Since coming out of beta, Google Data Studio (GDS) has become a popular tool that allows for beautiful data visualization and dashboarding. As digital marketers, more specifically pay-per-click analysts, it’s imperative that we communicate our impact and results in a compelling, attractive, and concise fashion.
Before getting into the weeds, I was GDS’s biggest fan. Gorgeous and collaborative reports, stellar data displays—what else could you need? At first glance, it appears to be a user-friendly, intuitive tool that allows you to create branded and interactive reports and share them with others. And in some cases, this holds true. For basic PPC reporting, this platform is extremely useful and can save time and prevent unnecessary communication.
However, once you’re faced with more complex reports, Google Data Studio falls short of the user-friendly tool it claims to be.
After countless hours vetting the tool and seeking support, it seems there simply aren’t enough resources to help inform a decision about whether or not GDS can actually fit your needs—which is where this post comes in handy. Hopefully, I can share what I’ve learned and provide insight on a few rather big gotchas that are worth considering before you get consumed in the labyrinth that is Google Data Studio.
One of the biggest downfalls of GDS is also one of the most important and consistent tasks of reporting on PPC marketing results: data blending. Coming from a multi-faceted agency that offers multiple service lines, it’s critical that I provide my clients with valuable insights about each service in an organized and efficient manner. One of the most basic ways GDS falls short in this arena is only supporting up to four data sources.
For a client who has Google Ads, Google Analytics, Microsoft Advertising, and social ads, connecting a customized Google Sheet—or including additional insights about call tracking—is simply not an option. In this case, you’re left with no option but to break out tables and charts, leading to unnecessary clutter and confusing displays of information.
While the limit on data sources can be tedious and inconvenient, much more severe are the flaws within the grueling process of data joining. More specifically, it is necessary that all dimensions in non-primary data sources join with the primary source as part of the data linking, or data gets aggregated incorrectly. GDS uses a left outer join, creating the possibility that data could be excluded if the desired dimension values don’t have a match across all data sources, or if they don't exist in the primary data source.
For example, this shortfall can become obstructive when you need to use Google Analytics and Microsoft Advertising data, or when you have not set an ads campaign name exactly as your campaign name in Google Analytics. For tasks such as calculating a Google Analytics value or aggregated cost metric for a certain set of campaigns, it would be necessary to join with both the date and the campaign, and if your campaign names don't exactly match what's in Google Analytics, the filtered data won't be accurate.
Replicating Blended Data
Another nuisance of data blending with GDS? After finally persisting through the data joining process and creating a functional, blended data source, that source is only available in the report in which it was created. To use the same data source in other reports, you must recreate it from scratch or copy the connections—which opens a whole new can of worms.
As PPC marketers, one of our biggest value-adds is providing insights into a clients’ most valuable audiences and users based on behavior. Typically, this is done through reporting on conversion actions such as form submissions, phone calls, and document downloads.
Currently, GDS has no way of filtering for this type of refinement and granularity. At first glance, there are two oddly named fields that seem to provide a feasible solution: “Segment Conversion Type Name” and “Segment Conversion Category.” While either of these can easily be applied as a filter, the filter is nonfunctional in a table or chart containing non-conversion metrics—such as cost, clicks, or impressions—and will consequently display an error. The same error will appear when applying the filter to tables or charts with comparison metrics, such as cost-per-lead or conversion rate. Additionally, you are unable to include locked conversion actions such as direction clicks. Ultimately, these limitations make it difficult to provide much of any valuable conversion insights to the client.
Filtering for conversion actions may be one of the most glaring inadequacies of GDS, especially with the limitation on conversion ratios. But what about the other ratios PPC analysts use daily? Unfortunately, filtering is not an option for these metrics, either.
When trying to apply a filter to a table containing click-through-rate, for example, GDS will display an error that typically says “Unable to aggregate ratio metrics in the request. Please select another metric.” Google claims this error will display as a result of the data already being aggregated. At this time, filters cannot be applied to data post-aggregation, because that would require the system to evaluate every instance of the metric—which, again, it's currently unable to do. As a result, it seems the only valid “solution” to this problem is to create several custom metrics within a table.
Out of the three shortcomings listed here, visualization is the least impactful. However, there are several visual hiccups that can really get in the way of providing clients compelling and user-friendly reports—such as the fact that GDS doesn’t currently support bullet points (I mean, really?). There are probably work-arounds for most of these situations. But wouldn’t it be nice if the functionality was already included in the platform?
Reporting Ad Copy
Most PPC analysts can testify that writing ad copy probably isn’t their favorite task. Some analysts have clients who like to approve ad copy before it goes live, and others enjoy testing various elements to determine what resonates best with the client’s most valuable audiences.
Unlike other similar reporting platforms, GDS does not provide a way to display ads as they are seen in search engine results pages. This can be cumbersome for a variety of cases, but especially when you're reporting on A/B test results and a client would like to see the variations side-by-side. While the Supermetrics integration can pull in content, each element is displayed individually in a new column of a table.
Most clients enjoy visualizing data in the form of a chart or graph—or at least would like to see a few visual elements within tables. Data Studio again falls short here, only allowing for the bare minimum when it comes to chart style.
First, data labels have so many opportunities for improvement. While some developments have already been made—such as allowing for the adjustment of font size—GDS still hasn’t included options to choose where labels appear on charts, and has even been known to hide the label based on what format is used for the data points. Second, comparison values are only able to be pulled in as separate columns, as opposed to subscripted text, as seen in other reporting platforms. This results in unnecessarily bulky tables that clutter reports and can sometimes cause confusion.
All things considered, GDS creates reports that are visually stunning, when compared to several other platforms. However, there are currently only two themes offered: “light” and “dark.” Most agencies or other advertising businesses have a color palette and brand standards that must be applied to all client-facing deliverables—and more than likely it isn’t going to fall into GDS’s “light” and “dark” themes. Having custom, reusable themes that provide guidance in terms of branding could make reporting more efficient. And who doesn’t enjoy things that make reporting a little easier?
There are a few other limitations that aren’t included, but this crucial insight was missing while I was trying to troubleshoot the platform. While some of these issues may not be present in a report built from one data source, most PPC analysts optimize various digital marketing channels at once. Since reporting can be seen as one of the greatest ways to showcase our value, it’s in our best interest to use the platform that does that the best.
So, is Google Data Studio right for your PPC marketing team?
Although these shortcomings may have left a bad taste in my mouth, GDS can still fulfill various reporting needs. If you’re looking for a user-friendly platform that allows clients to stay up-to-date and view one-source metrics such as clicks or impressions, GDS is right for you. I’ve also seen it work wonders for SEO purposes.
But for complex paid search reports? That’s where I’d draw the line.
Sadly, it seems we’re still far off from a fully-functioning Ads reporting platform from Google—but the information seeking process continues! I still have hope for GDS, as Google has already made significant progress with the tool over the past year.
Have you created successful, comprehensive paid search reports? What issues have you encountered? The PPC team at Workshop Digital is continuing to learn the ins and outs of GDS as it becomes more prominent. We’ll be keeping you updated on what we find and how we use its upcoming developments on the road to a fully-functional reporting platform.