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How to use real-time analytics

Author: James Clark

an image of author James Clark, accompanied by various search-related iconography, including bar charts, pie charts, and mock impressions and clicks

In the world of web analytics, it’s easy to dismiss real-time (or live) analytics as a vanity exercise—after all, aren’t trends over time more important? Absolutely, and real-time data can even help ensure that your trends data is more reliable by helping you troubleshoot, monitor marketing activity, and make better informed decisions on the fly.


In this article, I’ll show you what you should (and just as importantly, shouldn’t) use real-time reporting for. Next, we’ll dive into Google Analytics 4 and explore a couple of more advanced techniques, before considering the benefits of a dedicated real-time analytics tool and alternative sources of real-time data.


Table of contents:


What is real-time analytics?


Real-time analytics/reporting refers to a collection of data that reflects the most recent activities and actions of users on your site. This can include the number of visitors, the pages they visited, traffic source, events triggered, and so on.


Many analytics tools, including both Google Analytics 4 and Adobe Analytics, offer some kind of “real-time” reporting. Some marketers may treat this kind of report as a vanity exercise: it’s nice to know that there are five people on my site at the moment, but how exactly does that help me make business decisions?


Site owners will often move on to other reports where they can access historic data and start to understand trends over time. But, real-time reporting is incredibly useful once you understand how to apply it.


There are two main styles of real-time reporting depending on the analytics tool you use (and some tools offer both):


  • Event stream: An event or activity stream lists the events that have happened most recently on your site (in reverse chronological order). This almost always includes page views, but could also include button clicks, form submissions, purchases, or any other event you are tracking with the tool.

Mixpanel and Piwik Pro are examples of tools that offer this kind of reporting. (GA4 also has an event stream, but as part of its DebugView rather than the real-time report.)


As an example, here’s an event stream in Mixpanel:


Mixpanel’s event stream showing the most recent events to have taken place on a site, in this case including ‘Products Searched’ and ‘Checkout Started’. Dummy data from a Mixpanel sample dataset

  • Overview report: This type of report shows aggregated information about recent activity on your site. For example, GA4’s real-time report shows you the number of users that visited your site over the past 30 minutes, as well as the number of pageviews per page and a count of each event.


Part of GA4’s real-time overview with world map and ‘cards’ detailing activity over the past 30 minutes

No matter what tool you use, it will take time for that tool to collect and process data. This is often referred to as “latency”—the higher the latency, the lower the data freshness. Even so, the advantage of real-time reporting is that it includes the freshest data the tool can offer you.


In short, real-time reporting is not so much “real-time” as it is “very recent activity.” But that’s still hugely valuable, as you’ll soon see.


Note: Wix site owners can access their Real-time Analytics (which includes an overview section as well as an activity stream) by going to Analytics & Reports > Real-time in their Wix dashboard.


How to use real-time reporting for better campaign results


While you wouldn't necessarily use real-time analytics to report on the success of your marketing campaigns, it plays a vital role in ensuring they run smoothly.


Real-time data supports you in troubleshooting your tracking code, checking that your campaigns have deployed as planned, and making quick-fire marketing decisions. Let's look at all three of these use cases.


Debugging or troubleshooting

The most common use for real-time reporting is debugging or troubleshooting. Piwik Pro even calls its real-time event stream the “tracker debugger” in recognition of this.


Real-time reporting (or whatever your tool labels it as) gives you the freshest data, making it very useful for checking whether tracking codes are working and that the tool is capturing data at all. After all, why wait a day for data to appear in the standard reports when you can check a real-time report after just a minute or two?


Another troubleshooting strength of real-time reporting is that it not only shows you traffic on your site, but also lists the events that have taken place.


On GA4’s Realtime report, the “Event count by Event name” card is a great example of this. It lists page_view events of course, but also session_starts, scrolls, and any custom events you may be sending. Clicking on the name of an event then displays the event parameters that were captured. For the page_view event, that includes page_title, medium (for example, “organic”), and source (for example, “Google”):


Event Count card from GA4’s real-time report showing some of the parameters captured for the ‘page_view’ event

This level of detail makes the Realtime report useful for ad hoc troubleshooting on low-traffic sites. For more complex debugging, it would be better to use the dedicated DebugView with its own events stream, as this can be used to only show events from your own device.


Monitoring marketing activity

Real-time reporting is also useful for checking that marketing campaigns have deployed as planned, and for monitoring the impact of those campaigns in near real-time.


Let’s say you’ve scheduled a product email to go out to 10,000 people at midday—that will generate a spike in traffic (and hopefully sales) that you can see in your real-time report. If you don’t see those things, you may want to double check your email platform.


In addition, real-time reporting lets you see the impact of a trending social media post or blog post almost immediately. (Of course, the challenge here is knowing when something is going to be trending so you can monitor the analytics.)


But, it’s not just digital marketing that you can monitor with real-time reporting. Some traditional marketing campaigns (such as radio advertising) could cause a spike in activity on your site as well. And, if your CEO wants to know immediately how that expensive ad campaign performed, you’re far better providing some initial insight from real-time reporting than saying you have to wait until tomorrow to get data from the standard reports.


Making decisions in real-time

Real-time reporting is particularly useful when it comes to helping you make decisions about things happening live on your site, such as:


Here the emphasis isn’t so much on passively monitoring activity, but on using data to make decisions in real-time. Let’s say you’re planning to run an important webinar scheduled for 11AM. Should you start exactly on the hour, or should you wait until a couple of minutes past?

Depending on your setup, your webinar tool may tell you the number of people that have signed in, but it won’t tell you the number of people on your site who are still in the process of doing so. This is where real-time analytics can fill the gaps and help you build a picture of activity on your site in order to get your timing spot-on.


This is possible not just because real-time data is fresher, but because it’s also more granular—it lets you look at smaller time periods. The smallest time dimension available in GA4 outside of real-time reporting is hourly, and even then you have to customize a report or build an Exploration (like the one shown below) to take advantage of it. This makes it unsuitable for making real-time decisions. (Not to mention that Explorations can’t look at the current day’s data.)


A GA4 ‘Exploration’ breaking down Views by the ‘Date + Hour’ dimension
A GA4 Exploration breaking down Views by the "Date + Hour" dimension.

To give another example, let’s say you hold a virtual event with a number of short presentations by different speakers. Granular data would let you identify the individual presentations—or even the parts of presentations—that were less engaging and were causing your audience to drop from the event. Daily or hourly data would be much less useful here.


What real-time analytics can’t tell you


Real-time analytics gives you the freshest data, often covering a specific window of time (the most recent 30 minutes, for example). This makes real-time analytics the wrong choice for any sort of trend analysis. If you want to know whether sales have been increasing over the past year, turn to your standard reports.


For the same reason, analytics tools won’t let you compare your real-time analytics data to a previous period. If you’re interested in year-over-year, month-over-month, or even day-to-day comparisons, again you should turn to your standard reports.


The date picker on GA4’s standard reports has options for comparing against the previous period, the same period last year, and a custom period of your choice:


The date picker in GA4’s standard reports with the ‘Compare’ toggle turned on and ‘Preceding period (match day of week)’ selected

You may also find that many of the dimensions and metrics you are familiar with from your standard reports are not available to you in your real-time report. We’ll look at what that means for GA4 in particular in the next section.


Finally, be aware that real-time reporting is unlikely to be entirely accurate. Most tools are set up using client-side tracking, where data is sent from the user’s web browser to the analytics service. But some users will block your tracking script with their browser or ad blocker settings—which means your tool will under-report the number of users on site. This is a consideration with all analytics, not just real-time reporting.


Real-time analytics in GA4


Now that you understand what real-time analytics is (and what it isn’t), let’s dive deeper into the real-time functionality in GA4. Once you’ve selected your Property in GA4, you’ll find the real-time report under Reports > Realtime (which may also appear as Real-time depending on your location).


Note: If you’re a long-standing Google Analytics user, you may remember that Universal Analytics (the previous version of GA) had a whole suite of real-time reports. In addition to the overview report, there were individual reports focusing on user locations, events, conversions, and more. With GA4, Google has consolidated all of this information into a single report.


As with GA4’s standard reports, the real-time report consists of a number of “cards,” each of them summarizing one or two dimensions and metrics: for example, “Views by Page title” or “Event count by Event name.”


And as is usual for GA4, some of the cards allow you to switch between dimensions and metrics using a drop-down: “Users by First user source” can be changed to “Users by First user medium” or “Users by First user campaign,” among other options:


The ‘Users by First user source’ card from GA4’s real-time report showing the dropdown options to change the dimension

One difference, though, is that the “customize report” option is missing. That means that, unlike the standard reports, you can’t rearrange, add, or remove any cards on the real-time report.


Now let’s look at a couple of more advanced techniques we can use in GA4’s real-time reporting: Comparisons and Audiences. (If you’re new to GA4, you might want to check out our guides to getting started with GA4 and conversions in GA4 first.)


Comparisons in the GA4 Realtime report

Many of the dimensions and metrics you may be familiar with from the standard reports are absent from GA4’s real-time report. For example, none of the cards include the “browser” dimension, so there’s no way to see a full breakdown of your users’ browsers in real time.


However, you can use the Comparison feature to get at least a little insight into this. Let’s say you wanted to know how many of your real-time users are using Chrome:


01. Go to the Realtime report.

02. Click the Add comparison + (beneath the search bar) to open the “Build comparison” panel.

03. In the Dimension dropdown, choose Browser.

04. In the Match Type dropdown, choose “exactly matches.”

05. In the Value dropdown, tick Chrome.


Your panel should look like this:


The ‘Build comparison’ panel in GA4 with the dimension ‘Browser’ and the value ‘Chrome’ selected as an exact match

Finally, click Apply. Now, the real-time report will show you both the total number of “users in last 30 minutes” (left) and the number using Chrome (right):


GA4’s ‘Users in last 30 minutes’ card with the ‘Browser = Chrome’ comparison applied. There are 7 users in total but only 6 using Chrome

This approach works with other dimensions, too. But depending on your choice, you may find that some of the cards display, “Real-time data is not supported for this comparison.” For example, if you base a comparison around “screen resolution,” then the Event count and Conversions cards will not be available. This is a limitation of GA4’s reporting.


The Conversions card in GA4’s real-time report showing the message ‘Real-time data is not supported for this comparison’

Audiences in the GA4 Realtime report

One of the cards in GA4’s Realtime report lets you break down Users (or New Users) by Audience.


Probably the most common use for GA4 Audiences is as a targeting option in Google Ads—but if you don't run any paid advertising, you may not be familiar with the Audiences feature. So what are Audiences, how do you build them, and how do they relate to real-time reporting?


Audiences are a group of your users that meet particular conditions like “Browser = Chrome” or “have made a purchase.” So, they are similar to comparisons in some ways, but more powerful because they can also consist of users that performed a particular event.


To build an audience:


01. With your property selected, go to Admin > Audiences.

02. Click on New Audience.

03. You could use one of GA4's “suggested audiences” (such as “Purchasers”), but for now let’s Create a custom audience.


GA4's Audience Builder, showing the options to either create a custom audience from scratch or choose one of Google's suggested audiences

04. Click on Add new condition and add a condition based around either a dimension (e.g., Browser) or an event (e.g., Click).

05. If you choose a dimension, click on Add filter to finish writing the condition—for example, Browser = Chrome.

06. Optionally add more conditions to either include or exclude other groups from your audience.


Once you’ve added your condition(s), the Summary in the bottom-right of the audience builder will give you an estimated audience size (based on the last 30 days' activity on your site):


Summary in GA4’s Audience builder, showing an example Audience with 3.4K users

Although the Summary might suggest otherwise, audiences always start with zero members—they aren’t retroactive. For example, if you create an audience of “Purchasers” at midday on February 1, only users making purchases from that moment onwards are added to the audience. The Summary is only showing you how big your Audience might be by now if you had created it 30 days ago.


This means there’s no point creating an Audience and then immediately hoping to use it in the Realtime report. If you want to see how many users who completed a “sign_up” event and are currently on your site, you need to have created that audience long enough ago to make it meaningful. (Users can remain in an Audience for up to 540 days depending on the “membership duration” setting you chose when building the Audience.)


If you do plan ahead, the combination of Audiences and real-time reporting can be incredibly powerful. Imagine you’re running a live event on your site designed to target a particular subset of users: previous purchasers from France, for example. Now, you’ll be able to tell at a glance whether you’re attracting the right audience or whether your messaging has appealed more to a different group.


Does GA4 update in real time?

You’ve already seen that one of the advantages of real-time reporting is the freshness of its data. So how fresh is “fresh” when it comes to GA4?


A screenshot of the GA4 data freshness page, showing a table that says that realtime data takes less than a minute to process, whereas daily data can take 12-24+ hours depending on the size of the site.
While real-time reporting typically takes less than a minute for GA4 to process, daily data can take much longer, depending on the size of the site.

Focusing on the standard reports first, Google gives a processing time of 12 hours for daily data—or longer for the biggest sites. And this is the “typical” processing time, by no means guaranteed.


GA4 is different to Universal Analytics, which had a stated processing latency of “24-48 hours,” but would often make data available within an hour or two. With GA4, 12 hours often really does mean 12 hours.


To put that in context, if you wake up one morning and log in to GA4 to check the previous day’s figures, don’t be alarmed if it looks like traffic on your site has slumped. It may be that you aren’t seeing the complete picture for that day yet.


So, when using the standard reports, it is safest to leave at least one full day before checking the data—in other words, don’t go checking Wednesday’s figures until Friday at the earliest. After all, you wouldn’t want to risk making business decisions on incomplete and potentially misleading data.

And if you’re using GA4 to track activity on an app rather than a website, you may want to wait even longer. As the Analytics Help site says:


“When a user’s device goes offline (for example, a user loses their internet connection while browsing your mobile app), Google Analytics stores event data on their device and then sends the data once their device is back online. Google Analytics ignores events that arrive more than 72 hours after the events are triggered.”

Compared to the standard reporting, the Realtime report has an amazingly quick typical typical processing time of “less than one minute.” This is the case for both free and paid (360) GA4 properties, although this processing time is not guaranteed by the 360 SLA. Nevertheless, it offers by far the freshest data available in GA4.


But be careful how you interpret that data: The Realtime report will tell you the number of users to have visited within a 30-minute window, but not whether those users are still on the site. So, if you have “100 users in the last 30 minutes,” it may be that all 100 are still on the site or that all 100 have left. The reality, of course, is probably somewhere in between.


Dedicated real-time analytics tools


If you absolutely need to know the number of users on your site at any given moment (rather than within, say, a 30-minute window), consider using a dedicated real-time analytics tool such as GoSquared or Realtime.li. These are designed to provide exactly that information, as this section of the Realtime.li dashboard demonstrates:


Part of the Realtime.li demo dashboard, showing 3,291 active users on site “Right now” with a graph of active users over time.

GoSquared’s approach is unusual in that it uses a technology called “pinging” to check that visitors are still on your site. This means that if they leave, they will be removed from the live visitors count in around 30 seconds. On the other hand, if they are sitting on your site doing something passive (such as watching a long-form video), they will still be counted towards the live visitors total. Generally speaking, other analytics tools would stop counting these visitors after a set period of time.


On the downside, a dedicated live analytics tool won’t offer you the same level of historic reporting as a more general platform might. This means you’ll likely end up running two tools on your site at the same time—for example, Google Analytics 4 for tracking trends over time and GoSquared for real-time reporting.


Whichever tools you use, don’t expect them to give you identical results—every tool defines its metrics differently, even if they sound similar (sessions, visits, and so on). So, be consistent about when you use one tool and when you use the other.


Other sources of real-time data


I’ve shown you how to use real-time data both in all-purpose analytics tools such as Google Analytics 4 and dedicated real-time analytics tools such as GoSquared. But, I’d like to leave you with the thought that analytics tools aren’t your only source of useful real-time data. In particular, if you’re live streaming video content, it’s likely that your platform will be able to provide some great insights.


YouTube, for example, can tell you the number of “concurrent viewers” (i.e., the number of viewers watching your stream simultaneously) as well as the “peak concurrent” (i.e., the highest figure you have achieved during the stream):


A ‘concurrent viewers’ graph from YouTube’s live video analytics, showing between zero and two viewers throughout the live video stream


Facebook Live, Vimeo, and IBM Player all have similar metrics. In addition, your platform may give you details on specific interactions, such as “Likes” or “chat rate” (the number of messages sent in live chat per minute).


As with real-time analytics data from your website, you can use data from your streaming platform for troubleshooting or for identifying the most and least engaging parts of the livestream.


Also, look in your website back office to see what data is available to you there. Most site builders and platforms now offer some level of built-in analytics, and this can be expanded through the use of third-party apps or plugins.


Real-time analytics on Wix

Wix site owners can access their real-time analytics by going to Analytics & Reports > Real-time in their Wix dashboard.


Wix’s Real-time Analytics overview gives you a snapshot of live visitors and visitors in the last 30 minutes, with additional details about their geography, device, pages visited, and traffic source.

You can also view a list of your Recent visitors over the last 24 hours, as well as a breakdown of each action they took during that session.


The Live activity section with Wix’s real-time analytics, showing a stream of user activity, such as products being added to cart, a visitor reaching checkout, and a product view.

Refer to the Live activity panel (shown above) to see which actions were recently taken on your site, including:


  • Viewing a store product

  • Entering the checkout flow

  • Viewing a blog post

  • Adding an item to a cart

  • Becoming a new contact

  • Booking and/or scheduling a service

  • Completing an order



Real-time analytics: The right data for the right purpose


Real-time analytics (while not exactly “real time”) is a source of genuinely useful data. It can answer questions that your regular analytics reports simply can’t. But it’s also a specialized tool, designed to do one thing and do it well. That means it supplements (rather than replaces) any analytics you’re already using. To extend the metaphor, it’s an extra tool in your toolbox.


That said, there are many different sources of real-time data, and each will tell you something slightly different in a slightly different way. So ask yourself: do you need real-time data for troubleshooting, for monitoring marketing campaigns, for live events, or for something else entirely?


The answer to that question will help you identify the right source of real-time data for you, and ensure you are using it for genuine business purposes rather than an ego boost each time you log in. In other words, it will help you keep it real.


 
James Clark

James Clark is a web analyst from London, with a background in the publishing sector. When he isn't helping businesses with their analytics, he's usually writing how-to guides over on his website Technically Product. Twitter | Linkedin

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