Google Analytics Channels, Source and Medium explained in great detail

In this article you will learn:

#1 What traffic sources and medium, really are.

#2 What are channels in the context of Google Analytics.

#3  Types of channels: Default and Custom

#4 How Google defines: organic search traffic, paid search traffic, direct traffic, email traffic etc.

#5 How to change the definition of a default channel like direct.

#6 How to create a new marketing channel.

#7 How to create generic, branded and unkown paid search channels

#8 How to create generic, branded and unknown organic search channels.

Google Analytics provide many reports on Acquisition through which you can understand traffic/users’ acquisition (i.e. how you are acquiring users /traffic for your website):Acquisition reports

However in order to understand the various Acquisition reports and the users’ acquisition in general, you need to understand what channels, and how they are defined in Google Analytics. Without adequate knowledge of channels, you can’t accurately interpret the various Acquisition reports in GA and hence your acquisition strategy.

In order to understand channels, you first need to know about traffic sources, medium and campaigns.

Source, Medium & Campaign

Source (or traffic source) is the origin of your website traffic. It also includes sources tracked via utm_source parameter.

For example,

In case of google / organic, ‘google’ is the traffic source

In case of bing / cpc, ‘bing’ is the traffic source

In case of tripadvisor / referral, ‘tripadvisor’ is the traffic source.

Note: In Google Analytics, source names are case sensitive. So google, Google and GOOGLE, are all treated as different traffic source in GA.

Medium (or traffic medium) is the category of the traffic source as defined by Google. It also includes medium tracked via utm_medium parameter.

For example,

In case of google / organic, ‘organic’ is the medium.

In case of bing / cpc, ‘cpc’ is the medium

In case of tripadvisor / referral, ‘referral’ is the medium.

Note: In Google Analytics, medium names are case sensitive. So email, Email and EMAIL are all treated as different medium in GA.

Campaign is the name of your Google Adwords campaign and/or custom campaign.

A custom campaign is that marketing campaign which has been tagged with campaign tracking parameter ‘utm_campaign’.

Channel (or Marketing Channel)

In Google Analytics, a channel or a marketing channel is a group of several traffic sources with same medium.

You can view channels in Google Analytics by going to:

#1 Acquisition > Overview report

channels

#2 Acquisition > All traffic > Channels report

channels2

#3 Conversions > Multi Channel Funnels > Overview report

channels3

#4 Conversions > Multi Channel Funnels > Assisted Conversions report

channels4

#5 Conversions > Multi Channel Funnels > Top Conversion Paths report

channels5

There are two types of channels in Google Analytics:

#1 Default marketing channels (or default channels)

#2 Custom marketing channels (or custom channels)

Default marketing channels

Default marketing channels are pre-defined (or system defined) marketing channels.

Following are default marketing channels:

  1. Organic Search
  2. Paid Search
  3. Display
  4. Direct
  5. Referral
  6. Social
  7. Email
  8. (Other)

 

Organic Search marketing channel

Organic search marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is ‘organic’.

For example, ‘organic’ Search marketing channel can be made up of following traffic sources:

#1 google / organic
#2 yahoo / organic
#3 bing / organic
#4 aol / organic etc

 

Paid Search marketing channel

Paid search marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is ‘CPC’, ‘ppc’ or ‘paidsearch’ and Ad Distribution Network’ does not matches ‘content’.

For example, ‘paidsearch’ marketing channel can be made up of following traffic sources:

#1 google / cpc
#2 bing / cpc
#3 facebook / ppc
#4 linkedin / paidsearch etc

 

Display marketing channel

Display marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is ‘display’, ‘cpm’ or ‘banner’ and ‘Ad Distribution Network’ matches ‘content’.

For example, ‘display’ marketing channel can be made up of following traffic sources:

#1 expedia / display
#2 tripadvisor / display
#3 brightroll / banner
#4 bbc / cpm

 

Direct marketing channel

Direct marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the traffic sources are unknown to Google Analytics.

Whenever a referrer is not passed or is dropped because of technical reasons, Google Analytics is not able to determine the traffic source and the traffic is treated as direct traffic by Google. In that case, GA sets the traffic source to ‘direct’ and medium to ‘none’.

For example, in case of traffic coming from microsoft word document, instant messenger (like skype) or a mobile app, the referrer is not passed and hence Google Analytics is not able to determine the source of the traffic. Because of that, all such traffic is treated as direct traffic by Google.

And off course, if a user is visiting a website directly or via a bookmark, that traffic is also treated as direct traffic.

 

Referral marketing channel

Referral marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is ‘referral’.

For example,’referral’ marketing channel can be made up of following traffic sources:

#1 facebook / referral
#2 tripadvisor / referral
#3 bing.com / referral

 

Social Marketing Channel

Social marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is ‘social’, ‘social media’, ‘social-media’, ‘social network’, or ‘social-network’.

For example, ‘social’ marketing channel can be made up of following traffic sources:

#1 facebook / social
#2 twitter / social media
#3 linkedin / social network etc.

 

Email Marketing Channel

Email marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is ‘email’.

For example, ’email’ marketing channel can be made up of following traffic sources:

#1 Product A Newsletter / email
#2 Product B Newsletter / email
#3 Silverpop / email

 

(Other) marketing channel

(Other) marketing channel (or other advertising) is made up of all those traffic sources whose medium is:

#1  not pre-defined but is infact defined by a user via custom tracking parameters ‘utm_medium’

#2 (not set).

Note: The medium (not set) means, a user didn’t set the medium for his custom campaign via the utm_medium parameter.

For example, (Other) marketing channel can be made up of following traffic sources:

#1 twitterfeed / linkedin
#2 Growthackers.com / community
#3 whos_blogging_what / newsletter
#4 conversionBook / word-document
#5 ABC user / (not set)

Here ‘linkedin’, ‘community’, ‘newsletter’ and ‘word-document’ are user defined medium and hence they have been put under the ‘other’ marketing channel category by Google.

Editing a default marketing channel

You can change the definition of a default marketing channel (like ‘direct’) in GA. To do this, follow the steps below:

Step-1: go to the ‘Admin’ section of your main view in Google Analytics.

Step-2: under the ‘View’ section, click on Channel Settings > Channel Grouping

channel grouping

Step-3: click on the ‘default channel grouping’ link:

default channel grouping link

Step-4: let us suppose you want to change the definition of direct traffic. You want the traffic coming to your website from your other website (say xyz.com) to be also treated as direct traffic by Google Analytics.

To do this, click on the pencil icon, next to direct channel:

direct channel

Step-5: click on the ‘OR’ button:

or button

Don’t click on the ‘AND’ button:

not and

Be careful with the ‘AND’ button whenever you are editing a default marketing channel. Its wrong use can easily skew your analytics data.

Avoid changing the definition of default marketing channels unless you are absolutely sure what you are doing. 

 These ‘OR’ and ‘AND’ buttons work just like the logical operators OR and AND.

Step-6:  add a new rule according to the specifications below:

direct channel edit

Step-7: click on the ‘done’ button and then on the blue ‘save’ button at the bottom.

Now going forward, your direct traffic will also include traffic from your second website (xyz.com)

That’s how you can change the definition of a default marketing channel in GA.

Note: Any change to the definition of default marketing channels, permanently change how the new traffic is classified. However the historical data will not be affected.

Custom marketing channels

Custom marketing channels are user defined marketing channels.

To create a new marketing channel follow the steps below:

Step-1: go to the ‘Admin’ section of your main view in Google Analytics.

Step-2: under the ‘View’ section, click on Channel Settings > Channel Grouping

Step-3: click on the ‘default channel grouping’ link

Step-4: click on ‘Define a new channel’ button:

define a new channel button

Step-5: name your new marketing channel and define the rules for your new channel like the one below:

optimizesmart channel

Here I have created a new marketing channel for my newsletter.

If you want to add more than one rule then click on the ‘OR’ or ‘AND’ button. These ‘OR’ and ‘AND’ work just like the logical operators OR and AND.

Step-6: click on the ‘done’ button and then on the blue ‘save’ button at the bottom.

Now going forward, my default channel grouping will also include a new marketing channel called ‘Optimize Smart Newsletter’:

optimizesmart channel2

That’s how you can create a custom marketing channel in Google Analytics.

Creating Generic, Branded and Unknown Paid Search channels

By setting up generic and branded paid search channels, you can get a better understanding of the performance of generic and branded paid search keywords.

To create these channels, follow the steps below:

Step-1: go to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source / Medium report in your main view.

Step-2: Click on the ‘keyword’ tab:

keywords tab

Step-3: Filter all of the branded keywords (including mispellings) and download the data into excel.

Step-4: go to the ‘Admin’ section of your main view in Google Analytics.

Step-5: under the ‘View’ section, click on Channel Settings > Manage Brand Terms

manage brand terms

Step-6:Copy paste the list of branded keywords from excel into the ‘Enter Brand Terms’ text box and then click on the ‘Add brand terms’ button:

manage brand terms2

Step-6: Look at the ‘suggested brand terms’ box and if you find a branded keyword which is still missing from your branded keywords list, then add it to the right:

manage brand terms3

Step-7: Click on the ‘Save’ button. As soon as you click on this button, you will see following dialog box:

success brand terms added

Step-8: Click on ‘Yes Set up now’ button.As soon as you click on this button, you will see following dialog box:

dismiss

Step-9: Click on the ‘Dismiss’ button. You can now see two new channels: Generic Paid Search and Branded Paid Search:

generic branded paid search

Step-9: Click on the ‘pencil’ button next to ‘Generic Paid Search’ and ‘Branded Paid Search’ channels to see how they have been defined:

pencil icon

generic paid search channel

branded paid search channel

By looking at these definitions, you will get an idea of how to create ‘Unknown Paid Search‘ channel.

Because of not provided keywords, there are many keywords which can’t be categorized as either branded or generic. In order to understand the performance of these keywords, we need to create a new channel called ‘Unknown Paid Search’.

Step-10: click on ‘Define a new channel’ button and then create a new channel with following specifications:

unkown paid search channel

Note: Make sure that Brand Paid Search, Generic Paid Search and Unknown Paid Search channels are above the default Paid Search channel in the Channel Definitions list.

Creating Generic, Branded and Unknown Organic Search channels

You need to manually create and add these channels to your ‘Default Channel Grouping’. Follow the steps below:

Step-1: go to the ‘Admin’ section of your main view in Google Analytics.

Step-2: under the ‘View’ section, click on Channel Settings > Channel Grouping

Step-3: click on the ‘default channel grouping’ link

Step-4: click on ‘Define a new channel’ button and then create generic, branded and unknown organic search channels, one by one using the following specifications:

branded organic search channel

generic organic search channel

unkown organic search channel

Another article you will find useful: Understanding the Anatomy of Conversion Optimization

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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
  • 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:

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