Traffic can be tricky to maneuver, this goes for Google Analytics as well.

Fixing Error-prone Referral Traffic in Google Analytics

How are users finding my website? This is one of the questions most often asked by people responsible for a business’ marketing efforts. Which traffic channels drive the most traffic and ultimately conversions? The data found in the Acquisition reports of Google Analytics is often filled with errors.

Chances are that you have not customized the traffic allocation, which will almost certainly mean you are looking at broken data.

The reason why you will often have misleading data in your Acquisition reports is that it is set by default to use the Default Channel Grouping, hence the name. The Default Channel Grouping rarely gives a correct distribution of traffic sources, which often leads to the Referral channel acting like a dumpster for all sorts of traffic. This can be traffic that should correctly be placed in Social, Organic Search, Email or a fourth channel.

Don’t panic – there is a way to remedy this. Even if data in Google Analytics is often bound historically, there are methods to make your traffic channels represent correctly distributed data. Not just from the date, the change has been made and onwards, but historically as well. As said, there are more methods to go about doing this. First off I will focus on the Custom Channel Grouping feature in Google Analytics.

Creating a custom channel grouping

First, you need to go to the Admin section of your Google Analytics account. In the Admin section, you will see a three-column interface with a column for 1) Account, 2) Property and 3) View. Here you want to click on the Channel Grouping link as illustrated below. Quick note: if you have not yet defined your brand terms, jump to the Manage Brand Terms page and do so. This will help you in the next steps.

Channel grouping in Google Analytics Admin section.
Channel grouping in Google Analytics Admin section.

Once you’re on the Channel Grouping page you will see a table, likely with just one row for the Default Channel Grouping. Here you want to click the red button visualized below.

Shiny red button for adding a new channel grouping.
Shiny red button for adding a new channel grouping.

After having clicked on the + NEW CHANNEL GROUPING button you will see a blank canvas for a new channel grouping – exciting isn’t it?

For this blog post, I will guide you through the setup of a channel grouping like the one below (Edit: in this guide, there is not a channel grouping for Display – this will be updated).

Overview of a customized channel grouping.
Overview of a customized channel grouping.

As you have most likely noticed, all of the channel definitions are system and user defined, apart from the Direct channel definition.

Direct channel configuration

This one is quite straightforward as it simply defined by the system.

The configuration of the Direct channel.
The configuration of the Direct channel.

Organic Search channel configuration

The Organic Search channel configuration is a bit more tricky as it involves the use of a regular expression. We use regular expressions to search for a variety of specific matches in text strings. In this case we use a regular expression to search for Organic traffic sources that are not identified as Organic Search Engines by default in Google Analytics.

The configuration of the Organic Search channel.
The configuration of the Organic Search channel.

Copy the below to get the regular expression.

search\.yahoo|duckduckgo|jubii|ask\.com|google\.android\.googlequicksearchbox

There are more Organic Search Engines out there, but these should capture the vast majority (apart from Google and Bing that should be captured through the System Defined Channel).

Generic and Branded Paid Search channel configurations

If you have not yet defined your brand terms, you should do so by going to the Google Analytics Admin section, look for the Channel Settings > Manage Brand Terms in the View column. Once you’ve set up your brand terms you’ll be ready to complete the Generic Paid Search and Branded Paid Search channel configurations as visualized below.

First off for Generic Paid Search.

The configuration of the Generic Paid Search channel.
The configuration of the Generic Paid Search channel.

And then for Branded Paid Search.

The configuration of the Brand Paid Search channel.
The configuration of the Brand Paid Search channel.

Social channel configuration

Possibly the traffic type I most often find wrongly distributed to Referral. This is likely due to incorrect UTM tagging where the utm_medium is not set to social (utm_medium=social). To fix this, configurate the channel as shown below.

The configuration of the Social channel.
The configuration of the Social channel.

As you can see we’re using a regular expression here once more. Copy the below to get it.

fb|facebook|twitter|linkedin|instagram|tumblr|pinterest|myspace|stumpleupon|digg|youtube|flickr

Email channel configuration

Another usual suspect when it comes to incorrect pollution of the Referral channel grouping. Traffic from emails is usually UTM tagged with the best intentions, but if the utm_medium has not been set to email, i.e. utm_medium=email, then chances are the traffic would be allocated to Referral. The source of email traffic is a good assistant in uncovering email traffic. To capture most email traffic use a configuration like the one below.

The configuration of the Email channel.
The configuration of the Email channel.

Copy the below to get the regular expression.

zoho|mail|outlook

Referral channel configuration

To ensure that traffic that is in fact from referral sources is allocated correctly, configure the channel as seen below. If you are aware of more referral sources specific to your site, add these to the regular expression. And remember to divide each referral source by a straight line ( | ). Pro tip: Do not end regular expressions with this dividing line, this will see the regular expression keep loading in a loop.

The configuration of the Referral channel.
The configuration of the Referral channel.

The regular expression used in the example:

trustpilot|tripadvisor

There you have it!

Congratulations! If you have made it this far, your Google Analytics setup is closer to a correct distribution of traffic sources, than most of the setups out there!

I think it is important to note, that this setup will only work and truly excel if you alter the regular expressions to fit your needs. I have tried to be as versatile in the guide as possible, but you might have a UTM tagging strategy, where you will need to add some entries to the email regular expression, or possibly add more referral sources.

If you have any questions or comments I’d be happy to hear them!

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