, called “Engagement Plans” don’t really do anything that Analytics 360 can’t.  But, Mixpanel’s People Plans (user profiles) allow reporting on PII, something GA strictly limits. As with other GA limitations, there is a workaround for this we often solve with BigQuery.  Mixpanel makes it easy to know your users by making this a feature instead of a customization.

Mixpanel’s premise is that instead of tracking every pageview, it tracks only activities managers care about in the user experience.  If you only care about users who click a pull-down menu or who move a slider in your app, you really don’t need all the other noise and distraction provided in other tools.  By adding a People Plan, you can de-anonymize your users once they’re logged into your product. In other words, you can look at what actions each specific individual takes in your site or app.

Parse.ly

Logo for Parse.ly Analytics - an Empirical Path Partnership

Specifically tailored to publishers, Parse.ly analytics is a paid or premium tool that does a great job with content taxonomy and other information that editors and content strategists especially want to see.  In addition to pageview reports, it generates roll-up reports by section, topic, author or just about any custom taxonomy you use.

Adobe Analytics

This tool needs no introduction, and clients who find it appealing mainly cite its integrates with other Adobe platform offerings–especially the content-management and data-management systems.  Importantly, Adobe Analytics integrates with Adobe Campaign a marketing automation and customer journey tool. This makes sense for enterprises with a clear preference for one ecosystem over another.  

By comparison, while Google doesn’t offer a direct competitor to Adobe Campaign, Google Analytics takes the approach of fostering wide integration with third party marketing platforms.  Their relationships with a variety of tools like Marketo, Salesforce Marketing Cloud, and Mailchimp, a popular client of ours, means you have more options.

In Summary

Many organizations get by well enough for years without paying for professional analytics tools.  And, we can certainly help you make the most of what you’ve got to work with. If you’re using free right now and aren’t sure you’re getting everything out of it, we can help.  Most businesses leave lots of free insight and tracking potential on the table. We’ll help you make the most of your free analytics tools.

You may not be ready to upgrade to a premium analytics package today, but our advice is to start planning for that likelihood sooner than later.  Like the proverbial frog in boiling water, you may not notice the shortcomings of free analytics tools before it’s too late and you’re entangled in custom workarounds and doubt.  If you think you’re heading in that direction, we can help you evaluate your options, understand pricing for premium analytics, plan a sensible roadmap that fits your situation, and support you all the way through a smooth upgrade.

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