Source Tracking Part I: Default labeling and account linkages

Out of the box, Google Analytics source tracking is incomplete. Some sources – such as visitors that come to your site from offline sources – aren’t attributed meaningfully at all. Some other traffic sources, such as traffic from paid Yahoo/Bing search or non-Google online display ads come in with sloppy labeling.

First, I’ll go over some of the common sources of imperfection in Google’s source tracking, and then I’ll show you a few tricks you can use to make your tracking a lot cleaner.

Where (and why) Google Analytics default source tracking gets it wrong

Google’s source tracking is primarily URL based. When a visitor comes to your site, Google will look at the URL of the site they came from, and label the source of that visitor based on the referring URL. If the visitor came from a Google or Bing search listing, Google will see a URL that looks something like this:

Google Analytics parses the URL to identify the following characteristics:

1. Source. The source is the domain name or publisher that brought the visitor to your site. This is equivalent to “WHO” led the visitor to your site. By default, Analytics records the domain name of the referring page as the “source”.

2. Medium. You can think of the medium as “HOW” the visitor found your site. Google looks for clues in the referring URL to identify whether the visitor came as a result of natural search, paid search, referral. If there’s no referring URL, the visit is labeled as a “direct” visit with a source of “none”. In the URL above, “search?” indicates that prior to visiting your site, the visitor made a search query. By default, Google labels this traffic as “organic search”. If Google recognizes the domain name of the referring site as a social network site, it will label the medium as “Social Media”. For all other referring URLs, Google records the medium as “Referral”.

3. Keyword. In addition to source and medium, which label the “who” and the “how” of a visitor’s source, Analytics can also parse the search term out of the referring URL to determine WHAT generated a visit. Someone who clicks on a search will provide a keyword (in above URL see the text after “q=”). This attribute is only relevant for visits generated by searches, and is applicable whether or not the visitor clicked on a paid search ad or organic search result.

You might have noticed by now that there are some major traffic sources missing in the descriptions above – namely any sort of online or offline advertising. This is because in GA’s model, these types of traffic look like other types of traffic. Someone that hears a radio ad might go directly to your site (direct traffic) or might search for your brand (paid or organic search, depending on what result is clicked). Someone that clicks on a display ad to get to your site might be labeled in one of a number of different ways, depending upon whether that display ad was served on a search listing page, social network or referring site. Even a click on a search ad, will not–by default–be distinguishable from a click on an organic search result because the referring URL takes the same form.

Needless to say, not being able to track advertising sources is a HUGE problem. Tracking advertising sources is critical to being able to identify how many visits and conversions particular ad buys are generating. Fortunately, there are a number of different solutions for setting up tracking for different types of advertising properties.

How to add tracking for Google Adwords

By default, your Google Analytics account will not recognize traffic generated by your Adwords account as paid advertising, and will instead identify it as organic search traffic. However, it’s really easy to link your Adwords and Analytics accounts. After linking your accounts, Analytics will properly label traffic with source=Google and medium=ppc and will also communicate a couple of additional attributes, specifically:

Campaign – the name of the Adwords campaign that generated the ad
Ad Content – the copy that the search ad displayed

Sounds useful, right? Here’s how you set up the link.

Click on the “Admin” tab in the top right of your Google Analytics screen.

Then, in the far left column under “Account Management”, click “Adwords Linking”.


On the following screen, click “New link”.


Then, select the Adwords account you want to link. Analytics should already recognize those Adwords properties for which you have Admin access. If you see a message that says that you do not have the permissions needed to link the desired Adwords account, you will need to either request Adwords Admin access, or else ask someone with Admin access to link the account for you.


Once you have selected which Adwords account to link, then select which Analytics view to link to it to. Check the “Data Sharing” checkbox, if you would like to be able to view Analytics data from Adwords.


Do not be alarmed if you do not immediately see evidence of proper account linking. It may take up to 24 hours for the accounts to be properly synced and for you to begin seeing proper Adwords source tracking in Analytics.

So once you’ve linked your Adwords account, you will have proper source tracking for that advertising medium. You can also follow the same steps to link a Google AdSense account, if you have one. But what about other online display ads or offline advertising? Read more to learn how to use UTM parameters to fix advertising source tracking.

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