01 September 2020
Author: Alex Webb
Help. The clicks my vendor is showing don’t match what I’m seeing in Google Analytics! Unfortunately, this is a very common problem. In fact, we’d say it’s the norm! Usually, the number of clicks the vendor is reporting is significantly higher than what you’re seeing in Google Analytics, which can be quite distressing. However, there are a myriad of potential causes behind this discrepancy and unfortunately, more than one factor may be at work here. Here are some reasons that the number of clicks in a vendor report won’t match what you see in Google Analytics. Common Reasons Vendors Don’t Match Google Analytics Clicks Are Not the Same As Users If you’re running display or pre-roll video ads, the vendor is mostly delivering those ads over an ad server or ad exchange and is most likely tracking clicks, which are calculated based on server logs. On the other hand, Google is tracking “users.” A user is not necessarily the same thing as a click. A user is a unique person that has come to your website. To put it more accurately, it is a unique device and/or browser. Let’s dig a little deeper. Scenario 1: John is surfing the web using Mozilla Firefox on his laptop. He clicks your display ad three times. Your vendor would count this as three clicks, but Google Analytics would only count this as one user. That’s because the first time John clicked your ad and Google Analytics fired, he was “cookied.” A code snippet was appended to him so that Google could recognize him. Now, any time John visits your website on his laptop in Mozilla, he’ll just be counted as one user unless he clears his cache or the cookie expires. Scenario 2: John is surfing the web using his iPhone and a Safari browser. He clicks your ad two times. Then, later that night, John is on his laptop in a Chrome browser and clicks your ad once. Your vendor would count this as three clicks, but Google Analytics would count this as two users. Once on the iPhone in Safari (even though he clicked the ad twice) and once on the laptop in Chrome. Unless John changes his device and/or browser or clears his cache he’ll keep being counted as one user in Google Analytics… but your vendor will count a new click each time he clicks on your ad. Now, there are instances where Google can track users across devices—and Cross Device Reporting within Google Analytics can give you additional insight into that. And of course, Google is getting smarter all the time at being able to track people from a myriad of sources, but the general principles outlined in this section still hold true. Conflating clicks with users is the quintessential apples/oranges issue in third-party reporting. Google Analytics Is Not Firing In order for Google Analytics to count a user, the Google Analytics tag must fire, which happens as the webpage loads. This means if a visitor clicks your ad and then quickly hits the back button your vendor will most likely report a click while Google Analytics will show nothing. In addition, if the visitor prevents the page from fully loading by quickly moving to another page or by pressing the browser’s “stop” button, Google Analytics may not fire. Again, your vendor would report a click because the person did click your ad but Google Analytics would show nothing because it never fired. Google Analytics Is Not Set Up Properly If Google Analytics is not set up properly, it may not accurately count users or document where they came from. This could be something as simple as Google Analytics not being installed on your landing page or something more complicated, like a cross-domain tracking issue. Traffic Is Being Sent To The Wrong Page This sounds silly, but if you’re seeing large discrepancies, always ask the vendor to verify the URL they are sending traffic to. We’ve seen cases where clients have accidentally provided invalid URLs or URLs to a different website and therefore traffic was going to an unintended location. Tip: Avoid URLs that redirect as this can cause reporting problems within Google Analytics and exacerbate the discrepancy. Traffic Being Counted As “Direct” 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 may open. (In other words, the website doesn’t always 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 us. A longstanding 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 67.8%—far larger than what we normally see 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 approximately 9x higher than what it normally is. 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. There’s Fraudulent Activity If you’ve ruled everything else out, it’s sad to say, but there could be fraudulent activity going on. There are two possibilities: 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. 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 sad that this one has to be on the list … but there are less than reputable vendors out there. So, Why Use Vendors At All? If a vendor’s report isn’t going to match up with Google Analytics, why use them at all? Great question. At St. Gregory, we’re always striving to provide the best possible results for our clients. If we can do something in-house better and cheaper than any vendor, then we will (and we frequently do!)—but if a vendor has access to some audience or technology that we don’t, we’re going to talk to them. We don’t want to limit our clients out of fear. That’s why we have stringent measures in place for evaluating campaign results and making sure vendors are really performing, regardless of what they report. How Can I Make Vendor Reports Match Google Analytics? Sadly you can’t. Seriously, we’ve never seen a third-party vendor report match up perfectly with Google Analytics—and that’s okay. They don’t have to match up … as long as the vendor is still providing value. Here are some steps you can take when working with third-party vendors to make sure you get the best results: #1 – Know that the numbers aren’t going to match going in. You’re going to have a discrepancy. Be prepared for it. Prepare stakeholders for it. #2 – Use UTM parameters on the URL you give the vendor. When you’re setting up a campaign with a vendor, you’ll provide them the URL (or URLs) you want to drive traffic to. Append UTM parameters to this URL so that you can more accurately track the traffic they’re driving to your site. When you send the URL to the vendor, point out the UTM parameters. Tell them not to alter your URL in any way! (Otherwise, they might strip the parameters off of your URL.) UTM parameters allow you to control exactly how the traffic shows up in Google Analytics, which makes tying users back to a particular vendor a lot easier! #3 – Check your landing page. Hit your landing page before the campaign launches and make sure Google Analytics is firing properly. You can use Real Time reporting (within Google Analytics) to find yourself on the page. #4 – Check your site speed. So … when you checked that landing page, how fast did it load? Did you know that on mobile devices, people expect a website to load and be functional in three seconds or less? If your webpage is a bit laggy, try picking a faster page (or taking steps to speed that page up). If you can’t do that, just understand that you might be a victim of people clicking your ad but then clicking the back button before the page can fully load. #5 – Consider telling the vendor to not show your ad in apps. After the large discrepancy we saw, we’ve become more cautious about in-app clicks. In fact, at the moment, we’ve told our vendor to not show our display ads in apps at all. We’ll probably retest this in a month or two. Update: In September 2020, Apple rolled out iOS 14 which included a lot of additions that are meant to protect user privacy. Unfortunately, these additions can cause tracking issues for advertisers. It’s too early to spell out exactly what all these issues may look like and how to avoid or overcome them, but be aware that iOS 14 may cause problems for you! If you’re seeing wonky numbers and your site gets a high volume of iPhone traffic, consider testing a campaign with iOS 14 users excluded, which is a capability most vendors possess. #6 – Evaluate the vendor on what you can document. Your vendor’s report says you got 1,000 clicks? So what. What does Google Analytics say? We take the number of impressions the vendor served with the number of users (or sessions) and conversions from Google Analytics to figure out how the campaign performed. If the cost per user (or session), CTR, cost per conversion and conversion rate are in line with what we would expect from that type of campaign, then we’re good. It doesn’t matter how many clicks the vendor reported. If the numbers are below what we’d expect to see, there are more questions to ask both of the vendor and of ourselves—for example, was there something wrong with the creative? (But that’s a different story!) Need help deep diving into your Google Analytics or vendor reporting? Our number nerds would love to help you out. Our entire digital marketing department is Google Analytics–certified and (better yet) passionate about data analysis. Contact us today to set up a free consultation.