Google Analytics and Google Analytic Cookies

Google Analytics and Google Analytic Cookies

Web analytics are tools that offer objective and multi-dimensional statistics to give managers a better visual understanding of the interactions between their websites and visitors. By definition, web analytics refers to tools used to collect, assess, and report traffic data to help web analysts understand and optimize web usage. (Lee, 2012). Although this information varies based on the analytic tool used, it contains information on where, when, how long, how deep, where the visitors visit ended, and where they navigated to after leaving the particular webpage. Importantly noted, although there are several web analytic programs available, Google analytics is one of the widely used programs.

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What is Google Analytics?

After Google acquired Urchin Software in March 2005, the company released Google Analytics in November the same year (Lee, 2012). Practically, Google Analytics is among the most straightforward and robust web analytics tools used to track and report web traffic (Enge, Spencer, & Stricchiola, 2015). The service enables website owners to measure their website visitors’ usage and their interaction with web content. According to statistics, by 2015, the web analytics stood at 1.3 billion dollars and is projected to rise up to 4.9 billion dollars five years from now (Lamb, 2017). Consistently, being one of the most popular web analytics program, Google Analytics is likely to benefit more as compared to other web analytics. As users navigate through the web pages, Google Analytics uses JavaScript tracking code to track the activities of a user on a website (Weber & Waisberg, 2015). More particularly, the tool uses a first-party cookie, _ga to store client IDs, which is a randomly selected identifier for the specific browser or device. In case there are multiple domains or sub-domains, Google Analytics offers options to specify the domain for the cookie. The client ID is then used to calculate the number of users and their behavior in their navigation sessions.

How is it used?

At its most basic level, Google Analytics is connected to the target website through a piece of tracking code. The tracking code is a small piece of JavaScript code made within the analytics account and used to capture data about the activities of the visitors. According to Google Analytics webpage, the JavaScript libraries use HTTP cookies to recall the activities of the user on the website. Additionally, Google analytics usually supports two JavaScript libraries; analytics.js and g.js.

Analytics.js cookie

Ideally, the analytics.js JavaScript library is a part of a larger part of analytics and uses first-party cookies to differentiate users and stifle the request rate. When using the recommended JavaScript, this particular tag sets cookies using the highest level of the domain. For instance, if a website is, the analytics.js will set the cookie domain to to enable tracking of users across sub-domains without needing extra configurations (“Google Analytics Cookie Usage on Websites,” 2017). Abakytics.js also uses _ga and _gid to different users, _gat to throttle request rates, AMP_TOKEN to retrieve client ID and _gac_<property-id> to retrieve campaign-related information about the user.

ga.js Google analytic cookies

Similar to the analytics.js, ga.js also uses first-party cookies to establish the domain to analyze, differentiate unique users, and throttle the request rate. The cookie is also useful in remembering the number of times the user visited the site, traffic source information, determine the beginning and end of a session, as well as recall the value of visitor-level custom variables. By default, this tag sets the cookie path to root level (/) and uses the following cookies. __utma is used to differentiate between users and sessions and is created once the JavaScript executes and no trace of __utma cookies (“Google Analytics Cookie Usage on Web sites,” 2017). The __utmt cookie is used to throttle the request rate, while the __utmb is used to determine new visitor sessions. The other cookies used include the __utmz, which stores the source of the traffic and elaborates on how the user got to the site. The __utmv is used to store variable data and is created when the developer applies the _setCustomVar method.

Application of Google Analytics Cookies in Forensic Analysis

Over the years, cookies have been used to proof that a user account accessed a certain website. Though being an important artifact in forensic implications, cookies were often looked since no set of structure for cookies existed, which means that determining the meaning of the content was a problem for forensic analysts. However, with Google Analytics cookies, the documented structures allow forensic analysts to obtain important information regarding a website visitor by accessing their website visitor data (Nelson, 2012). Virtually, Google uses HTTP cookies, which are simple text records sent from the server to the browser. Based on the type of browser the visitor is using, the information is stored in plain text or a database. Web servers then use this data to track sessions and authenticate user information.  In order to determine users and web pages, the cookie is sent back to the web server for authentication. Locally, the type of information tracked include the website’s URL, date and times of last visit, expiration data, and the number of times the website was accessed. It is also important to note that because cookies are deleted upon expiry, sometimes they lacks consistency in the format of cookies, which can be challenge to forensic investigators. Users can also determine the type of cookies to allow in their web browser with typical options offering the ability to restrict first and third party cookies.

Getting Forensic Data from Google Analytic Cookies

Instead of tracking every page reload, Google Analytic cookies helps forensic investigators to track new sessions and show the referring site and keywords as well. Forensic analysts often get data by examining the name, value, host, and path values within the different cookies to get information about site visitors.

The __utma cookie contains a value field that contains information that needs to be closely examined to understand their contents (Nelson, 2012). In particular, the domain hash contains the visitor unique ID, their first, previous, and last sessions. In case the cookie has already been deleted, a subsequent visit to the site will generate a new visitor ID. According to nelson, the cookie also allows investigators to access the time stamps based on the local time system. However, it is important to note that the first visit time is not a reflection of the first time the user accessed the first; rather the first time the administrator set it on the system. The cookie expiry date is two years after the date set by the administrator.

The __utmb cookie is used alongside the __utmc cookie and is used to track sessions. The two cookies follow the structure of domain hash, page viewed, and the last time. The pages viewed indicates the number of pages that the user viewed in a specific domain, while the last time indicates the last period the page was accessed by the user.

Although the other cookies contains some bits of investigative data, the __utmz contains a great deal of forensic information. The cookie stores the domain hash, the date and time of last update, the number of times the visitor accessed the site, and all the sources used to access the website. The cookie also contains several variables that contain important information descripbing the target site. The variables include the utmcsr, which indicates the last site the user used to access the target website, and the utmccn that contains campaign information. The utmcmd that contains information on the last type of access used, the utmctr that contains the keywords used to find the target site, and the utmcct that contains the path to the referring link. Among these  variables, the utmctr holds valuable data used to discover the target site, while the utmcct provides forensic analysts with investigative relevance.

After understanding the Google Analytics cookies, the next step is locating the cookies in the different browsers using the SQLite database manager. As Nelson elaborates, in Forefox, the system cookies are often located in cookies.sqlite, which can accessed through the <user_profile>\AppData\Roaming\Mozilla\Firefox\profiles\<strings>. Defaulft\cookies.sqlite.  The same procedure applies for Google Chrome but with some slight modifications in the path followed to access the SQL databse. The path usually follows <user_profile>\AppData\Local\Mozilla\Google\Chrome\User data\Defaulft\cookies.

Impact of Google Analytics on the Economy and Life

Google Analytics provides a set of tools used to support various primary tasks in web analysis. Virtually, the programs tracks the standard web metrics, which range from unique visitors, bounce rate, page views, and page abandonment rate among others. From a wider perspective, the web analytics tool does not only track the basic traffic to the websites, but it also largely contributes towards business success. According to Cutroni (2010), Google Analytics tracks all different kinds of marketing initiatives from AdWords, paid search, and social media marketing among other online marketing methods. In return, web analysts use the generated report to understand traffic performance and ultimately change the performance of the website. Overall, as one of the mainstream data tools, millions of both small and large business owners have adopted Google Analytics. Small and medium-sized businesses now have access to a world-class and free analytics tool that provides them with the necessary continuous improvement process for their e-commerce business. Large multinationals that used to pay huge amounts of money also have access to a free analytics tool that has enabled them to save huge amounts of money and redirect these funds to other functionalities to make data actionable.

Evolution for now and in the Future

Initially, Google used the standard tracking code, which was later replaced by a newer version, the asynchronous tracking code in May 2010. The very old tracking code, the urchin.js had been in use for a long time, and although it is still supported, Google recommended that all users should migrate to the current version of tracking code. The change was intended to reduce the time that the tracking code consumed in loading and executing. Similarly, the move was intended to speed up the website. According to Cutroni (2010), page load time is a factor in Google ranking algorithm and  it would not be right if one of their products contributed to increased load times. Consequently, the Google Analytics tracking code depends on JavaScript and cookies to gather traffic data. Although some mobile devices such as iPhones and Android phones support both the standard and the asynchronous technologies, a huge number of mobile devices do not support any of these two technologies. Google needed a different method to collect traffic data from visitors using devices that do not support JavaScript of cookies. The mobile tracking code was developed to collect data at the server, instead of the browser or device. Thus, in order to collect data at the server level, when developing a mobile site Google recommends using the language that developed the web application. In this case, Google provides four mobile tracking to enable the process and include, PHP, Java, ASP, and Perl. Alongside the mobile tracking code, Google Analytics can also track mobile apps. Ideally, as Cutroni notes, tracking mobile applications is basically different from tracking websites in that apps function differently as compared to websites. The way the user interacts with the app is completely different due to the functionalities such as lack of a mouse and keyboard, and instead, people use fingers to interact with the mobile app. In order to track mobile application traffic, Google uses the standard Web Measurement data model, which uses page views and visits to process apps traffic. The future of Google Analytics is based on the convergence of digital and analytics solutions.

Importance of Google Analytics in other Aspects

Google Analytics is a powerful tool for businesses and brands alike. Through the tool, businesses are able to uncover a tremendous amount of data concerning their website, which can then be used to enhance their marketing and business development tactics (Alhlou, Asif, & Fettman, 2016). The significance of Google Analytics can be broken down into various benefits. Firstly, Google Analytics helps web owners to zero down on what matters most to their business. In this case, the acquisition, audience, and behavior of web visitors are the most significant elements for marketers (Google Analytics Help, n.d). The audience section provides a considerable amount of data about the visitors who click on your site include their gender, age, and location. It also makes it possible to access more information about their interests and the browsers and devices used to access the site. Understanding things such as the demographic composition of the website audience give business owners the opportunity to tailor their content and advertising to meet the needs and interests of the specific group frequenting your site. As further elaborated, audience analysis enables organizations to repeatedly capture the audience response from multiple sources and help them in the design and delivery of the right content and unique experience for increased revenue generation (IBM Analytics, n.d). Consequently, the acquisition section provides website owners with detailed information regarding the people who visit their sites. Combined with the all traffic tab, business owners can access the way people arrive at their website, whether it is through a search engine, social media, a blog, or another website. On the behavior section, the website owners are able to understand the way people interact with their site. More specifically, this section enables owners to understand the most popular pages on their website. The information acquired from this tab can help in making informed decisions about the most effective marketing efforts that are useful in increasing website traffic.

As technology is increasingly changing, the nature of e-commerce marketing is changing. Google analytics is a powerful tool, which enables web owners to pay attention to their website visitors. Through this functionality, web owners can create content that meets the needs and interests of their visitors. Consequently, the tool enables web owners to construct a customized and relevant site experience for the audience that keeps them coming back to the site. To the economy, Google Analytics has significantly transformed the world of e-commerce in several ways. Small, medium-sized, as well as large business, can now track their website traffic at no extra cost. Using the reports generated by the tool, businesses are able to improve the performance of their website. Over the years, the evolution of Google Analytics has also significantly changed, and its future is based on the convergence of digital and analytics solutions


“Google Analytics Cookie Usage on Websites.” (2017). Google Analytics. Retrieved from:

Alhlou, F., Asif, S., & Fettman, E. (2016). Google Analytics Breakthrough: From Zero to Business Impact. John Wiley & Sons.

Cutroni, J. (2010). Google Analytics. Sebastopol, Calif: O’Reilly.

Enge, E., Spencer, S. M., & Stricchiola, J. (2015). The Art of SEO: Mastering Search Engine Optimization. Sebastopol, CA: O’Reilly Media.

Google Analytics Help. (n.d). Google analytics home. Retrieved from:

IBM Analytics. (n.d). Media and Entertainment Analytics. Retrieved from:

Lamb, J. (2017). Web Analytics Market Size, Share, Report, Analysis, Trends & Forecast to 2022. Reuters. Retrieved from:

Lee, I. (2012). Electronic commerce management for business activities and global enterprises: Competitive advantages. Hershey, PA: Business Science Reference.

Nelson, J.S. (2012). Google analytics cookies and the forensic implications. Forensic magazine. Retrieved from:

Weber, J., & Waisberg, D. (2015). Practical Google Analytics and Google Tag Manager for developers. New York: Apress.

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