One of the most under-utilized aspects of Google Analytics is the tool's filtering and segmentation capabilities. By using custom reports you can get at some very useful and actionable data, but a lot of people don't fully understand how custom reports and advanced segments work and how they can be leveraged to gain insights into your online marketing efforts.
In this post we'll walk through the difference between custom reports and advanced segments, and where and why you might want to use one and not the other.
How is a Custom Report Different From an Advanced Segment?
The main thing here is to think of custom reports as reports, and advanced segments as filters. (NOTE: Important and hopefully not too confusing distinction: There is a separate function within Google Analytics that is actually called a filter, but it's different than an advanced segment -- if you're not familiar with it, ignore it for now and go back and check out some of these articles , read our power user's guide to Google Analytics hacks  which contains some great examples of clever use of filters, or take a look at this documentation ).
What is a Google Analytics Custom Report?
Think of custom reports as a default view of certain data that you're building or customizing to be displayed just the way you want it. For instance you can create a report to see your goal completions and unique visitors per keyword :
This is similar to a number of the reports you can quickly click through Google Analytics to see, such as the keyword report, top content report, etc. Basically what you are doing with a custom report is creating a default template for a report that includes (and discards) exactly the metrics and dimensions you want.
Here is an overview video from Google on custom reporting:
What is a Google Analytics Advanced Segment?
An advanced segment is more like a filter or additional layer of data on top of one of your reports (even a custom report, if you like). By default Google Analytics shows you a nice list of possible advanced segments:
- All visits
- New visitors
- Returning visitors
- Paid search traffic
- Non-paid search traffic
- Search traffic
- Direct traffic
- Referral traffic
- Visits with conversions
- Mobile traffic
- Non-bounce visits
These filters allow you to create a different view of your campaign. You can filter you data and only look at the behavior of a specific segment. Here we see a great example of a custom report with an advanced filter layered on top. Our conversions and unique visitors by keyword report has a filter for only non-paid search traffic put on top of this custom view:
Or you can add layers to your report to see not only a high-level overview, but also how different segments of your traffic have performed:
For a more multimedia view of how advanced segments work, here is a video from Google:
So What Can I Do with Custom Reports & Advanced Segments?
As you can see above you can get some powerful insights from custom reports, advanced segments, or custom reports with advanced segments leveraged.
The best way to use these tools is to understand both the types of insights that are available, and the problems you are looking to solve. If you're doing lead gen for a B2B software company, you don't need e-commerce segments or custom reports (no matter how nifty or valuable they are to e-commerce analytics users). As you create a custom report, think about:
- What are my KPIs?
- What are my core sources?
- How can I segment those sources into meaningful sub-segmentations?
You can then include things like goals, goal value, unique visitors, page views -- whatever metrics are core to your business -- as your metrics in these reports. You then want to identify major traffic sources, and meaningful sub-segments of those sources. Once you have a solid understanding of the fundamentals behind custom reports and advanced segments you'll be able to create great reports that offer you specific insights into how to improve your own online marketing efforts.