Why Google Analytics Isn’t Tracking Your Content Amplification Efforts

It’s not enough to just create amazing content anymore, especially with the ever-growing saturation of web content—good and bad. When organic efforts like SEO and social media fall short, paid content amplification emerges as an efficient way for brands and publishers to reach audiences.

However, once you get your dollars involved, how do you measure performance and, in turn, ROI? Common measures of campaign success may include (but not limited to) the number of pageviews a specific piece of content receives, average engagement time, or even conversions in relation to a call-to-action.

Whatever the case may be, Google Analytics (GA) is the service that the majority of brands and publishers rely on to track their site (and content) performance. Even if a content amplification platform provides its own analytics dashboard, many would still prefer to rely on GA’s handy reporting.

In spite of being the most used analytics service, GA has its fair share of inaccuracies. While it provides a great snapshot, GA certainly shouldn’t be the only thing you look at when measuring content performance for paid or organic efforts.

Google Analytics fails to track StumbleUpon’s content amplification correctly, for instance.

StumbleUpon is a discovery engine that recommends content to its users based on their predefined interests. Because of its relatively inexpensive advertising costs, and the chance to “earn” visits on your content, it’s a popular choice for paid content amplification efforts.

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If driving more traffic to your site is a top priority, then StumbleUpon will do just that for you. Instead of bidding on clicks or impressions like other commonly used amplification channels (think Facebook, Outbrain, Taboola, and other native ad platforms), advertisers pay per visitor sent directly to their site (CPV). Each piece of content submitted into StumbleUpon is served up within an iframe—which displays content exactly how it would appear on your website. Essentially, StumbleUpon allows you to bypass the extra step of prospective visitors clicking on your promoted content. Instead, it sends you directly to the page for consumption. 

While this may seem like a dream come true, the reality is, the traffic that StumbleUpon reportedly sends to your site does not match up with what GA displays.

This can also be the case for other pay-per-click campaigns you’re running, such as a Facebook campaign priced by the click (CPC).

Why? There could be a number of reasons for this.

1. Your campaigns are being classified as direct traffic by GA. 

GA classifies a number of session types as “direct traffic,” not just instances of an individual typing a URL directly into their browser, or using a bookmark to access a page. Any traffic that GA is unable to determine a referrer for classifies as direct traffic. This may occur when visitors click through to your site via mobile apps for popular social media platforms, a link shortener or redirect service and other various reasons.

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In fact, you may have noticed an accounted-for spike in your direct traffic after running a paid campaign on Facebook or even StumbleUpon. You have not seen a jump in what GA classified as referral traffic from those channels.

2. A visitor may have disabled JavaScript or cookies in their browser.

In order for GA to document a user session, its tracking code must first be loaded and interpreted by the user’s browser. In instances where a user has disabled JavaScript or cookies in their browser, GA will fail to track the visit properly.

3. A visitor may exit from your page before GA’s tracking script has had time to load.

This is especially common for StumbleUpon, where users are “click-happy” and content is delivered within an iframe that may further slow the page load time. In this case, StumbleUpon will report a visit, but GA will not. In a similar case, if a visitor clicks on your ad via Facebook—but exits your page before GA’s tracking script has had time to load—the visit will also NOT be counted, although Facebook will log the click.

4. The traffic being sent to your page does not classify as what GA defines as a “session.”

By default, GA has set every session to expire after 30 minutes of inactivity, at midnight, or when users arrive at your page through a separate campaign from the one they initially arrived through.

Why does GA’s session definition matter? First and foremost, multiple clicks on the same link within the 30-minute time window will only count as one session, but will be counted as multiple clicks by your amplification channel. Second, GA’s ability to tell different campaigns apart from one another relies on proper referrer/source attribution. As we’ve mentioned above, paid campaigns that don’t have tracking parameters attached may be interpreted as direct traffic by GA, and a direct session will only time-out after the 30-minute time window. This means that a user accessing your page via two different campaigns may fail to count as separate sessions, despite both clicks being logged by your amplification channel.

Now that we’ve outlined some of the key reasons why you may be seeing discrepancies in what your content amplification channels report and what GA reports, what can you do to ensure more accurate reporting?

While it’s impossible to eliminate all tracking discrepancies between GA and the third-party amplification channels you use, there are ways to minimize them.

1. Place tracking parameters on your campaigns, so they are correctly classified by GA.

Depending on how frequently you use social channels or other third-party amplification channels to promote your content, placing tracking parameters on every URL linking in may be a little excessive. However, you should definitely tag every paid campaign to ensure more accurate reporting. This should eliminate the issue of campaign traffic being classified as direct traffic by GA, or separate campaigns not registering as different sessions. You can easily do this by using Google’s URL Builder.

Example:

blog.quiet.ly/?utm_source=stumbleupon&utm_medium=cpv&utm_campaign=blog_paid1

2. Make sure your tracking script is placed within the <head> </head> tags of your page.

Having your GA tracking script at the top of your page will ensure that it’s one of the first things to load. This is especially important if you have a code-heavy page. While this won’t eliminate GA’s inability to track visitors that bounce quickly, it will help minimize the risk.

3. Change your session expiration time.

As I mentioned above, GA’s default session expiration time is 30 minutes, which means multiple user visits within this time frame will only count as one session. You can modify this time window to be as short or as long as you need it to be. If you’ve tagged your campaigns properly, then this may not be necessary as GA will register users sent from different referrers.

4. Use a URL shortener like bit.ly to corroborate total visits/click-throughs on your paid campaigns.

Tagging your campaigns alone may not be enough to guarantee 100% accuracy between GA’s reporting and your amplification channel’s reporting. However, you can always double-check by using a URL shortener, which can be useful for platforms like StumbleUpon that are prone to discrepancies. Although using URL shorteners won’t improve GA’s ability to track traffic, it can help corroborate how many clicks/visits you receive on paid campaigns for reporting purposes.

At the end of the day, there’s no foolproof way to eliminate all of Google Analytics’ tracking issues with content amplification channels. The best thing you can do is communicate this to clients ahead of time, be aware of it for personal content amplification efforts and employ the various measures necessary to minimize any discrepancies.

Image courtesy of Global Panorama via Flickr

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