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Getting the Most out of Channel Groupings in Google Analytics

Getting the Most out of Channel Groupings in Google Analytics

For several months we had one of our eCommerce clients start a social media campaign, focusing on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, Instagram, and Pinterest. Our client was very skeptical of these services and social media in general, but after a year of courting the idea, they finally gave us the green light. This campaign began at the beginning of October 2014, and sales from mid-November through January were the best the site had ever seen.

Yet, in Google Analytics, there were no transactions that were attributed to a social channel. There was plenty of traffic, but that was it. This really made us scratch our heads.

While gathering information for our end-of-year report for this client, I saw a pattern in Google’s Direct Channel. Traffic and revenue from this Direct channel had increased significantly during this October 2014 through January 2015 period. Could the social media campaign be in this channel?

What are Channels and Direct Traffic?

First, what are these “channels” and what is “Direct” traffic?

Be default, Google has several Channels they attribute traffic to:

  • Organic Search – Organic traffic from Google, Yahoo, Bing, and other known search engines.
  • Paid Search – Google Pay-Per-Click and other paid search traffic
  • Social – Traffic from social media websites.
  • Email – Traffic from email. This could be either webmail sites or desktop applications
  • Display – Traffic from non-text ads.
  • Direct – Everything else
  • Referral – From another website

Most of those channels are obvious in what they represent. However, your definitions of these channels might not be the same as your own. Furthermore, some sources might not fall into the right channel, or there may not be a channel that accurately describes your marketing efforts. We’ll discuss this further later.

Also, what is Direct traffic? Essentially, this is anonymous traffic that Google does not know where it comes from. This can include, but not limited to:

  • Manually typing URL in the browser
  • Mobile apps
  • Email clients
  • Privacy addons in browsers
  • Proxy servers
  • Javascript links
  • Instant messengers
  • Twitter clients
  • Links in documents like PDF, MS Word, Powerpoint, etc.
  • and many other reasons

We knew that manually typing in the browser, email clients, and bookmarks, and files were not the culprit. There was far too much traffic in the Direct channel for those possibilities to be plausible. But the other possibilities gave me an idea: What about traffic from mobile apps, which is why I bolded “mobile apps” and “Twitter clients”. This is where social media thrives!

Think about it. When you’re on your tablet or smartphone, you don’t go to twitter.com or facebook.com. You download and sign-into the application and use it that way. Well, those apps don’t send the same information to Google Analytics like a traditional browser would.

But how could we prove that social media is indeed responsible for this uptick in traffic and revenue that is found in the Direct channel?

UTM Parameters & Arguments

“UTM” stands for Urchin Tracking Module, and Urchin was the original name of the company that originally developed Google Analytics.

Many like to call these tags, but technically they’re called parameters and arguments. Google allows you to append these parameters and arguments to the tail-end of URLs, and then properly add the “source”, “medium”, and “campaign” information within Google Analytics. You can even add optional information such as “term” and “content”.

You don’t have to have a degree in Computer Science to add these parameters to your URLs, Google has a special URL Builder that can do it for you. Simply throw your URL into the link, then add the source, medium, and campaign.

  • Source: This is where the link originates from (Google, Facebook, etc.)
  • Medium: This is what medium the link originates from (email, cpc, social)
  • Campaign: This is the reason why you’re adding this link. Could be a sale, promotion, etc.

When all is said and done, you’ll have something like this:

Why Link Building Really Should Be Organic and Natural

As you see, the actual link (https://www.tampa-seo.com/trainingblog/seo-articles/link-building-really-organic-natural/ ) is separated by a “?” and then a series of parameters and arguments. When a visitor clinks on that link, your page sends those parameters and arguments to Google Analytics.

Additional Parameters

Along with source, medium, and campaign, there are two additional parameters you can use:

  • Keyword: Here you can add the keyword you’re using in your campaign. If a user is using SSL for search, this will appear as (not provided).
  • Content: You can specify an additional value for a link. Google’s own Knowledge Base article on this uses the example of using two call-to-action links on the same page. This will allow you to see how effective specific call-to-actions are.


So, that link is rather long and confusing, right? It’s also not attractive to the eye. It’s a total of 152 characters, and it can really ugly-up your social media posts.

You can always your favorite shortlink service such as Bit.ly to shorten the link from a 100+ character link to one that fits nicely in your social media posts. If you prefer to keep your domain in the link, you can always take a little bit of a long-cut by creating a redirect.

Using the example from above, I could create a link like this: https://www.tampa-seo.com/shortlink-example/ can be redirected to the actual URL to the blog post with the parameters. Now, this does take a little extra time to complete, but as we will show below, having the proven data is more important.

Note on Pinterest

Pinterest strips all parameters and even redirects when you Pin a link. This is unnerving, especially now that we know UTM parameters can assist us in providing metrics that matter to our clients. But they do this for three reasons:

  1. Some nefarious people out there can use parameters to malicious things.
  2. Affiliates and Spamming. User might feel duped when a link they are clicking on takes them to an affiliate site.
  3. Pinterest’s monetization. Pinterest, like many social media platforms, has to find ways to monetize their assets. Among these is to move from affiliate links to paid advertising on their platform.

Post-UTM Tracking

With this information in mind, we made it mandatory that all social sharing have the proper parameters on all links. We also added these links to comparison shopping engine product links too, which had also been problematic for services like Ebay’s Commerce Network, and to a lesser extent, Google’s Display Network.

Also, there is no need, what-so-ever, to add parameters to your internal links. You know where those links came from: Your own site!

Since we’ve added these parameters to inbound links on social media sites, we found that there were indeed sales coming from social channels, and we were able to prove that social media campaigns not only drove traffic, but converted into transactions. During this time Direct traffic and revenue decreased, but rose in Google’s “(Other)” channel.

(Other) Channel?

Channel Groupings

As stated earlier, Google has channels where they direct data based on their default channel definitions. But when I found the social transactions that they occurred, they were in the (Other) channel. Social media isn’t an Other, it’s Social!

Well, it turns out you can redefine those channels too!

Under Admin > View > Channel Groupings, you’ll see Google’s default channels. Here, I went into the Social channel, and added a new rule where “Source“ “contains” “social”. This means that not only will Google direct social media traffic from browsers to Social, anytime the source as defined in UTM parameters matches “social” it will add it to the Social channel.

I did the same thing for our Comparison Shopping Engine traffic and will plan on finding new sources that might be sent to the wrong channel.


Example of Google Analytic’s Channel Groupings



I was very pleasing to discover that a simple change in habit could populate data in a way that we could deliver to the client prove that the money they were spending on their marketing efforts was indeed putting money back into their pockets.

My first post in 2015 was about creating new habits. Among those was #5 Never Stop Learning. We discovered a problem, researched reasons why this was, found a solution, and made it a habit for our team to ensure that the solution was implemented properly.

With this information, do you see yourself adding these parameters to your social media posts or other places where your links appear?

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