Google Analytics Channels, Source and Medium explained in great detail

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

However, in order to understand the various Acquisition reports and the users’ acquisition in general, you would need to first understand what channels are and how they are defined in Google Analytics.

Without adequate knowledge of channels, you can not accurately interpret the various Acquisition reports in Google Analytics and consequently your acquisition strategy.

In order to understand channels, you would 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 is the website from which people visited your website.

For example,

If people visited your website from Google.com then your website traffic source is ‘google‘.

If people visited your website from facebook.com then your website traffic source is ‘facebook‘.

If people visited your website from quora.com then your website traffic source is ‘quora‘.

Similarly, if people visited your website from tripadvisor.co.uk then your website traffic source is ‘tripadvisor‘.

People can also visit your website directly (via a bookmark or typing the website address in the browser address bar). In that case Google Analytics report ‘(direct)‘ as your website traffic source.

Whenever Google Analytics is not able to determine the origin of your website traffic, it is most likely to report ‘(direct)‘ as your website traffic source.

People can also visit your website by clicking on a link which is tagged with UTM parameters. In that case, Google Analytics will report the value of the utm_source parameter as your website traffic source.

For example, if a person clicks on the following link which takes him to your website (www.abc.com):

https://www.abc.com/book-maths-and-stats/?utm_source=fbj2&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=pdf-book-campaign&utm_content=ad1

then Google Analytics will report ‘fbj2’ as your website traffic source.

This is because the value of the utm_source parameter has been set to ‘fbj2’.

 

Where you can find traffic sources in Google Analytics?

Different people can visit/find your website via different traffic sources.

You can see the list of all the traffic sources in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source / Medium report and then clicking on the ‘Source’ tab:

 

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

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What is ‘Medium’ in Google Analytics?

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

A medium can be system defined or user defined. So there are two broad categories of medium:

  1. System defined medium
  2. User defined medium

System defined medium 

A system defined medium is a pre-built medium which carries a special meaning. This is a medium which is already defined/recognized by Google Analytics.

Following are the examples of system defined traffic mediums in Google Analytics:

  1. organic
  2. cpc
  3. ppc
  4. paidsearch
  5. (not set)
  6. (none)
  7. social
  8. social-network
  9. social-media
  10. sm
  11. social network
  12. social media
  13. email
  14. affiliate
  15. referral
  16. cpv
  17. cpa
  18. cpp
  19. content-text
  20. display
  21. cpm
  22. banner

User defined medium

A user defined medium is a traffic medium defined by people like me and you. You can create your own traffic medium by using the utm_medium parameter.

For example, consider the following URL:

https://www.abc.com/book-maths-and-stats/?utm_source=fbj2&utm_medium=paidsocial&utm_campaign=pdf-book-campaign&utm_content=ad1

Here, ‘paidsocial’ is a user defined traffic medium.

 

Where you can find traffic medium in Google Analytics?

You can see the list of all the traffic medium in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source / Medium report and then clicking on the ‘Medium’ tab:

 

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

 

What is Source/Medium report in Google Analytics?

The Source/Medium report is used to measure the performance of your traffic sources in terms of:

  1. Acquisition (number of users, numbers of new users, number of sessions)
  2. Behavior (bounce rate, pages per session, average session duration)
  3. Conversions (Ecommerce conversion rate, transactions, revenue, goal conversion rate, goal completions, goal value)

This report list all the traffic sources along with their medium in the first column.

You can see this list by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source / Medium report:

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

In the case of (direct) / (none), ‘direct’ is the traffic source and ‘none’ is the medium.

In the case of analytics.google.com / referral, ‘analytics.google.com’ is the traffic source and ‘referral’ is the medium.

 

What is a Campaign in Google Analytics?

Campaign (or marketing campaign) is the name of your Google Ads campaign and/or custom campaign. 

In the context of Google Analytics, a custom campaign is your website URL which contains UTM parameters.

Through custom campaigns, you can send detailed information about your campaigns esp. non-Google marketing campaigns to Google Analytics.

Following is an example of a custom campaign which send detailed information about your Facebook marketing campaigns to Google Analytics:

https://www.abc.com/book-maths-and-stats/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=paidsocial&utm_campaign=excel-charts-ebook&utm_content=ad1

Following is an example of a custom campaign which send detailed information about your Bing marketing campaigns to Google Analytics:

https://www.abc.com/widget/?utm_source=bing&utm_medium=cpc&utm_campaign=book-widget&utm_content=book-widget-us-ad

You can see the list of all the Google Ads campaigns which sent traffic to your website by navigating to:

#1 Acquisition > Google Ads > Campaigns

#2 Acquisition > Google Ads > Video Campaigns

#3 Acquisition > Google Ads > Shopping Campaigns

You can see the list of all the custom campaigns which sent traffic to your website by navigating to Acquisition > Campaigns > All Campaigns report:

 

What are Google Analytics Channels?

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

For example ‘organic search’ is a marketing channel. It can be made up of following traffic sources as long as the medium is ‘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 navigating to:

#1 Acquisition > Overview report

 

#2 Acquisition > All traffic > Channels report

 

#3 Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Overview report

 

#4 Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Assisted Conversions report

 

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

 

What channels are available in Google Analytics?

There are two categories of channels available in Google Analytics:

#1 Default marketing channels (system defined channels)

#2 Custom marketing channels (user defined 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)

 

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Organic Search Marketing Channel (organic search traffic)

Organic search traffic is the traffic your website got for free from search engine websites like google.com, bing.com, baidu.com, yandex.com, etc.

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

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

  • google / organic
  • yahoo / organic
  • bing / organic
  • aol / organic etc

Where you can find organic search traffic in Google Analytics?

You can find organic search traffic in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report and then clicking on the ‘Organic Search’ link: 

 

Paid Search Marketing Channel (paid search traffic)

Paid search traffic is the paid traffic your website got from search engine websites like google.com, bing.com, etc.

So traffic from Google Ads, Bing Ads, etc is an example of paid search traffic.

Paid search marketing channel (or paid search traffic) can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is one of the following:

  • cpc
  • ppc
  • paidsearch

and Ad Distribution Network’ does not exactly match ‘content’.

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

  • google / cpc
  • bing / cpc 

Where you can find paid search traffic in Google Analytics?

You can find paid search traffic in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report and then clicking on the ‘Paid Search’ link: 

 

Display Marketing Channel (display traffic)

Display traffic is the traffic your website got from display ads. 

Display marketing channel (or display traffic) can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is one of the following:

  • display
  • cpm
  • banner

 and ‘Ad Distribution Network’ exactly matches ‘content’.

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

  • expedia / display
  • tripadvisor / display
  • brightroll / banner
  • bbc / cpm

Where you can find display traffic in Google Analytics?

You can find display traffic in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report and then clicking on the ‘Display’ link: 

 

Direct Marketing Channel (direct traffic)

Direct traffic is the traffic to your website which starts without a referrer being passed by a user’s web browser.

In the following cases, a referrer is not passed and hence the traffic is reported as direct traffic by Google Analytics:

  1. A person visited your website by typing your website address in the browser address bar.
  2. A person returned to your website via a bookmark.
  3. A person visited your website from an app which does not send a referrer.
  4. A person visited your website by clicking on a link in a desktop email client (like Microsoft Outlook) or an instant messenger (like Skype) or Microsoft Word document.

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 source is reported as ‘(direct)’ by Google. In that case, GA sets the medium of the traffic source to ‘(none)’.

The Direct marketing channel can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the traffic source exactly matches ‘direct’ and the traffic medium exactly matches one of the following:

  • (none)
  • (not set)

Related Article: Complete Guide to Direct Traffic in Google Analytics

Where you can find direct traffic in Google Analytics?

You can find direct traffic in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report and then clicking on the ‘Direct’ link: 

 

Referral marketing channel (referral traffic)

Referral traffic is the traffic to your website that starts with a referrer being passed by a user’s web browser. 

Technically speaking, traffic from any website to your website is referral traffic (as long as a referrer is being passed by a user’s web browser). 

But in the context of Google Analytics, traffic from search engines and most PPC/CPM ads (like Google Ads), is not reported as referral traffic.

The 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, the referral marketing channel can be made up of following traffic sources:

  • facebook / referral
  • tripadvisor / referral
  • bing.com / referral

Where you can find referral traffic in Google Analytics?

You can find referral traffic in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report and then clicking on the ‘Referral’ link: 

You can also find referral traffic in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Referrals report:

 

Social Marketing Channel (social media traffic)

Social media traffic is the traffic your website got from social media websites like ‘Facebook’, ‘Twitter’, ‘Linkedin’ etc. 

The Social marketing channel (or social media traffic) can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the Social Source Referral exactly matches Yes or medium of the traffic sources is one of the following:

  • social
  • social-network
  • social-media
  • sm
  • social network
  • social media

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

  • Facebook
  • Pinterest
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
  • credit
  • Naver
  • Twitter

Where you can find social media traffic in Google Analytics?

You can find social media traffic in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report and then clicking on the ‘Social’ link:

Another place where you can find social media traffic is by navigating to Acquisition > Social > Network Referrals report:

 

Email Marketing Channel (email traffic)

Email traffic is the traffic your website got from email marketing campaigns.

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

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

  • activecampaign / email
  • getresponse / email
  • actionetics / email
  • MailChimp / email

Where you can find email traffic in Google Analytics?

You can find email traffic in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report and then clicking on the ‘Email’ link:

 

(Other) marketing channel (Other Advertising traffic)

Other advertising traffic is the traffic your website got from marketing campaigns which either used a user-defined traffic medium or the medium of the campaigns were not set.

The (Other) marketing channel (or other advertising traffic) can be made up of any number of traffic sources as long as the medium of the traffic sources is one of the following: cpv, cpa, cpp, content-text or the medium is defined by a user (via the custom tracking parameters ‘utm_medium’) or the medium is not set by the user (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:

  • twitterfeed / Linkedin
  • Growthackers.com / community
  • whos_blogging_what / newsletter
  • conversionBook / word-document
  • ABC user / (not set)

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

Where you can find other advertising traffic in Google Analytics?

You can find other advertising traffic in Google Analytics by navigating to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report and then clicking on the ‘(Other)’ link:

 

How to edit a Default Marketing Channel?

First thing first. You should avoid changing the definition of a default marketing channel as this can skew your analytics reports for good. 

But if you have to change the definition of a default marketing channel say ‘direct’ in GA then follow the steps below:

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

Step-2: Under the ‘View’ column, click on Channel Settings > Channel Grouping

Step-3: Click on the ‘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 changes how the new traffic is classified. However, historical data will not be affected.

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:

Step-5: click on the ‘OR’ button:

Step-6: Click on the second drop-down menu and then select ‘Source/Medium’:

Step-7: Type xyz.com / referral in the text box:

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 the website (xyz.com).

If I use the ‘AND’ logical operator here (by clicking on the ‘AND’ button):

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

System defined channel is ‘Direct’

And if

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

Since this condition will always evaluate to false, Google Analytics will stop recording ‘direct’ traffic:

So be careful when using the ‘AND’ condition.

Whenever you are editing a default marketing channel, you need to be careful with the use of the ‘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-8: Click on the ‘Done’ button and then on the ‘Save’ button at the bottom of your screen.

 

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.

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Custom Marketing Channels (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 follows the steps below:

Step-1: Navigate to the ‘Admin’ section of your main reporting 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:

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 called ‘Optimize Smart Newsletter’ to track traffic from my newsletters campaign.

TIP: 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 ‘Save’ button at the bottom of your screen.

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

optimizesmart channel2

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

 

Generic Paid Search Channel (generic paid search traffic)

Generic paid search traffic is the traffic your website got from the non-branded keywords you bid on in Google Ads, Bing ads etc.

The non-branded keywords are the search terms which does not include your brand name.

By setting up a generic paid search channel, you can get a better understanding of the performance of non-branded search keywords in terms of driving traffic and sales to your website.

Branded Paid Search Channel (branded paid search traffic)

Branded paid search traffic is the traffic your website got from the branded keywords you bid on in Google Ads, Bing ads etc.

The branded keywords are search terms which include your brand name.

By setting up a 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.

How to create Generic and Branded paid search channels?

Step-1: Make sure your Google Analytics property is not suffering from not provided keywords issues. Not provided keyword is a keyword without ‘keyword referral data’:

not-provided-keywords

In order to reveal not provided keywords in your Google Analytics property, you need to use a tool like ‘Keyword Hero‘ and collect at least 30 days of keywords data.

Step-2: Navigate to the ‘Keyword View‘ of your ‘Keyword Hero‘ property:

Step-3: Navigate to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source / Medium report in your keyword view and then click on the ‘Keywords’ tab:

Step-4: Filter all of the branded keywords (including misspellings) and download the data into an excel spreadsheet.

Step-5: Navigate to the ‘Admin’ section of your keyword view.

Step-6: Under the ‘View’ column, click on Channel SettingsManage Brand Terms

Step-7: If you see a list of Suggested brand terms then click on the ‘Add’ button next to it one by one:

You should now see your suggested brand terms listed under the column ‘Active brand terms‘:

Step-8: Copy-paste the list of branded keywords from the excel spreadsheet into the ‘Enter Brand Terms‘ text box:

 

Step-9: Click on the ‘Add brand terms‘ button.

You should now see your keywords list under the column ‘Active brand terms‘:

Step-10: Click on the ‘Save’ button at the bottom of your screen.  You should now see the following dialog box:

Step-11: Click on ‘Yes Set up now’ button. As soon as you click on this button, you will see the following dialog box:

Step-12: Click on the ‘Dismiss‘ button. You should now see two new channels named ‘Generic Paid Search‘ and ‘Branded Paid Search‘ added to your default channel grouping:

Step-13: Click on the ‘pencil’ button next to ‘Generic Paid Search’ channel to see how it has been defined:

 

Step-14: Click on the ‘Cancel’ button.

Step-15:  Click on the ‘pencil’ button next to ‘Branded Paid Search’ channel to see how it has been defined:

Step-16: Click on the ‘Cancel’ button.

Step-17: Click on the ‘Save’ button at the bottom of your screen.

You have now successfully created ‘Generic Paid Search’ and ‘Branded Paid Search’ marketing channels.

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

Where you can see the generic and branded paid search traffic in Google Analytics?

In order to see the generic and branded paid search traffic in Google Analytics, navigate to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report in your ‘Keyword’ view:

 

Generic Organic Search Channel (generic organic search traffic)

Generic organic search traffic is the traffic your website got from the non-branded organic keywords. 

The organic keywords are the search terms which generated free traffic for your website from search engine websites like Google.com, Bing.com, Yandex.com etc.

By setting up a generic organic search channel, you can get a better understanding of the performance of non-branded organic keywords in terms of driving traffic and sales to your website.

Branded Organic Search Channel (branded organic search traffic)

Branded organic search traffic is the traffic your website got from the branded organic keywords. 

By setting up a branded organic search channel, you can get a better understanding of the performance of branded organic keywords in terms of driving traffic and sales to your website.

How to create Generic and Branded organic search channels?

Follow the steps below:

Step-1: Make sure your Google Analytics property is not suffering from not provided keywords issues and that you are using a tool ‘Keyword Hero‘ to get not provided keywords data.

Step-2: Navigate to the ‘Keyword View’ of your ‘Keyword Hero’ property.

Step-3: Navigate to the ‘Admin’ section of your keyword view.

Step-4: Under the ‘View’ column, click on Channel Settings > Channel Grouping.

Step-5: Click on the ‘default channel grouping’ link.

Step-6: Click on ‘Define a new channel‘ button and then create a new generic organic search channel with the following specifications:

Step-7: Click on the ‘Done’ button.

Step-8: Click on ‘Define a new channel‘ button and then create a new branded organic search channel with the following specifications:

Step-9: Click on the ‘Done’ button.

You should now see the two new channels added to channel definitions under ‘Default Channel Grouping’:

Step-10: Click on the ‘Save’ button at the bottom of your screen.

Note: Make sure that Branded Organic Search and Generic Organic Search channels are above the default Organic Search channel in the Channel Definitions list.

Where you can see the generic and branded organic search traffic in Google Analytics?

In order to see the generic and branded organic search traffic in Google Analytics, navigate to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report in your ‘Keyword’ view.

 

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

Frequently asked questions about Google Analytics Channels

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 the case of google / organic, ‘google’ is the traffic source
In the case of bing / cpc, ‘bing’ is the traffic source
In the case of tripadvisor / referral, ‘tripadvisor’ is the traffic source.

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 the case of google / organic, ‘organic’ is the medium.
In the case of bing / cpc, ‘cpc’ is the medium
In the case of tripadvisor / referral, ‘referral’ is the medium.

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

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

In Google Analytics, a channel or a marketing channel is a group of several traffic sources with the same medium. For example ‘organic search’ is a marketing channel. It can be made up of following traffic sources with the 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

What are Default Marketing Channels?

Default marketing channels are pre-defined (or system defined) marketing channels in Google Analytics. Following are default marketing channels in Google Analytics:
1. Organic Search
2. Paid Search
3. Display
4. Direct
5. Referral
6. Social
7. Email
8. (Other)

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, the 'referral’ marketing channel can be made up of following traffic sources:
#1 facebook / referral
#2 tripadvisor / referral
#3 bing.com / referral

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’.

   

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Himanshu Sharma

Digital Marketing Consultant and Founder of Optimizesmart.com

Himanshu helps business owners and marketing professionals in generating more sales and ROI by fixing their website tracking issues, helping them understand their true customers' purchase journey and helping them determine the most effective marketing channels for investment.

He has over 12 years of experience in digital analytics and digital marketing.

He was nominated for the Digital Analytics Association's Awards for Excellence. The Digital Analytics Association is a world-renowned not-for-profit association that helps organisations overcome the challenges of data acquisition and application.

He is the author of four best-selling books on analytics and conversion optimization:

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