What the heck is a gtag.js and why should you care?

For the past few weeks I have been fielding a lot of questions about gtag.js on the Analytics Course forums. Students are asking why my recommended method of tracking sites is analytics.js, yet their account only allows them to install gtag.js on their site.

The same thing goes for Google AdWords conversion tracking. The only option is to install gtag.js.

What gives?

You may be wondering the same thing since gtag.js is the only script-based tracking option we see inside of our Google Analytics accounts.

Why, Jeff, are you recommending one thing, and Google is saying something different!

This tag was rolled out with little fanfare, so it’s natural to be confused about what is happening.

This post aims to clear up some of the most common questions.

I’m sure that gtag.js will be awesome, someday

To tell the truth, I don’t know much about gtag.js, because I don’t like trusting my advertising and marketing data to incomplete Google products. I have not used gtag.js, because it would be insane to use it at this point in time. This post will show you why.

Maybe I’m cautious after being burned by Google Wave, Google Buzz and the first time Google released Universal Analytics into the wild.

Or I’m damaged after moving too fast to Google’s “biggest and baddest” systems too soon in the past, and I don’t want to make the same mistake again.

Or maybe I’m just annoyed that Google is forcing this change upon us, yet not even telling their product team at GTM about the change.

One tag to rule them all

We’ve all heard this one before. Google wants to simplify user experience and make things easier for us. So they introduce a piece of tracking that is supposed to make things easier.

AND EVERYTHING GETS HARDER

They release an incomplete set of protocols and expect users to make the switch. They subject us to their half-baked ideas; standards that aren’t ready for prime-time.

Something that doesn’t even work with other Google products!

No offense to you, Gtag.js, but WHAT ABOUT GTM?

If you read any of Google’s marketing materials, it’s clear they think their users are not very smart. They undermine their intelligence with nearly every piece of marketing collateral, over-simplifying every step of the way. Dumbing things down, as if marketers and analysts don’t want the details.

And yet tools like Google Tag Manager gain mass adoption from users because we are dying for details. We want the benefits of a technically sound analytics implementation, without the slow cycles that come from putting everything in the hands of developers. Same goes for Google Analytics. It’s successful because it’s accessible to everyone.

There is no reason for gtag.js in a world where everyone uses Google Tag Manager. It is solving the same fundamental problem, only in a more limited way.

What about Google Tag Manager?

This post started when I tried to install conversion tracking for a new AdWords account. I created a conversion event and was given the following code to place on every page of my site. Plus another piece of code for the conversion event.

First of all, this is way more work than the old method of conversion tracking. But I’ll humor you, Google.

So I went into Google Tag Manager to get this code on the site, only to find nothing of consequence.

No mention of gtag.js anywhere. Just support for the “old” way of doing things. When I say “old,” I mean the ways that have worked for years, only to suffer a violent death in the past few weeks. Methods that are now impossible to utilize, since Google no longer displays the parameters you need to make AdWords Conversion Tracking work.

That makes this change not just annoying, but impossible. Google is requiring their advertisers to strip GTM from their site in order to track a Google AdWords conversion. I’m sure that wasn’t their intent, but it’s my reality.

They have changed their entire tracking process with no way to make it work, forcing an incomplete product on all of us without any support or documentation. C’mon Google, you’re better than this!

Fortunately, my account needs are simple. So I just imported my goals from Google Analytics and moved on. But there’s no way major advertisers can move this fast. Think about it this way: the internal Google Tag Manager team hasn’t even implemented this yet! And they likely knew about the change for years before it went live.

One swift Google product update made another Google product obsolete. At least until they implement a solution.

I still don’t know where gtag.js fits into the world of tracking

Is it replacing Google Tag Manager?

Is it already Google Tag Manager?

When will it be necessary to switch?

When will it support all of the great functionality found in analytics.js?

What will an installation look like if you want to track both AdWords and analytics in the same tag?

What benefit will it provide users over time?

Does it make us more reliant on Google? Or less?

If you have any thoughts, please leave a comment. I am as much of a student as a teacher on this one.

Update: After I wrote this article, I got some clarification from Google to my pressing questions. I’ve included them in the blog post and will keep on updating there as developments come in.