Smart Goals are not a new feature in Google Analytics. They've been available since the end of 2015 and there continues to be a debate about whether or not AdWords advertisers should enable Smart Goals in their Google Analytics accounts.
According to Google, they measure smart goals by applying “machine learning across thousands of websites that use Google Analytics and have opted in to share anonymized conversion data. From this information, we can distill dozens of key factors that correlate with likelihood to convert: things like session duration, pages per session, location, device, and browser. We can then apply these key factors to any website. The easiest way to think about Smart Goals is that they reflect your website visits that our model indicates are most likely to lead to conversions. “
Enabling a Smart Goal is very easy to do in your Analytics account. You go to the same place where you would set up any other goal in the Admin area of the account as seen below.
With Smart Goals, advertisers are required to have 500 clicks from their AdWords account in the last 30 days before data is available for this goal type. Things that influence the Smart Goal data include some of the metrics people already look at in Google Analytics, such session duration, pages per session, location and device.
For Smart Goals, Google uses machine learning to gather information beyond your own website, including data other business websites. There could be some value in having this comparison to other sites even though it is anonymous. And Smart Goals are a helpful feature to new advertisers without technical skills because it’s simply a matter of checking a box. It’s certainly not ideal though since there are limitations. You cannot configure or customize a Smart Goal. Either you are measuring a Smart Goal or you are not.
If you choose to use this feature, it may be useful in determining whether or not you should set up cost-per-acquisition (target CPA bidding). With Target CPA bidding, you set a bid for a conversion as opposed to a click. So if you're using a Smart Goal, you may want to consider this bidding strategy assuming Google really is identifying qualified leads through the use of Smart Goals. Since you don’t have access to that detail, decide if you’re comfortable with how Google qualifies a lead behind the scenes. Do you trust the score Google assigns to a certain type of website visitor?
It is still important to set up more concrete goals, such as a destination URL after form submission or event tracking and examine all goals set up in your Google Analytics account rather than only relying on Smart Goals when making decisions. Give priority to the goals that are closer to bringing you real conversions.
And there are downsides to this strategy. The 500 clicks required before data is collected can get expensive and advertisers have to wait 30 days. Even when the data is there, advertisers don’t know exactly what it means since it’s based on machine learning. As a result, it can be difficult to know how exactly to optimize an AdWords account based on that data to have a positive ROI (return on investment) from AdWords. What Google identifies as a potential conversion through the Smart Goal process may not even be a conversion that's meaningful for your business. And using a bid strategy of Target CPA could be very costly.
My view with Smart Goals is that there is no harm in activating them to see what kind of data you receive. It provides another dimension of your website visitors’ behavior. However, I do not use it as a substitute for creating specific goals or implementing conversion tracking. Before making any decisions with your Smart Goals data, carefully consider what other information you have from Google Analytics. Smart Goals are an additional feature for measuring activity on your website, not a substitute for conversion tracking and manual goal creation.