As part of our planning for 2014, we’re conducting a survey to determine which areas of online marketing, besides SEO and AdWords, our audience is most interested in. It’s still early, but the results so far have shocked me.

(If you’d like to participate, then click here.  Everyone who completes the survey can also sign up for our upcoming live Q&A session in January.)

Out of many popular topics like Facebook advertising, email marketing, mobile website development, and a handful of others, would you believe me if I said more people want help with Google Analytics setup and reporting?  Well, it’s true.  My assumption going into the survey was that bland and boring Google Analtyics would be sitting on the rock bottom.  But it’s right at the top!

So with that in mind, I’ve decided to write about a topic that I’ve held back for fear that no one would find it interesting.  However, it’s a very important concept to keep in mind when you’re reviewing your Google Analytics reports.  It’ll also explain why your Google Analytics reports are often very different than your Google AdWords reports (if you’re advertising).

It’s call attribution.


What is Attribution?

Online attribution is the process of assigning credit for a website conversion, or Goal in Google Analytics. Think of it like giving credit to a salesman for closing a new client.  In that case you’re attributing the sale to one particular salesman.  The same thing happens online when a Goal is completed in Google Analytics.  The program must attribute the sale to the correct source of traffic (i.e. SEO, AdWords, Facebook referral, etc.).

This sounds simple until you think about the typical person surfing around online.

Let’s say I do a search in Google and click on one of your ads, which brings me to your website.  I read all about your amazing widget and how I would be insane if I didn’t purchase right now.  Then I leave your website. :)

I do a little more research into your company, I read some reviews, and find an online press release or two.  Finally, I search in Google again, but this time I use your company name, and I click on the non-paid result (the organic SEO result).  I’m already sold so I quickly make a purchase.

In that example, how do you think Google Analytics will handle attribution?  Does the AdWords ad get credit for the sale?  That’s how I originally found your site so that seems like a logical answer.  Or does the non-paid, organic result get credit because that’s the last action I took before purchasing?  Or do both get credit?

Take a guess if you’re not sure before reading on.  Don’t cheat. :)


How Google Analytics Handles Attribution

By default, Google Analytics uses what’s called “last click” attribution.  That means in my example, the conversion will show up as coming from the non-paid, organic search.  So it’ll look like revenue from SEO, not from the AdWords ad that originally brought me to the site!

Ah ha! See why I said this was a critical topic.  All this time you may have been misinterpreting your reports in Google Analytics.  Just because you’re getting all of your leads and/or sales from organic traffic, doesn’t mean your advertising is not performing.  It could be simply a case of mistaken attribution.

To make this even more complicated, I need to warn you that Google AdWords reporting uses “first click” attribution. That means in my example, when you run the report in Google AdWords, the sale would be attributed to the keyword and ad that was first clicked on.  So you’ll see the sale in AdWords and you’ll see the same sale in Analytics, but Analytics will be telling you the sale was generated from SEO!

uh oh… which program, Adwords or Analytics, should you trust?


Which Attribution Model Is Best For Your Business?

The short answer to my question above is that it depends on your business.  If most of your leads and sales are generated quickly upon the first visit, then “last click” attribution is most likely fine for you.  If you have a longer sales cycle and you know people shop around before making a purchase or contacting you, then first click might be best.  The good news is that earlier this year Google Analytics gave us the ability to report on conversions, or Goals, using 7 different attribution models.  They even let you create custom models if you really want to go nuts.  For the record, I do not recommend going nuts… Stick with the basic models.

To see this in action, log into your Google Analytics account and go to Conversions in the left navigation.  Then click on Attribution and then Model Comparison Tool.  You’ll see a report like the one below where you can compare different models.

Analytics attribution model comparison tool

I also recommend you review the Multi-Channel Funnels while you’re in the Conversions section of Google Analytics.  The most interesting reports are:

  • “Time Lag” to see how many days it takes for prospects to convert.  This is where you can see if the majority of your conversions happen on the first day, or if it usually takes longer.
  • “Top Conversion Paths” to see the full path to conversions.  In my previous example, this report would show “Paid Search” led to the “Organic Search” which then generated the sale.  So rather than rely on one single attribution model, you can see the entire sales path.

OK, that’s probably more than enough Google Analytics reporting info for one day.  The key takeaway is to always be aware of how Google Analytics (or any other tool you use) is attributing conversions in your reports.  And if you’re receiving reports from a marketing company, then make sure it’s clear how their tool is handling attribution.  Different attribution models can show vastly different results, which can lead to vastly different decisions about where to focus your marketing budget.