Google Analytics - Event Tracking versus Virtual Page Views

"Out of the box" Google Analytics captures a wide range of visitor activity on your site. By default data is collected for each page view generated.

Sometimes however you’ll need to track additional interactions – for example visitors playing videos, downloading files, progress through complex forms where URLs don’t change or clicking onto outbound links. To do so Google Analytics offers two tracking options – to either capture such interactions as “events” or “virtual page views”. Tracking can be configured programmatically on your site or using customisable ‘tags’ within Google Tag Manager. So which should you choose and what’s the difference between them?

Event tracking

Looking at events first – once configured these appear within the Behaviour / Top Events report. Events allow you to capture three levels of data – a category, action and label. The latter for example could allow you to create a category such as “Downloads”, an action associated with these (e.g. “click”) and a label – for example the file name. Data captured in this format allows you to aggregate data for particular interactions with your site and easily identify e.g. what the most popular downloads from your site were.

Virtual page views

Virtual page views however appear within your main content reports (e.g. Behaviour / All Pages) alongside other standard page view data. As such it’s considered best practice to always include some identifier for virtual page views within the page URI in order to be able to distinguish these from standard page views - for example page URIs could start with “/virtual/” or end with “-vpv”.

Effects of additional tracking

Bear in mind that virtual page views will inflate the average pages per session metric – as such you may want to create an additional view that excludes these. Both virtual pages views and event tracking can also influence your bounce rate – a virtual page view will be seen as an additional interaction and so if e.g. someone downloads a file from a landing page and you’ve set this to be tracked as virtual page view and the visitor then leaves this won’t count as a bounce.

With event tracking you can choose as to whether the event influences your bounce rate or not. By default a “non-interaction” option is set to ‘false’ meaning that events will influence bounce rate – set it to ‘true’ if you don’t want bounce rate to be influenced. For example if you had an event configured to capture scroll depth you may well decide that this should not influence your bounce rate.

Which should you choose?

So having understood the basic differences between virtual page views and event tracking which should you choose? This largely (but not entirely) comes down to how you wish to use the data and whether you want to understand navigation and visitor journeys or to aggregate data for particular visitor interactions.

For navigational purposes virtual page views have the advantage that you can configure them as funnel steps within Google Analytics goals – something not possible for events. So if for example you want to track progress through a complex form (where the URL doesn't change) with the end point configured as a goal having a series of virtual page views would allow you to configure funnel steps and allow you to analyse performance via the Goal / Funnel Visualisation report.

You’ll also be able to see these pages within the reverse goal path report – which shows up to the three page views that occurred prior to a goal being completed – and also be able to visualise progress through a funnel via the goal flow report (which will include loop backs between steps). In addition you’ll gain access to the page level “Navigation Summary” reports and the Next Page and Previous Page dimensions.

Tracking activities as events however will often make more sense. You can easily get to summary data that shows how many times a particular activity was triggered and if you’ve constructed the category / action and label well you’ll be able to drill down to additional levels of detail. Events, as mentioned above, can also be configured not to influence the bounce rate and certain activities – such as a click onto an outbound link wouldn't make sense as a virtual page view.

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