Skip to content
Home » Spotting Fraud and Reconciling Ad Traffic with Google Analytics

Spotting Fraud and Reconciling Ad Traffic with Google Analytics

In this series of posts, I’ve addressed some of the reasons why what Google Analytics reports may not align with the numbers you’re receiving from advertising partners. In this edition, I’ll address two more potential causes that may be more difficult to resolve.

Clicks Counted as Direct Traffic

A lot of display ad traffic happens on mobile devices, specifically in apps. This can be problematic because when a user clicks an ad in an app, their browser has to open—the website doesn’t open within the app.

Sometimes, Google Analytics gets confused about where this user came from and just dumps them in the “direct” traffic bucket. In other words, Google Analytics thinks, “Hey, this person just opened up their browser and went directly to this website.” It isn’t able to see that they really came from an app, specifically an ad within an app.

This recently happened to one of our clients. A long-standing vendor reported 17,833 clicks for a given campaign. During that same time, Google Analytics was only attributing 5,734 users to that vendor. That’s a discrepancy of almost 68 percent—far larger than what we had ever seen from this vendor.

Closer examination showed that this client had a HUGE number of direct visitors for the campaign period. The number of direct users was about nine times higher than the site average. After accounting for all of the previously mentioned reasons for a discrepancy and talking to the vendor, we determined that Google Analytics had been counting in-app clicks as “direct” traffic.

This had not happened in previous campaigns.

We told the vendor to stop serving our ads in apps and we’ve since seen a much smaller discrepancy between the vendor’s report and Google Analytics, as well as normal levels of direct traffic.

Is It Fraud?

If you’ve ruled everything else out, it’s sad to say, but there could be fraudulent activity going on. There are two possibilities:

  1. There were invalid clicks on your ad. Most ad servers have safeguards in place to filter out invalid clicks (like those by a bot). Typically, your vendor will deduct these invalid clicks from the total in your report. However, Google Analytics reports all users. This is an instance where the number of Google Analytics users may be higher than the numbers reported by your vendor.
  2. Your vendor has inflated the number of clicks. This could be some kind of glitch with their reporting system OR an intentional action to make the campaign appear to have performed better than it did.

It’s a sad truth, but there are vendors in the marketplace who are less than reputable. It’s not the most frequent reason behind reporting discrepancies, but it does happen. By understanding the logic behind the reports your web team and your vendors are delivering, you will be better equipped to protect your budget and yourself.

This post is part of a series on digital marketing analytics. To read the others, follow this link.