You are doing Google Analytics all wrong. Here is why

I have dealt with hundreds of Google Analytics accounts in my career and I have seen a lot of issues ranging from incorrect tracking code, selecting the wrong KPIs to analysing data without using custom reports and advanced segments.

All of these issues prompted me to write the following two articles:

#1 Google Universal Analytics Setup Checklist

#2 Common Universal Analytics Mistakes that Kill your Analysis, Reporting and Conversions.

But these articles don’t really solve the biggest problem of all in web analytics:

“Misinterpretation of analytics data”

Everyone seems to be making the mistake of crediting conversions and e-commerce transactions to the wrong marketing channel and that too over and over again.

Many marketers can’t help themselves because they believe that the reports provided by Google Analytics (and other web analytics software) are ‘what you see is what you get’ when they are actually ‘what you interpret is what you get’. 

Even today the majority of businesses and marketers will give the credit for conversions to the last campaign, ad or search that referred the visitor just before they completed a goal conversion (like making a purchase). This has resulted in marketers making wrong business decisions and losing money.

All of the data you see in Google Analytics reports today lies to you, unless you know exactly how to interpret it correctly.

Let us consider three different scenarios:

Scenario 1:

ga wrong

The majority of marketers looking at this standard ‘All Traffic’ report in Universal Analytics for the last three months will draw the following conclusions:

# Organic traffic is playing a secondary role to direct traffic.

# The majority of traffic and revenue is coming through direct traffic.

# We need to speed up content development and link building to increase organic traffic to the website.

Scenario 2:

One look at this monthly PPC report and many of you will declare this whole campaign a total failure. Look at the first campaign, just one conversion in the whole month and cost per conversion is whooping $531. You must be kidding, right?

Scenario 3:

my brand is the best

This report shows that the majority of traffic and sales has come from your brand name. But do you really think your brand name generated revenue of more than $241k?

Welcome to the real world

Let us analyse these three different scenarios once again but this time in the real world.

Scenario 1:

real world1

The truth about direct traffic

All untagged or improperly tagged marketing campaigns from display ads to emails could be treated as direct traffic by Google.

Whenever a referrer is not passed, the traffic is treated as direct traffic by Google.

  1. Mobile applications don’t send a referrer.
  2. Word/PDF documents don’t send a referrer.
  3. ‘302 redirects’ sometimes cause the referrer to be dropped.
  4. Sometimes browsers don’t pass the referrer.
  5. During a http to https redirect (or vice versa) the referrer is not passed because of security reasons.

All such traffic is treated as direct traffic by Google. So on the surface it looks like 618,199 visits/sessions were direct, but it may actually be only 25,000 sessions which were from direct traffic and the rest were from display ads, email, organic,  social media and applications/campaigns in which the referrers were not passed.

But this analysis does not end here, because you are still not looking at the complete picture. Here is the complete picture:

scenario-1.1

Visitors do not always access your website directly and then make a purchase straight away.

They are generally exposed to multiple acquisition/marketing channels (like display ads, social media, paid search, organic search, referral websites, email etc) before they access your website directly and make a purchase. So if you are unaware of the role played by prior marketing channels, you will credit conversions and e-commerce transactions to the wrong marketing channels, like in the present case to direct traffic.

If you look at the chart above, organic search is playing a key role in driving direct traffic to the website which eventually resulted in conversions and ecommerce transactions.

To get this type of understanding you need to understand and implement attribution modelling. The conclusion that organic traffic is playing a secondary role to direct traffic is incorrect.

Related post: Geek guide to Direct Traffic Analysis

Scenario 2:

Visitors do not always click on your paid search ads and then make a purchase straight away.

They are generally exposed to multiple acquisition/marketing channels before they click on your ad and make a purchase.

Sometimes visitors may click on your ads but make a purchase through a different acquisition channel or medium. For example a person may click on your paid search ad through their laptop at work. Then later make a purchase via their home desktop PC through a branded organic keyword.

Sometimes your paid search ads play a bigger role in assisting conversions than directly completing conversions. The ‘conversions’ and ‘cost per conversions’ (cost/conv) reported by Google Adwords in scenario 2 above, are all based on the last adwords touch attribution model (people click on ad and buy) and hence provide poor analytical insight. When I paused these campaigns, I saw a decline in revenue. These campaigns are in fact profitable and their assisted conversion value is also very high.

Related post: Google Adwords Analytics – Complete Guide

Scenario 3:

my brand is the best

This scenario is not any different from scenario 1 and scenario 2. Here too you don’t see the complete picture.

Visitors do not always search for your brand name and then make a purchase straight away.

They generally start their search with a non branded and generic search term then they refine their search queries as they get better understanding of what exactly they are looking for. Sometimes they make a purchase right after making a search but often they come back later to your site via a branded search term.

Since a website or brand name is easiest to remember among all branded search terms, it often ends up being attributed a lot of conversions and transactions by Google Analytics.

 

User journey is Complicated

Users do not always use the navigation path you expect them to follow.

There is no guarantee that a person who lands on the website via a PPC landing page will not navigate to the home page before making a purchase.

Users switch between marketing channels

A user may visit your website the first time via a paid search ad but can return to your website via branded organic search or directly to make a purchase. So you may think that your paid search ad is not working but in reality it is.

Users do not always use the same device when they return to a website.

They may browse your product page via a laptop at work and then browse the rest of the website via a tablet at home and may buy your product the next day via a mobile at work.

For Google Analytics the person who browsed the product page via a laptop at work is different from the person who browsed the rest of the website via a tablet at home and also different from the person who bought the product via a mobile the next day, as cookie information is not shared across devices.

In such case here is how Google Analytics will record user activities:

User 1 browsed the product page via a laptop but didn’t make a purchase. So the AdWords ad will not get credit for conversion.

User 2 browsed a lot of pages on the website but didn’t make a purchase.

User 3 came to the website directly via a mobile device and made a purchase.

So online user journey is complicated.

 

Marketing channels effect each others performance

Because of multi-channel and multi device attribution, any improvement or decline in the performance of one marketing channel impacts the performance of other marketing channels. So if you suddenly switch off all of your PPC campaigns, you are most likely to see a decline in direct traffic.

Organic traffic can impact the CTR of PPC ads, as when people see double listing (both paid and organic listing) they are more likely to click on an ad. As such, a decline in organic traffic can reduce the CTR of PPC campaigns. Similarly people who are exposed to a brand for the first time via paid search may return to the website via branded organic search or directly. So any decline in PPC traffic may negatively impact branded organic search traffic or direct traffic.

In a multi-channel, multi-device world, different marketing channels and devices work together to create user experience and conversion.

We don’t optimize just for SEO or just for PPC. We optimize for users regardless of the channel or device they come from.

 

Takeaways

1. Web analytics reports are not ‘what you see is what you get’. They are ‘what you interpret is what you get’.

2. Direct traffic is polluted so find ways to clean it. The first step should be to correctly tag all of your campaigns URLs. Use Google Analytics URL Builder.

3. Visitors do not always access your website directly and then make a purchase straight away.

4. Visitors do not always click on your paid search ads and then make a purchase straight away.

5. Visitors do not always search for your brand name and then make a purchase straight away.

6. Understand the role that various website referrals, social media, display, email, paid/organic search etc played prior to conversions via multi channel funnel reports before you discard or label any marketing channel as ineffective or you over invest in any particular channel.

7. Understand how different acquisition channels work together to create conversions and transactions.

8. No one acquisition channel is solely responsible for sales in the world of multi channel marketing. 

9. Do not overestimate or underestimate the impact of other marketing channels.

10. Understand that when you change the budget of one marketing channel it will have impact on the performance of other marketing channels. Nothing is black and white in the world of analytics.

You can learn more about budget allocation from this article: How to allocate Budgets in Multi Channel Marketing

If you wish to learn more about attribution modeling and attributing conversions and ecommerce transactions to the right marketing channel then read this article: Google Analytics Attribution Modeling – Beginners Guide

Announcement about my new books

Maths and Stats for Web Analytics and Conversion Optimization
This expert guide will teach you how to leverage the knowledge of maths and statistics in order to accurately interpret data and take actions, which can quickly improve the bottom-line of your online business.

Master the Essentials of Email Marketing Analytics
This book focuses solely on the ‘analytics’ that power your email marketing optimization program and will help you dramatically reduce your cost per acquisition and increase marketing ROI by tracking the performance of the various KPIs and metrics used for email marketing.

Attribution Modelling in Google Analytics and Beyond
Attribution modelling is the process of determining the most effective marketing channels for investment. This book has been written to help you implement attribution modelling. It will teach you how to leverage the knowledge of attribution modelling in order to allocate marketing budget and understand buying behaviour.

Himanshu Sharma

Certified web analyst and founder of OptimizeSmart.com

My name is Himanshu Sharma and I help businesses find and fix their Google Analytics and conversion issues.
If you have any questions or comments please contact me.

  • Over eleven years' experience in SEO, PPC and web analytics
  • Certified web analyst (master level) from MarketMotive.com
  • Google Analytics certified
  • Google AdWords certified
  • Nominated for Digital Analytics Association Award for Excellence
  • Bachelors degree in Internet Science
  • Founder of OptimizeSmart.com and EventEducation.com

I am also the author of three books: