Google Analytics: 21 Inaccurate Traffic Sources, Setup Mistakes …and Fixes

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Andy Crestodina
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It’s very clever. Google Analytics combines Javascript with cookies to track all kinds of data about visitors. You don’t need to install anything on your server, and they don’t need to look at your log files. It’s brilliant, but it has its issues.

Here are 21 ways in which Google Analytics is inaccurate…


Let’s start with traffic sources

Google Analytics’ Traffic Sources report is notoriously problematic. Traffic Sources is supposed to show you how people got to your website. The three main categories are Search, Referral, and Direct. Here’s what the traffic sources are supposed to mean:

  • Search Traffic: Visitors who found you through a search engine, either by clicking an organic listing or an ad (PPC / paid search)
  • Referral Traffic: Visitors who arrived at your site by clicking a link on another website
  • Direct Traffic: Visitors who typed your address directly into a browser

But there are all kinds of reasons why this data is inaccurate. Much of the Traffic Sources report is incorrectly categorized, mislabeled, and incomplete.

Search Traffic

Although we’d like to believe that search traffic is everyone who discovered us through a keyword search, there are two problems here: branded searches and hidden keyword data.

1. Branded keywords appearing in search traffic

Search traffic includes “brand keywords” such as the company name. Although this is technically still search traffic, these visitors knew you already. They may have accidentally searched for your web address rather than entering it into the address bar.

inaccurate google analytics

Ideally, visitors who find websites by searching for the brand would be categorized as direct traffic.

I’ve seen Analytics accounts where 80% of the search traffic was searches for the brand. At a glance, it looks like a healthy amount of visitors were discovering them through search engines. In fact, the company didn’t rank for anything but their own name.

Fix: You can set up Analytics so that branded keywords, such as your company’s name, show up as direct traffic. To do this, use the _addIgnoredOrganic() method. More info here.

2. Keyword data is hidden

Here, Analytics isn’t lying, but it isn’t telling the whole truth. In November 2011, Google stopped displaying some keyword data in Google Analytics. Here’s what happens:

Anytime you search using Google and you see an https:// (rather than http://, with no ‘s’) in the address bar of the browser, the phrase for which you searched will not be shared with the website owner if you click on a link in Google search results. The keyphase will appear as “(not provided).”

Keyword data is hidden for anyone using the search field in the Firefox browser, anyone using the Chrome “Omnibox” (the combination address bar, search field), and anyone logged into any Google product. That’s a lot of people. It’s no wonder that within a year, 39% of keyword data is (not provided).

inaccurate google analytics 2

Fix: There is no fix for this problem, except to consider using AdWords, which shows more data.

Referral Traffic

In theory, referral traffic shows visitors who came from other websites. But in practice, it often includes traffic driven from social media efforts, email and in some cases, traffic from one page on your site to another.

3. Traffic from social sources

Social media marketing takes time and energy, so you’ll want to measure the effectiveness of those efforts separately in Analytics. But social traffic is actually categorized as referral or direct. Any clicks on tweets or posts without tracking code and within a browser will appear as referral traffic.

Google is working on better segmentation of social traffic, but so far, social traffic isn’t even part of the traffic sources overview report!

Fix 1 : Some social media tools can be set up to add campaign tracking code to shortened links. If you consistently tweet or post from a service like the pro version of HootSuite, you can have this code added automatically to all shortened links.

Fix 2: Add the URLs of “Social Sources” in the Admin > Social Settings area of Google Analytics. This will help GA correctly segment social traffic from other referrers.

4. Traffic from web mail

If you send out an email newsletter with a link to your site, and the recipient opens and clicks it from within a browser, such as Gmail or Yahoo! Mail, the traffic is recorded as a referral, even though the real traffic source was a newsletter, something you’d like to track separately. This is always true unless you add campaign tracking code.

Fix: Use the URL Builder to add campaign tracking code to every link to your site in your emails. This will keep your direct traffic clean, but also allow you to track what visitors from emails are doing. Your email service provider may have a feature that makes this easy or you can use this guide on how to use the Google Analytics URL builder

5. Traffic from your own site: full URL links vs. relative links

Link issues often lead to inaccurate referral traffic data. When you create a link from one page to another, you can add the full address (www.site.com/page) or just add the relative address (/page without the www.site.com).

It turns out that this little decision affects the accuracy of the data in your referral traffic. Links with full URLs may record as referral traffic in Analytics, even if the visit was from another page on your site. That’s bad.

Fix: Look at your referral traffic report. If pages from your own site are there, check the links on those pages. Links should not include the main web address, only the relative page.

Direct Traffic

Here is the true definition of direct traffic:

All traffic for which a referrer wasn’t specified. 

In other words, direct traffic isn’t just people who entered your address into a browser, it’s any visit that isn’t from a link on a website or search engine and doesn’t have campaign code. This includes any visit that isn’t from a website.

Really, direct traffic is a catch-all bucket for “everything else.” So there’s a lot of weird stuff in here. Let’s take a look.

6. Traffic from social sources and mobile apps

Lots of social activity happens within apps. But links in apps don’t always pass a “referrer,” so it looks like direct traffic in your Google Analytics.

Fix: Some apps will automatically shorten links, adding a referrer by redirecting the visitor through another address (official Twitter apps sent traffic through t.co address). This allows social traffic to be categorized more accurately. But no matter how carefully you tweet and post for better tracking, you can’t make the rest of your fans and followers do the same.

7. Traffic from email programs like Outlook

As with the referral traffic / web mail problem, some of the traffic from that newsletter you sent will be opened in email programs like Outlook or Mail. This is because desktop software doesn’t pass referral data like browsers do.

Fix: Add campaign tracking code to email marketing.

8. Traffic that started offline: links in PDFs, Word Docs, Powerpoint, etc.

Visits from links in non-web page files are recorded as direct traffic, unless they have campaign tracking code. PDF files are the biggest culprit.

Fix: Move content from these files to web pages, then share the page, not the file. Resist the urge to add lots of PDFs to your website. Not only is traffic from links in PDFs harder to track, but “visits” to PDF files don’t appear in your stats at all.

9. Traffic from bad campaign code

If Analytics sees campaign tracking code, it ignores the referrer. But if the tracking code has problems, it doesn’t put the visit back into referring traffic, it puts it into direct traffic.

Fix: If you set up tracking code manually, do it carefully and double check your work.

10. Traffic from page with missing Javascript code

If there is a page on your website that doesn’t have ga.js (the Analytics Javascript code) properly installed, traffic from this page to other pages will appear as direct traffic. Yet another example of how direct traffic is really a mixture of all your traffic leftovers.

Fix: Use a tool like Google Analytics Debugger or Screaming Frog to scan your site for improper or missing code.

11. Traffic from you: companies affect their own stats

If you don’t have filters properly set up, it’s possible that a significant portion of your traffic is coming from you, your office, or your team. If even a handful of employees set the website as their homepage, it will skew direct traffic over the long run.

Fix: Set up a filter so traffic from your own network’s IP address is removed from your stats. Hopefully, you have an internet connection with a static IP address. Most offices do.


More Inaccurate and Misleading Analytics Data

Let’s keep this rant going to poke some more holes in our web stats. Here are some more misleading stats. Some are unfixable technical limitations; others are easily solved setup problems.

12. In-page analytics

This report shows what percentage of visitors clicked on which links and buttons. But have you ever noticed that the percentages add up to more than 100%? It happens when there is more than one way to get to a page.

It’s because Google Analytics knows if a visitor went to another page, but not which link they clicked. So the same percentage is shown for all the links to that page. It’s a gap in the data on this report.

Fix: You can now add special code which will improve the accuracy of In-Page Analytics. It’s called Enhanced Link Attribution, and it will give you better data on which link or button was clicked. 

Note: Even with this fix, some actions will still not be recorded. A form “submit” buttons or a play button in a video player won’t show up, because these don’t send the visitor to another page where the next bit of Javascript can run.

13. No cookie? No data

Unlike old-school webstats that analyze the log files on your server, Google Analytics needs cookies to work properly. If the visitor’s computer (or firewall) rejects cookies, it’s a hole in your data.

Every time a previous visitor clears their cookies, they look like a new unique visitor next time they visit. To Google, they might as well be a newborn baby.

Fix: None

14. No Javascript? No data

Here’s an even bigger problem: not everyone enables Javascript. Current data on Javascript disabled rates is hard to find, but it’s likely that between 1 and 2% of visitors don’t allow Javascript to run for security, privacy, or accessibility reasons. If a visitor who is visually impaired uses a screen reader to access the site, Google Analytics is blind to them.

inaccurate google analytics 3

Fix: Make sure the code is installed. Javascript tracking code should be added at the top of the page, before the </head> tag. If the Javascript is at the bottom of the page and doesn’t have time to execute before the visitor leaves the page, no data will be recorded.

15. Ridiculously low bounce rate? Too much analytics code!

If your bounce rate is in the low single digits, check to see if Google Analytics Javascript is on the page twice. If so, very few bounces will record since a visit to only one page (which is a “bounce”) triggers the Javascript twice.

Fix: Stop celebrating, put away the champagne and remove the extra code.

16. Time on page? Or time on tab?

The page loads, you read a bit, then switch to a different tab, planning to finish reading later…

Google has no idea you left. When a tab is open, Analytics assumes you’re on the page, even if you minimized the browser or got up to make a sandwich. Even though Analytics will “time out” after 30 minutes, the “Average Visit Duration” report is unreliable.

Fix: None. It’s a problem that’s common to all web stats tools and may be unsolvable!

17. Different visitor, same device

If two people visit the same site for the first time from the same computer, Analytics only noticed one unique visitor. Imagine 100 people visiting from the same computer at a library. It’s just one visitor to Analytics. It’s no wonder libraries are underfunded.

Fix: None

18. Different device, same visitor

Again, “unique visitor” isn’t an honest way to say it. It’s really unique computer, so if one person visits your site from three devices (including the one in their pocket), then Analytics will tell you that three unique people visited.

Fix: None. This is also a problem for stats within email marketing systems. If each person on your list opens the email on their laptop and on their phone, your open rate will be 200%. Great job!

19. Too many goals

It’s nice to see double digit conversion rates, but only if they’re accurate. If you set up too many goals, including event tracking goals, you’ll artificially inflate your overall conversion rate.

Fix: Only set up goals and events for things that are important, or you’ll need to start ignoring the main Goal Conversion Rate.

20. Too many profiles

New profiles permanently remove data from the default profile. This data can never be recombined with the original profile, so use them wisely. If, for example, you separate all mobile traffic to a separate profile, you can’t easily compare it to your other traffic data. You just screwed up your stats.

Fix: Use Advanced Segments or Advanced Filters to view specific types of users in a specific report. Profiles are meant to segment out completely different types of visits from your normal marketing stats, such as traffic within a login area. 

21. Time delay

One last reason why Google Analytics isn’t giving you the full picture: lag. Except for the limited (but beautiful) Real Time reports, GA data is typically at least 6 hours behind. The delay in the Search Engine Optimization section is even worse. That data is often 48 hours behind.

Fix: Be patient.


TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)

Analytics is an amazing tool. It can do incredible things, and it’s constantly getting better. But these are huge challenges. Traffic sources are diverse and complicated. Tracking stats with Javascript and cookies means Analytics has inherent limitations. Finally, improper setup can make things even worse.

But even with imperfect data, you can still use Analytics to support great marketing decisions.

You can help by making sure things are set up properly:

  • Check your GA Javascript. It should appear once at the top of the code for every page.
  • Add Campaign tracking code to all links within email marketing, ads and social media campaigns.
  • Create Goals and filters in the Analytics “Admin” section.
    Need help with this? Here’s a video with step-by-step instructions: How to Setup Google Analytics.

Did we miss anything?

We’re hoping to make this article a comprehensive list of problems with traffic sources. If you know of something we missed, please let us know with a comment below, and we’ll add it. We appreciate the input!

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Comments (116)
  • Excellent overview of GA’s challenges – and why you need to supplement it with other sources. Our search traffic is approaching 50% “encrypted” which presents big challenges. Besides driving people to use paid seach, is there any other reason Google is doing this?

    • @DanKaplan Hmm. I think (not provided) gives Google some legal cover and good PR when it comes to privacy. Whenever things go to court, they can more easily say that they are protecting the privacy of their users. They’ve got more data than anybody, so they’ve got more liability for privacy complaints. This gives them a way to say “we value privacy over data sharing” …Maybe that’s why?

      • @crestodina  @DanKaplan From a statistical point of you do you think this a big concern, assuming the data not collected is relatively randomised.

      • @crestodina  @DanKaplan  From a statistical point of view do you think this a big concern, assuming the data not collected is relatively randomised.

        • @PayAus  @DanKaplan I do think it’s a big concern. If we could see all that data, we’d have a better chance of discovering effective keywords that we hadn’t thought to target. These little gems might not get much traffic, but they might be highly relevant phrases I hadn’t thought of. I really do wish I had more keyword data…

  • Regarding #5, this primarily happens as a result of the analytics code being improperly set up across multiple domains or subdomains, or in worse cases, someone having stolen your website and keeping all of the code intact including the GA code. More info can be found here: http://support.google.com/analytics/bin/answer.py?hl=en&answer=1011827. If you want to see examples of how this could be happening or where the issues are coming from, view the Hostnames report by going to the Audience section of GA, click on Technology, then the Network report. Once on that report, below the graph and above the table data is a link for Hostname. Nice and easy to find, huh? This will show you all of the URLs that triggered your GA code and help diagnose what is going on.
     
    Perhaps one of the biggest inaccuracies within GA is time on page and time on site. It’s not just what you pointed out in #16 that people will leave a page open, but unless you visit a second page of the website, GA doesn’t calculate the time on the page or the time on the site and will use 0:00. This obviously skews the information downwards for time on page/time on site, especially if a site is high in blog traffic (people that tend to visit a single page and go on their merry way).
    As you pointed out, bounce rate can be screwy as well and many people look at bounce rate as a problem, whereas something like a phone call would count as a conversion and a bounce if the site visitor only visited one page (also time on page/site would be 0:00 as well). I’ll take 100% conversion and 100% bounce rate any day of the week! Including bounce rate across an entire website and across all mediums could realistically be considered an inaccuracy of GA.
     
    Andy – I’m not sure I’d agree with #20. It’s definitely true that you can’t get data back if you have filtered it out, but best practices for setting up multiple profiles within an account is to keep 1 profile unfiltered and including all of the data. Then create new profiles and apply those filters only to those specific profiles. That way if you wanted to share specific pieces of data with certain departments or people, while hiding other data from them, that could be done. I’ve not heard of that data being removed from the master profile to fill the new profile.
     
    Awesome idea for an article.

    • @tacimalaThanks for the input, Taylor! Great stuff. I’ll be adding some of these details to the article.
       
      Yes, I know of two cases where a client’s website was stolen (copied) and the plagiarists copied the GA code. Crazy, right? We discovered that the site had been copied by looking at the Analytics. “Wait, what’s this traffic?”
       
      Thanks again for the input and clarification. Appreciated.

  • Andy.  Awesome post.  Thanks for the great info.  It’s so critical to have clean data if you are going to run analytics on your marketing.

    • @Patrick Larsen I’m glad this was useful, Patrick!

  • Andy, awesome post. Thank you so much for laying it all out.

  • I created seperate profile for Mobile WAP Site. Google Analytics shows 26% of the traffic from Desktop Version, When analyzing the 26% of the traffic data with Browser, 95% of the browser are mobile Compatabile browser (like Opera Mini, Mozilla compatabile agent, Safari, etc).  http://www.digitalmarketinganalytics.net/google-analytics-mobile-device-mapping-accuracy/

  • Hey Andy @crestodina, can I come work for you? You’re the smartest man in the room. Thanks for the peek behind the curtain.

  • Hey Andy
     
    You are really good at explaining things – I’m less than a novice and have a question about tracking PDF downloads – an outside source linked directly to a pdf on our site – can we see how traffic spikes?
     
    ps – do you teach a course in google analytics – i really need some training.

    • @lisamayer Thank you for the positive feedback, Lisa! Traffic from PDF files will be mixed in with all the other direct traffic unless you add campaign tracking code using the URL Builder. I suggest you set the Source to “PDF,” the Medium to “offline” and the Name to be whatever the PDF is all about. Now traffic from links in PDF files will be available in Traffic Sources > Campaigns.
       
      We do teach at events here at Orbit. It’s a monthly event called “Wine & Web” The invite is in the newsletter. I also recommend the book, which has a lot more information on these topics…
      https://www.orbitmedia.com/contentchemistry
       
      Hope this is all helpful!

  • @crestodina thanks for the great article! Could you add on a section about interpreting the Traffic Sources > Search > Organic data and Traffic Sources > Search Engine Optimization > Queries data?
    Organic visits from the former and Clicks from the Queries data from the latter don’t match. Is this a common issue? Or am I misinterpreting something?

  • Are you sure “Links with full URLs may record as referral traffic in Analytics” ? There are a lot of articles out there suggest the use absolute link, for example http://yoast.com/relative-urls-issues/

  • Hi, I’ve found some strange thing in my reports. For my Facebook ads tracking I used campaign tracking URL made by Google’s URL builder. Campaign source was Facebook and Medium was cpc. In Campaign reports of GA all data id fine. But unfortunately all FB ads traffic is also shown in Paid Search section. I guess this is because of “cpc” medium. Do you have any idea on how ti fix this ?

    • @Smbatyan Yes, marking the medium as cpc is a feature in GA that allows the data to be included in the Paid Search section. Cost data won’t be included outside of AdWords though. If you don’t want it to show up in Paid Search (even though one would argue that it still is a form of paid search), simply change cpc to something else.

      • @tacimala   And what will happen if I’ll use “ppc” ? Will it be mixed with AdWord traffic? Or AdWords uses “cpc” ?

        • @Smbatyan If you use “ppc” then you will see facebook / ppc in the All Traffic Sources report and the data will not be included in the Advertising/Paid Search section of the reporting.

  • Hi, Thanks for this, it’s really useful.  I have a problem understanding the data I’m getting from Google Analytics. I set up a filter on the default profile about a year ago, aiming to exclude internal traffic.  It is a predefined filter to exclude traffic from a fixed IP address.
     
    I also have a separate profile (called raw data) which doesn’t have that filter.  I wanted to be able to compare the two and get an indication of how inaccurate my figures were before introducing the filter. 
     
    When I look at the data from the past year, I find that the number of visits and visitors is indeed lower in the filtered data set. But I’m confused – why does this filter mean that the number of unique visitors is reduced by over 1200? Wouldn’t it just be one (as I’m only filtering out one IP address?) And why are most of these filtered out visitors in a different location from where my workplace is?
     
    Similarly, why are any of the 3000 filtered out visits made by people outside of the city where my workplace is?
     
    Most strangely of all, when I compare the results for a custom report, looking at a specific set of pages on the website, I find that there were 11 fewer unique visitors in the filtered data than in the raw data, but when I specify the city, this difference is 19! How can this be? 
     
    I’m obviously either doing something wrong with the set up or interpreting the data wrongly? Can you help me?

  • Hi.  I was wondering if you could help or direct me somewhere.  My GA traffic used to be greater than Statcounter traffic, but now it has dropped suddenly and I have no idea why.  My Statcounter is normal and my Adsense traffic (page views) appear very close to the Statcounter #s, but the GA traffic is about 1/3 or more less.  Any ideas what could be causing this?  I did have a problem with an installed plugin a few weeks ago…it was WP Touch.  It wasn’t tracking mobile viewers to either SC or GA, but I removed it.  GA seemed to be tracking fine, but now the numbers are really low.  Thanks in advance.

    • @Adrienne Whole New Mom Did you checked all your pages for having GA tracking code? May be you’ve done some change and removed tracking code from some part of pages ?

  • How do you track efficiently If your conversion process has your users going off site (for example to paypal) and then back again to a final landing page.

  • We code our outgoing marketing emails using the code builder and the traffic is still showing up as “direct/none”. Any advice or suggestions on how we can fix this? It seems like sometimes it works properly and other times it does not.

  • Killer resource…  Good to know..  I was always wondering why my direct traffic seemed so high.  Really did not make sense that it was so high.  I mean, higher than Google even.  I don’t think I am that popular.

  • Its sometimes important to record important business phone calls. I tend to use Recordator, http://www.recordator.com to record phone calls to my pc .

  • We have also seen that Google is lumping organic search traffic from mobile browsers (e.g. safari for iphone) into direct traffic.

  • Hey there – the sentence:
     
    “If a visitor who is visually impaired uses a screen reader to access the site, Google Analytics is blind to them.”
     
    …is incorrect, as screen readers (such as JAWS) sit on top of the browser, so the GA javascript will still activate. However, Google Analytics is unable to distinguish screen readers *because* they sit on top of the browser, and do not have their own user agent. There is a thread here that touches on this topic here: http://webaim.org/discussion/mail_thread?thread=5259

  • A colleague told me that shortened links used by fans or media (ex. bit.ly) on social media platforms such as twitter/facebook won’t get tracked in the GA social referrals report listing referrals from facebook.com or t.co.  Is this true?  Are all referrals from shortened links not reflected in the report? Thanks so much.

  • @chess This is true. If you use a URL shortener, GA can’t track the original source. Not all bit.ly links are social traffic, so Google doesn’t assume that it was from a social source…

    • Will using the Google provided link shortener in Facebook or Twitter show in Google Analytics? If not, what do I use in FB Insights or Twitter to give accurate website hits?

  • @chess
    Actually you can do something to avoid this. Before shortening , add campaign tracking parameters to your URL. It could be something like:
     
    http://www.yoursite.com/pagename/?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_campaign=campaignName
     
    In this case GA will still track this traffic as social after shortening.

  • @Smbatyan Thanks for your response. I am tagging all links with utm codes, but that is not exactly the question. The question is whether I will see referrals from facebook.com when Time Magazine shares a bit.ly link to my site on their Facebook page.
     
    Thanks so much for your help.

  • @crestodina Wonderful, thanks. Actually, that totally sucks, but good to know.

  • Number 16 isn’t really true. Stat Centric for instance uses mouse movements and keyboard strokes to tell if the user is still there and factors this into time on a site and bounce rate. There are other tools that do something similar I believe, so it’s not common to all tools.

  • @Smbatyan  @KenWarr Are you saying reporting of utm codes is unreliable in Google Analytics?? How common is this?

  • @wittywoman  If you are reffering to my answer, I was telling a little bit other thing. utm codes are working fine, but some e-mail marketing systems as well as some banner management systems automatically change “&” symbol by it’s encoded version, i.e. “;&amp” and as a result utm codes are not working anymore. So to avoid this, I recommend to shorten the url which contains utm codes.

  • @Smbatyan Thanks. Our e-mail codes are generated by MailChimp so I think we’re safe.

  • Great post, thanks for the insights. But can you please clarify point #20? Are you suggesting that, if the default profile is collecting all traffic totaling 100 visits, and you create another profile that accounts for 20 visits, the default profile will be reduced to 80? I’m certain that’s inaccurate.
     
    Or are you saying that once the second profile is created, you can never add the other 80 back in to it? That makes more sense, but I just want to make sure.

  • I use Google URL shortener when posting links on Twitter, and I’ve noticed that sometimes there can be quite a disparity between the number of clickthroughs goo.gl reports and the traffic stats Google Analytics reports.  So goo.gl might report 143 clickthroughs on a given link  in a given time period, but Google Analytics reports only 32 visitors or 46 pageviews.  This happens about once a week:  goo.gl says such-and-such link is getting a huge spike in traffic (sometimes from some random source), but Analytics reports no spike in traffic in the same time period.  
     
    Do you know what’s going on?  Is this a dumb question?  (I’ve been using Analytics for a while now but only at a beginner level.)

  • @levipage Good to know. I’m not familiar with Stat Centric. Is that what you use?

  • @amandag  @levipage Yes, it’s not as feature rich as Google but great as a live tool and has some things Google doesn’t. I use both for different reasons.

  • @levipage Thanks!

  • j_librizzi He is saying the second part of your statement.
    The best practice is to keep a default unfiltered profile that contains all the raw data.  If you add another profile that accounts for 20 visits, it will only ever show 20 visits.
    If you create the 20 visit filter without having a default unfiltered profile you will have permanently altered your data set.

  • Great Article!
    I am having some troubles when i want to create a filter and i was wondering if you could help me out with this. i would like to get the data coming from the medium organic search coming as an organic. and also, in my account, it appears configuration which i would like to filter it as Organic as well. could you please, lead me on how to do it please? thank you! 🙂

  • Yes, is there any way to get some help on this….my analytics are way off, my twitter posts don’t seem to be recognized and what twitter has done is infused my personal with my business and I don’t want to lose my followers – when I put my personal name it my business profile comes up…what a mess…dashboard shows 190,000 hits in 16 weeks yet the hits show 20,000 way off. The amount of people coming in are no where near the article hit count…how can I get this straightened out?

  • I know I am getting a fair amount of referral traffic, PPC and direct. But I have stopped my PPC for a few days and my analytics has gone down to zero. I know this is inaccurate but I can not find out why.

  • Good stuff. I knew there was a less obvious reason for the amount of (direct)/(no data) I was seeing.

  • I had one of my sites “stolen” right down to to the GA and found out through the GA traffic reports too! Thankfully this let me track to the site and “developer” whom I promptly had take down the site.

  • You actually missed all the reports that are supposed to be accurate, but they are not, such as location. So in effect the post is a little misleading when it stops to technicalities.

    • Yes, that’s true. I should add location to this post, since location data is rarely accurate. But I don’t think this post is misleading because of that omission.

      Thank you for your input, Gus. I may add your suggestion to a future version of this!

  • Great article, I found it while searching for a solution to an issue we are having with our site. We had a sponsored content article hosted on another site, with a link to specific landing page. When I look at the landing page for the traffic from the host site, most of our visitors landed on the home page instead of the specific landing page. There are no direct links to our homepage on the sponsored content page, so we are not sure how people are getting there. Does GA ever have issues with incorrectly capturing the landing page? Thanks for any advice you can offer!

    • As long as the visits to the landing page aren’t zero, it’s probably tracking properly. It’s possible that visitors are actually changing your address in their address bar to access the home page. We’ve all done it!

      If you use the Google URL builder to add campaign tracking code to those links, you’ll be able to see how many visitors came from the sponsored content link, to the landing page to the home page. Here’s an article that explains how:
      https://www.orbitmedia.com/blog/google-analytics-url-builder/

      Hope this is helpful, Alexia!

  • Hi Andy, thanks for this article, did you try maybe to promote your website and get visitors by using some profitable phrases/keywords on your website (title, headlines, content). By using good niche keywords you can position your page in the first results of Google and get many new visitors. There are even some tools which help to find such keywords like Metrics11

  • Very nice and useful article. You wrote “If Analytics sees campaign tracking code, it ignores the referrer.”

    Is there any way to have both – use campaign tracking code AND see referrer?

    Thanks, Bin

  • Thanks for this great article. Do you have any idea of how many people might be using plugins to block Google Analytics? In the light of the Snowden revelations and ongoing NSA issues, clearly a lot more people are trying to block tracking of their web activities. I have no idea what percentage of visitors this may be affecting.
    I assume the most reliable way to detect this would be to add custom javascript in the page to look for the presence of the Google Analytics object and if not present make a server call to register that the GA code was not found. Do you know of any stats, or way of determining how many users may have such plugins?

    • Interesting question, but I have no idea. If you want to block GA, you don’t need a plugin to do it. You just have to disable cookies in your browser. If you’re worried about privacy, a browser plugin may make your browsing less secure!

      But then again, if you’re worried about NSA wiretapping, you’ve got bigger issues than Google Analytics…

      • LOL, thanks Andy for your comment. I’m not so concerned about this, but I’m thinking more of the people who are using these plugins, and the numbers are growing.
        If an end user uses such a plugin then pages can still work successfully, they just aren’t tracked. If instead they block cookies then all sorts of mayhem can occur with websites not behaving correctly, so it is only the hard core who will do that.
        If I do find any stats I’ll make sure to come back and post a comment.

  • Just what I was looking for.

    We have both GA and Statcounter(visit length set at 1 hour) installed with quite a difference in Unique visitors.

    I realise they track differently but have to give the stats to some advertisers.

    Think its ok to add the 2 together and then take the average as accrding to some of the forums GA under reports and SC over reports!

    Page views for both are actually more consistant, just need to have the answers ready.

    Thanks Dan

  • Very nice and useful article.

  • Hey Andy! Great post! I still have one very basic question I couldn’t answer until now.
    Are links that are open in a new window/tab counted as referral traffic?
    For example, let’s say I link to your homepage from my blog but I set it so that users open it in a new tab. How does Google Analytics count the traffic source for that news article? Is it direct because it is the first page navigated to in a new tab, or is it counted as a referral from my blog?
    Thanks a lot!

    • Hello, Nico! Even if the link opens the site in a new window, Google will know that the visitor was referred from another site. That information is still passed through the browser.

      So no worries! If you link to my home page and a visitor clicks, I’ll see that you were the referrer in my Analytics…

  • I have either a very good questions or a dumb questions:

    We discovered that the tracking code to GA has been copied and placed underneath each other. This equaled to a big spike in visits, which also showed a similar spike in direct traffic. Our traffic doubled since that second tracking code got implemented. Could the fact that there was two similar tracking codes, lead to GA picking the second visit up as a direct?

    We have taken out the second tracking code, so looks like the numbers are coming down.

  • Sorry but I must strongly disagree with Issue #5. This has in no way anything to do with relative or full URL links. This is more related to a bad tracker configuration…

  • that is all very well and good, but what is the fix?

  • This isn’t a field with which I’m very familiar with but aren’t a lot of Google Adwords purchasers paying for visits they would have got anyway, and are unaware of this fact? For example, if I search for Netflix, they will come up as a sponsored result at the top of the page and, because we’re lazy, it’s that link that we will probably click, not the organic result below. But if Netflix HADN’T been paying for Adwords, we still would have visited the Netflix site through the organic link if we are actually looking for ‘netflix’. Thus, particularly where a brandname is used as a search term and would thus give a high ranking for a site in the organic listings, the advertiser ends up believing that adwords is giving them all these wonderful results, when actually a big chunk of those clicks are actually ‘stolen’ organic results. I haven’t been able to find people discussing this rather misleading feature of adwords online. Am I wrong?

    • A lot of companies do that and they do so deliberately. Most business rank #1 for their brand name in organic search results, but they still buy the pay-per-click ad for their name so they can “own” more of the search results page.

      Few companies other than Netflix would bid on the phrase “Netflix” so competition is low for the phrase, so the ad probably only costs them $.05 per click. That’s the minimum. Also, Netflix only pays when people click on the ad, and studies show that more people click on the organic listings than the ads.

      Combine those two factors and you can see how it’s not very expensive. But think of all the people who see it! I bet a lot of people see that ad, so there’s a big branding benefit.

      If you’re doing any PPC at all, might as well bid on your own brand name. Most experts recommend this. I’m not a PPC guy, but I can see how the math would work.

  • I have a new one to add under “direct traffic”. For our main site we have one GA account with several properties for each state of the site (test, beta, live). at the moment we have released beta to the public via a link on the live site (and through social, email etc). Traffic from live to beta is showing as direct rather than referral.

  • Hi Andy – Great article. Question for you. We have a client who has a significant amount of traffic coming to their site from Twitter on one specific date. They don’t have a Twitter account. Is there any way we can find out where that traffic is coming from on Twitter?

    • Sure, Peggy! Try this: for whichever page got all the Twitter traffic, put the address into Topsy.com. That will show you the tweets to that page. Now you can see who shared it and when. If the entire social storm was kicked off by one or two influencers, it might be worth the time to connect with them, thank them and offer to collaborate with them…

      Hope this helps! It’s fun when that happens. One of my recent posts on this site was shared 1000+ times on Facebook …and I don’t really use Facebook. 🙂

  • Does crawling your IP as well as your domain make any difference?

  • Hello guys, i have a quite big problem with GA. I have a site where i count clicks to external pages. The problem is that GA at external pages (via referal) and by us (via events) shows difference up to -40%/+70% (depends on POV) difference in visits from our internal server logs. I am aware of crawlers that doesnt count to GA and thus to count a click by us it must come from a visitor that previously moved his mouse (via js/ajax touch) on the site. So i am asking you, dont you have any idea why the difference is so high?

  • Wow! This blog was a great discovery for me, other than the Google analytics help. Andy, I want to learn so much more from you.

  • Hi Andy, this is a great list, but I am looking for reasons why Google would give inaccurate landing page data for campaign traffic. My campaign data is littered with all sorts of landing pages I never intentionally linked to, while the links I used the campaign tracking tags on get little or no visits. Any thoughts?

    • Hmm. I’m really not sure, Lydia! I’m looking at my reports and the reports of my clients and I can’t find a single example of a campaign report showing any landing pages except the landing pages the links were created for.

      If you’d like to connect with me on a social network, maybe we can find a time to look at yours more closely. I’m curious about how your generating the code and how Analytics is setup…

      • Hi Andy,

        I have one query regarding the traffic stats on sub-domains. We are using view filters to see data on sub-domains. But, it is showing value of traffic more than in default profile.

        For e.g. we have a website http://www.xyz.com/ and a sub-domain abc.xyz.com. We have created a separate profile using view filter to see the data on sub-domain (abc.xyz.com). Thus, we have now two GA profile with same property – one for http://www.xyz.com main domain and another for sub-domain (abc.xyz.com). But, when we check data on this sub-domain through main http://www.xyz.com GA profile, it displays less value than profile of sub-domain (abc.xyz.com). Can you please suggest some solution for this problem?

        Priya

  • This was good information. I’m still wondering why GA isn’t showing some visitors when I can see through both Zopim and Mouseflow at the same time that someone is going through the site. If both of those show it, why doesn’t GA show it in live overview? (I’m assuming it’s not registering as a visit since it’s not showing live.)

    • I forgot to mention that if I myself go on to the site, it shows live in Google Analytics, as well as the other two.

  • Hi Andy,

    Thank you so much for your post. I have a question about direct traffic:

    Current customers visit my homepage in order to log-in to my portal… and (I’m assuming) a ton of my direct traffic comes from these people – perhaps they have the page bookmarked or they type the URL in, show up at the homepage, log-in, and vanish.

    My assumption is that this is seriously skewing my data. (My direct traffic numbers are disproportionately huge.) I can ~sort of~ come to grips with this manually by subtracting the direct traffic that only hits the homepage and then immediately bounces. However, is there a better way to exclude this traffic from GA?

    Thank you!

    • Hi, Cole. This is common for a lot of sites. One quick way to get a more accurate look is to select “returning users” as a segment.

      Also, it should be possible to put event tracking on the link, so you can measure them without counting them all as bounces. Then it might be possible to pull them out as a separate, more accurate, segment.

      Let me know how it goes!

  • Wow, Andy, what a great post. I learned a lot here. Thank you.

  • Andy, have you heard of referral traffic coming from payment gateways? For example I’ve got our payment gateway as Authipay (and PayPal) and redirects to our order confirmation page. Code is correct as far as I can see, but within Analytics it tracks this conversion as a referral conversion (coming from another domain) which it doesnt? Have you heard of this before?

  • You rock! Thank you so much for sharing this info. I was trying to figure out why I kept getting “not provided” and this article answered questions I didn’t even know I had. I definitely need to reassess how I use Google Analytics

  • The blog was absolutely fantastic! Lot of great information which can be helpful in some or the other way. Keep updating the blog, looking forward for more contents…Great job, keep it up..

  • Hi Andy, thank you for an article! Quick question, if I have auto-refresh on my sports live blog, would it break referrer tracking of PageViews? I mean if a person came from google, but then the page auto-refreshed, would the second page view still go under organic or under direct? what are the ways around it? Thanks!

    • Yes, an auto-refresh is definitely going to cause problems for your Analytics, since it’s going to trigger the Javascript twice for each visit. It’s going to push down your bounce rate, mess up your referral sources and cause all kinds of other problems!

      I would remove this ASAP. Whatever the advantage is (is there one? why do this??) I don’t think it outweighs the disadvantage to your stats and to your visitors…

  • Hey Andy,

    Great article. I have a constant wrestle with GA. The large proportion of my analytics data is now not provided – although i know i can guesstimate via webmaster tools. This among numerous other headaches, some of which you have mentioned.

    Is Google Analytics still the best tool out there?

    • Yes, I highly recommend GA. Let me put it this way: I can’t think of a reason to NOT use Google Analytics!

  • Its a nice article about GA. Well, It sum up all the things why GA is not good to use. I was suffered from a same problem. GA collect a huge data where it is difficult to know what are the unique visitors, bounce rate & so on. Now I’m working with GoStats & it provide me accurate report, Each & every piece of information related to website.

  • If nobody clicks on a link GA – provides the duration time as 0.00 always – is this correct?

    This creates problems for me when directing traffic to product pages from AdWords.

  • Thank you for the information! Compliments, Karel Koes Hiranjgarbh Missier Paragh

  • I didn’t realize that housewives in the 1950s were crying over their lousy analytics. 😉

    • I didn’t either until the designers chose that image. Who knew?

      • @Andy, I’ve seen so many conflicting reports over the past few months relative to best practices for dealing with referral or ghost spam in GA, and it seems that the spammers are getting more sophisticated all the time. Have you written on this recently, or is there a method that you subscribe to in terms of minimizing the appearance/effect of these numbers in the GA reports?

        Thanks so much for all of your thoughtful writing – – it’s immensely helpful.

  • Thank you!

    I’m working on a site with 17 Google Analytics conversion Goals, some more important than others.

    Your tip about “ignoring the main conversion rate” is a great idea. Better to break out the Goals and report on them individually.

    Duh! Sounds obvious in retrospect, but I hadn’t thought about it clearly until reading this. Thanks!

  • Hi Andy … if I use a 3rd party mail system (SendGrid) and a user came to my site via facebook, then has to register and I send a confirmation email via SendGrid (with campaign url with source and medium specified eg. sendgrid / email) … how can I make sure that this does not actually impact the facebook referral and I can still see the ecommerce conversion as a facebook transaction. Would this campaign url impact the original referral?

  • A few clients have their top organic landing page listed as http://www.website.com/www.website.com. Does anyone know what causes this? Thanks for your assistance!

    • Hey, Jessica! Thanks for dropping by the blog.

      I had this happen recently to one of our clients. Go to the View column in GA > View Settings. See if there’s anything in the “Default page” optional field. If so, remove it.

      That worked for me. I hope it works for you! If not, let us know.

  • Will website traffic go down after a forced user log in is enabled on a website? In other words…..visitors used to always visit our site and use our data without having to log in….now after 3 months of this we are seeing significant drops in our traffic which makes us believe that website data included previously a lot of fake bots

    (we are now 8 months under new ownership of a website)

  • good post

  • With regards to Bounce Rate, there is a plugin called “clicky” which uses some unusual algorhyhms to report analytics, like if someone stays on page 1 for over 10 (adjustable) seconds it is not a bounce as they are probably reading it. This is combination with GA may help shed some additional light.

  • When searching Google Analytics on 2 different PC’s in the same building for info on the same web site the information provided is radically different… Both PCs are consistent but giving totally different figures.???? This makes GA totally unreliable for my trust.

  • Excellent overview. But I would like to ask the following.

    Why an website receive a lot of traffic from US, Russia and other countries, and not from Brazil or Portugal, where the website is set to portuguese language, and orientated mainly to those 2 countries.

    Herewith the last google analytics records:

    United States 3 332
    Russia 1 151
    France 643
    Ukraine 513
    Canada 442
    Japan 339
    Netherlands 297
    (not set) 237.
    United Kingdom 234

    and no Brazil or Portugal

    Although I promote website through facebook directed only to Brazil and Portugal, do not show any traffic from those two countries

  • Hey I’m a seeing a different page view count and a different full referral (Google being the referrer) count for the same page with the page views being less than the full referral count. I don’t understand how that’s possible because every referral should be counted as a page view as well. So, if anything, the page views should be higher than the referral count for the same page. Any sort of guidance will be greatly appreciated, thanks!

  • I think this is less important, maybe better look at some math or organic stands

  • i have two analytics code on my site (classic and Universal) . when i compare the “Direct traffic” i see that the data from Classic is 1.5 time more than in Universal , can you explain me why ? thank you

  • Hi there, I have encountered an issue with my analytics whereby my blogger site doesn’t appear in my analytics under referrals. Does this mean it appears under the referrer Google? How do I see the traffic generated from the blog on my website?

  • Excellent post

  • When I use my Gmail and I open and I open several different emails ,from different sources but when I click a link in them they most times ,but not always take me to the same website.This sometimes happens for days , once for weeks.

  • Great info. One of my clients was trying to figure out why his Analytics wasn’t showing the same numbers as the logs from his machines. I am wondering if all of this information is still relevant today being March of 2017, and Google constantly updating and fixing things.

  • Great stuff! It seems like every day GA throws another curveball or adds a quirk. Recently, I had a goal conversion from the Source/Medium “analytics.google.com / referral”. Anyone have any ideas? Is it possible that it’s not someone from my company testing something?

  • Any thoughts on why a campaign report would have lower traffic than the medium/source traffic report, for one tracked initiative? Should the traffic be the same if the google URL builder was used?

 
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