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 really are 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 consequently your acquisition strategy.

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

What is ‘source’ in Google Analytics?

Source (or traffic source) is the origin of your website traffic. It also includes traffic 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 sources in Google Analytics.

What is ‘medium’ in Google Analytics?

Medium (or traffic medium) is the category of the traffic source as defined by Google. It also includes traffic 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 Google Analytics.

What is ‘campaign’ in Google Analytics?

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’.

What is Channel (or Marketing Channel) in Google Analytics?

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

For example ‘organic search’ is a marketing channel. It can be made up of following traffic sources with same medium called ‘organic’:

#1 google (as in google / organic)
#2 yahoo (as in yahoo / organic)
#3 bing (as in bing / organic)
#4 aol (as in aol / organic) etc

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 in Google Analytics.

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 (or What is organic search traffic in Google Analytics)

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 (or What is paid search traffic in Google Analytics)

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, ‘paid search’ 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 (or What is display traffic in Google Analytics)

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 (or What is direct traffic in Google Analytics)

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 by Google Analytics.

Referral marketing channel (or What is referral traffic in Google Analytics)

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 (or What is social traffic in Google Analytics)

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 (or What is email traffic in Google Analytics)

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 (or What is ‘other’ in Google Analytics)

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

#1  not pre-defined but is in fact 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: Navigate 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

Pay attention to the warning message you see at the top:

GA display this warning message for a good reason. 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. So avoid changing the definition of default marketing channels unless you are absolutely sure what you are doing. 

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

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

direct channel edit

Here I am telling Google Analytics to record the incoming traffic as ‘direct’ traffic if:

System defined channel is ‘Direct’

or if

the traffic comes from my other website (xyz.com).

If I use the ‘AND’ logical operator here:

Then I am telling Google Analytics to record the incoming traffic as ‘direct’ traffic if:

System defined channel is ‘Direct’

And

the traffic comes from my other website (xyz.com).

Since this condition will always evaluate to false, GA will stop recording ‘direct’ traffic.

So do not click on the ‘AND’ button:

not and

Whenever you are editing a default marketing channel, you need to be careful with the use of ‘AND’ button . Its wrong use can easily skew your analytics data for good.  These ‘OR’ and ‘AND’ buttons work just like the logical operators OR and AND.

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 Google Analytics.

Custom marketing channels (or How to create a new marketing channel in Google Analytics)

Custom marketing channels are user defined marketing channels.

To create a new marketing channel in Google Analytics follow the steps below:

Step-1: Navigate 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: 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 to track traffic from my newsletters campaign. 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.

Introduction to ‘Generic’, ‘Branded’ and ‘Unknown’ Paid Search channels

Generic’ paid search channel record the traffic coming from non-branded keywords (also known as generic keywords) to your website via search engines. By setting up generic paid search channel, you can get a better understanding of the performance of generic search keywords in terms of driving traffic and sales to your website.

Branded’ paid search channel record the traffic coming from branded keywords (search terms which include your brand name) to your website via search engines. By setting up branded paid search channel, you can get a better understanding of the performance of branded search keywords in terms of driving traffic and sales to your website.

Unkown’ paid search channel record the traffic coming from not provided keywords to your website via search engines. By setting up unkown paid search channel, you can get a better understanding of the performance of not provided keywords in terms of driving traffic and sales to your website.

Creating ‘Generic’, ‘Branded’ and ‘Unknown’ Paid Search channels

To create these channels, follow the steps below:

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

Step-5: Under the ‘View’ section, click on Channel SettingsManage 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

The added brand terms will appear under the column labelled as ‘Active brand terms‘.

Step-7: Look at the ‘Suggested brand terms‘ box and if you find a branded keyword which is missing from your branded keywords list, then add it to the right column (labelled as ‘Active brand terms’):

manage brand terms3

Step-8: Click on the ‘Save’ button. You will now see following dialog box:

success brand terms added

Step-9: Click on ‘Yes Set up now’ button. As soon as you click on this button, you will see following dialog box:

dismiss

Step-10: Click on the ‘Dismiss’ button. You can now see two new channels named ‘Generic Paid Search’ and ‘Branded Paid Search’ added to your default channel grouping:

generic branded paid search

Step-11: Click on the ‘pencil’ button next to ‘Generic Paid Search’ channel to see how it has been defined:

pencil icon

generic paid search channel

Step-12: Click on the ‘pencil’ button next to ‘Branded Paid Search’ channel to see how it has been defined:

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 not 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-13: 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.

Introduction to ‘Generic’, ‘Branded’ and ‘Unknown’ Organic Search channels

Generic’ organic search channel record the traffic coming from non-branded keywords (also known as generic keywords) to your website via search engines.

Branded’ organic search channel record the traffic coming from branded keywords (search terms which include your brand name) to your website via search engines.

Unkown’ organic search channel record the traffic coming from not provided keywords to your website via search engines.

Creating Generic, Branded and Unknown Organic Search channels

Follow the steps below:

Step-1: Navigate 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

Announcement about my books

Maths and Stats for Web Analytics and Conversion Optimization
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Master the Essentials of Email Marketing Analytics
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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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