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Google Analytics: Why You Should Review And How To Modify Your Acquisition Channel Definitions

We’re assisting a Shopify Plus client where you can buy leisurewear online. Our engagement is to assist them in the migration of their domain and optimization of their site to drive more growth through organic search channels. We’re also educating their team on SEO and helping them to set up Semrush (we are a certified partner).

They had a default instance of Google Analytics set up with e-commerce tracking enabled. While that’s a nice means of measuring basic analytics for ecommerce, it can provide far more detail on user behavior as well as more accurate data… if it’s fully utilized to its fullest potential. We deployed Google Tag Manager with a ton of additional events to integrate with Google Analytics. We also set up comprehensive steps in their Goals for improved funnel visualization.

Default Channel Grouping in Google Analytics

If you’ve ever navigated to Acquisition > Overview in Google Analytics, you’ll see a comprehensive breakdown of the acquisition channels that your site’s visitors are organized into:

google analytics channel grouping

What you may not realize, though, is that these channels are not always accurate… and can be further optimized for improved reporting. Our client does a great job of deploying UTM campaign codes on every platform they use to drive business to the site. When they began looking at campaign reports and compared them to the channel reports, they identified a few issues:

  • Mobile messaging campaigns (SMS) were being classified as Direct Traffic. You may even notice that mobile messaging really doesn’t even have a channel in Google Analytics. When someone clicks on a link in a text message, it can often come into the site with no referral source since it just opens a browser to the destination page.
  • Email campaigns were being classified as Referral Traffic because the email platform they were utilizing wasn’t passing the appropriate data.
  • Paid traffic wasn’t providing input on whether the ads were targeting brand terms or non-branded terms.

Thankfully, Google Analytics provides its users with the ability to create, update, and edit the channel groupings within Google Analytics. If you navigate to Admin > View > Channel Settings, you’ll find some helpful options for managing your brand terms as well as your channels.

How To Add A Mobile Messaging Channel to Google Analytics

Our first step was to add a channel definition specifically for the brand’s SMS marketing efforts. The brand’s text message marketing platform automatically adds UTM campaign codes to every link that’s shortened and distributed, so we have to define the rules where the source exactly matches sms. Your messaging platform may offer the ability to customize this or append its own value, so be sure to check before you add this channel definition.

add channel definition google analytics

The next step is to select a display color for the channel definition that’s utilized throughout Google Analytics Reporting and then click Done. Your data will begin populating to the new channel within 24 days.

How to Manage Brand Terms and Add Branded Channels

When working with companies on their organic and paid search marketing, there’s a significant difference in strategies when it comes to branded and non-branded terms. For instance, organic search keywords that drive traffic to the site should always be monitored for non-branded growth.

  • Branded search – search for your company name or any of the brands of your company may or may not be someone researching their next purchase. The fact that they already are familiar with your brand may be just them seeing what else you have to offer or validating whether or not your company can be trusted.
  • Non-branded search – these searches are typically a consumer or business seeking a product or solution… but they aren’t familiar with your company. These are highly valued search users because they probably have an intent to purchase and may not be aware of your brand.

It’s a little known feature, but Google Analytics provides you the opportunity to add your branded terms in analytics and set up defined channels for branded and non-branded search! Google Analytics will even attempt to populate a list of brand terms that are already visiting via search. Just navigate to Admin > View > Channel Settings > Manage Brand Terms.

Here’s an example for a ice fishing technology company we are working with:

Google Analytics - Manage Brand Terms

We added a couple of other branded terms for other company and product line. When we save the terms, Google Analytics automatically asks if you’d like to set up non-branded (generic) and branded paid search channel definitions:

Set up brand paid search and generic paid search channels

When you click Yes, set up now, you can review the channels and then click save to activate them. Note the Query Type where you have the option of Generic or Brand:

  • Generic Paid Channel Definition (Non-Branded)
  • Brand Paid Channel Definition

Side note… it would be great to also be able to segment your organic traffic like this, but Google Analytics hides the terms of any user that’s logged into a Google account so it would be highly inaccurate.

How To Modify An Existing Channel Definition

Our last issue to clean up was ensuring that our email campaigns were properly classified as the Email Channel in Google Analytics. The client had enabled UTM variables in their email marketing so every site visitor was arriving with a campaign source of flow to their website.

You should review your Google Analytics settings to see if the medium or source is set on every email campaign… and then you can go in and modify the channel definition for email. One of the nice things that Google does here is autopopulates a dropdown of your site’s values so that you can easily identify the one you’re looking for. Be sure to add to the existing rule with an OR statement:

modify email channel definition

Once you do this, it takes about 24 hours for the data to update and populate correctly… keep in mind that Historical Data is NOT affected. This is only going to better classify your visitors moving forward.

Once updated, you can return to your Acquisition reports and get a far more accurate breakdown of your inbound marketing channels to your site in Google Analytics:

Top Channels - Google Analytics with user-defined and modified channels

More importantly, this helps you to better see your engagement and conversion data with regard to your channels. Once you more accurately define your channels, you will get far more accurate reporting on the performance of your marketing efforts!

If you’re in need of assistance in optimizing your Google Analytics instance, don’t hesitate to reach out to my firm, DK New Media. Along with Google Tag Manager, we help clients to get far more accurate reporting so they can make better business decisions.

Douglas Karr

Douglas Karr is CMO of OpenINSIGHTS and the founder of the Martech Zone. Douglas has helped dozens of successful MarTech startups, has assisted in the due diligence of over $5 bil in Martech acquisitions and investments, and continues to assist companies in implementing and automating their sales and marketing strategies. Douglas is an internationally recognized digital transformation and MarTech expert and speaker. Douglas is also a published author of a Dummie's guide and a business leadership book.

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