Tracking true referrals in Google Analytics when using PayPal and other payment gateways

Many businesses use PayPal and other third party payment gateways to accept online payments. But this can create tracking issues in Google Analytics.

A payment gateway is a service through which you can accept credit/debit cards and other forms of electronic payments on your website. PayPal is an example of a payment gateway.

Whenever a customer leaves your website to make payment via a third party payment gateway and later return to your website from the gateway website, Google Analytics often attribute sales to the payment gateway instead to the original traffic source.

This is quite common in the case of PayPal. You can often find appearing as a top referrer in Google Analytics Referral report:

paypal top referrer

The following are the methods through which you can minimize self-referral issues while using payment gateways. I used the word ‘minimize’ because often it is not possible to completely eliminate such tracking issues.

#1 Use a Custom Shopping Cart and Custom Payment Gateway

The best way to minimize self-referral issues while using a payment gateway is, not to use any third-party payment gateway to accept online payments.

You should seriously consider using a custom shopping cart and custom payment gateway that is developed especially to meet your business needs.

There are many advantages of using custom made shopping cart but the ones which are worth highlighting are:

#1 Your customers will never leave your website to make payment and there will be little to no self-referral issues.

#2 You no longer need to depend on any third-party shopping carts and/or payment gateway or wait for updates/fixes for the foreseeable future.

It would be a one time cost for you to develop your own shopping cart but will be cheaper for your business in the long run.

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#2 Use a Direct Payment Gateway

The best way to track original referrals while using third party payment gateways is not to use external payment gateways.

There are two types of payment gateways:

#1 External Payment Gateways

#2 Direct Payment Gateways

If you are using an external payment gateway, then your customers must leave your website to complete a transaction. But if you use direct payment gateways, then your customers can complete transactions without leaving your website.

Following are the examples of external Payment gateways:

  1. PayPal Express Checkout
  2. PayPal Payflow Link
  3. PayPal Payments Advanced
  4. DirectPay

Following are the examples of direct Payment gateways:

  1. PayPal Payflow Pro
  2. PayPal Payments Pro
  3. WorldPay (Direct)
  5. Shopify Payments

Consider using only a direct payment gateway. It will cost you more than an external gateway but help you in minimizing self-referral issues and most importantly help you from not losing transaction data in Google Analytics.

#3 Provide Several Payment Options to Users

Don’t just rely on services like PayPal to accept online payments. Use other payment options like wire transfer, payment upon pick-up, pay by phone, etc.

There are many businesses which just rely on services like PayPal for accepting all of their online payments and they are the one which hit the hardest from PayPal self-referral issues in Google Analytics.

#4 Add to the Referral Exclusion List

But don’t do it in a hope that this will fix your PayPal referral issues and you will start tracking true referrals in Google Analytics when using PayPal.

Adding to the referral exclusion list will not help you track the original referrer.

paypal referral exclusion list

Exclude PayPal so that when a user returns to your website from PayPal after making payment, a new GA session is not triggered.

If you don’t exclude PayPal from being treated as a referral traffic source then whenever a user returns to your website from PayPal, a new GA session will start (provided you are using universal analytics and not classic Google Analytics) and this will inflate and skew your session/traffic data.

I often hear from clients that the referral exclusion list doesn’t work. It does work in a way that greatly reduces self-referral issues.

However, this is also true that often referral exclusion list does not completely eliminate the excluded domain(s) from appearing in the referral traffic report.

The other thing to keep in mind is that referral exclusion does not work retroactively. Any visit/sales attributed to PayPal before adding to the referral exclusion list will still be attributed to PayPal in GA reports.

Therefore you need to make sure that once you have added a domain to the referral exclusion list, you look at the referral report from the time period when you first implemented referral exclusion.

#5 Add Event Tracking Code to the PayPal ‘Buy Now’ Button

PayPal provides you button code through which you can embed PayPal ‘buy now’ button on your website:

paypal buy now button

You can edit this button code and place following event tracking code (highlighted in bold):

<input onClick=”ga(‘send’, ‘event’, { eventCategory: ‘’, eventAction: ‘Buy Now button’});
type=”image” src=”” border=”0″ name=”submit” alt=”PayPal – The safer, easier way to pay online.”>

What this event tracking code will do is that whenever someone clicks on your PayPal button, it will record the button click and send the click data to Google Analytics.

Then later through the event tracking report you can determine the original traffic source by applying ‘source/medium’ as a secondary dimension:

paypal event trackingObviously this is not a foolproof method. Whether a user completes the purchase or not after clicking on the PayPal ‘buy now’ button, the click event will always be recorded. But you can at least get a good idea of where the majority of these PayPal transactions originally came from.

Bonus Tip: Enable ‘Auto Return’ and PDT in your PayPal Account

While this tip will not fix your Paypal self-referral issues, it will help you greatly in minimizing lost PayPal transaction data in Google Analytics.

One of the side effects of using an external payment gateway (which many marketers don’t seem to be aware of) is that there is always a strong possibility that you are not getting all of the transaction data in your Google Analytics reports.

To get all of the transaction data from a third party payment gateway, you need to make sure that your customers always return back to your website and visit the order confirmation page. Your order confirmation page contains the ecommerce tracking code which sends the transaction data back to Google Analytics.

If a customer closes the browser window after viewing the receipt page of a third party payment gateway and does not return to your website then no ecommerce tracking code will be executed and no transaction data will be sent to Google Analytics.

You can not pass Google Analytics client ID to PayPal, as PayPal does not allow you to add the Google Analytics tracking code to its page through which it can accept client ID from your website. So cross-domain tracking is not going to work here.

You need to wait for a user to return to your website from PayPal and let him visit the order confirmation page before the PayPal transaction data can be sent to the Google Analytics server.

Many times users close the PayPal receipt page and do not return to your website. In that case, PayPal transaction data is not able to pass to the GA server.

You can greatly increase the likelihood of people returning to your website after completing the transaction by enabling ‘auto return’ and by specifying ‘Return URL’ in your PayPal account.

Follow the steps below to enable auto return in your PayPal account:

Step-1: Login to your PayPal account and then click on the ‘Profile and settings’ link as shown below:

profile and settings

Note: I use a PayPal business account, so the ‘profile’ link may be located in a different place in your account if you don’t use PayPal business.

Step-2: Click on ‘My Selling Preferences’ link as shown below:

my selling preferences

Step-3: Locate ‘Website Preferences’ section and then click on the ‘update’ button next to it:

website preferences

Step-4: Set auto return for website payment to ‘on’ and then enter the return URL as shown below:

auto return for website paymentsNote: The auto return option is disabled by default.

When you turn on the ‘auto return’ setting, all users are automatically redirected back to your website once the payment has been made.

Step-5: Enable PayPal PDT. This setting is below the ‘Return URL’ text box:

paypal pdt

Through PayPal PDT (Payment data transfer) you can transfer PayPal transaction details to your GA reports via your website ecommerce tracking code.

Other articles on specialized tracking in Google Analytics

  1. Ecommerce Tracking in Google Analytics – Tutorial
  2. Event Tracking via Google Tag Manager – Tutorial
  3. Event Tracking in Google Analytics – Tutorial
  4. Guide to Google Analytics Store Visits Tracking
  5. Offline Conversion Tracking in Google Analytics – Tutorial
  6. Implementing E-Commerce Tracking via Google Tag Manager
  7. Tracking Virtual Pageviews in Google Tag Manager – Tutorial
  8. YouTube Video tracking via Google Tag Manager
  9. How to Use Keyword Hero to Reveal Not Provided Keywords in Google Analytics
  10. Virtual pageviews in Google Analytics – Tutorial
  11. Google Analytics and YouTube Integration Tutorial
  12. Google Analytics for Facebook Tutorial
  13. Google Analytics Cross Domain Tracking Explained Like Never Before
  14. Using multiple Google Analytics tracking codes on web pages
  15. The one thing that you don’t know about and the referral exclusion list
  16. Calculated Metrics in Google Analytics – Tutorial
  17. Creating your own Google Analytics Tag Auditing System
  18. Tracking Site Search without Query Parameter in Google Tag Manager
  19. Tracking true referrals in Google Analytics when using PayPal and other payment gateways
  20. Phone Call Tracking in Google Analytics and Beyond
  21. Learn to Track Qualified and Won Leads in Google Analytics
  22. Introduction to Postbacks in Google Analytics
  23. Google Analytics Recurring Revenue and Subscriptions Tracking Tutorial
  24. How to track the impact of cookie consent on website traffic in Google Analytics
  25. Tracking Offline Conversions in Google Ads
  26. Implementing Scroll Tracking via Google Tag Manager
  27. Scroll Tracking via Scroll Depth Trigger in Google Tag Manager
  28. Site Search Tracking In Google Analytics Without Query Parameters
  29. Video Tracking via YouTube Video Trigger In Google Tag Manager
  30. How to Correctly Measure Conversion Date & Time in Google Analytics
  31. Google Analytics Social Tracking – Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus and LinkedIn
  32. Google Analytics Cross Domain Tracking (ga.js)
  33. Tracking Twitter and Linkedin Social Interactions in Google Analytics
  34. Creating Content Group in Google Analytics via tracking code using gtag.js
  35. Tracking Site Search in Google Analytics with Query Parameters
  36. Understanding site search tracking in Google Analytics
  37. Creating and Using Site Search Funnel in Google Analytics
  38. Learn to Setup Facebook Pixel Tracking via Google Tag Manager
  39. Setting up & Tracking AMP Pages in Google Analytics
  40. Setting up Sales Funnel across websites in Google Analytics
  41. Regular Expressions (Regex) for Google Analytics & Google Tag Manager – Tutorial

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