Understanding Google Analytics Channels

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One of the most exciting and important aspects of digital marketing is the ability to understand exactly how your customers are finding you. It informs every single part of integrated campaigns and helps determine which efforts are working and which ones need to be revisited. Google Analytics allows you to zero in on the performances of different marketing channels to evaluate everything from brand awareness to social media messaging. To get the most insight from that data, it’s crucial to understand exactly how Google sorts your traffic.
Channels in Google Analytics are high-level categories indicating how people found your site. While the Source/Medium report shows you in more detail where people came from, Channels are broader, more “user-friendly” names lumping visits together in buckets useful for high-level reporting categories.
For instance, Facebook Sessions often show up in multiple ways in the Source/Medium report. They may appear as facebook.com, m.facebook.com, and l.facebook.com, all of which are variations of the same source. The Channels report will include all of these in the Social bucket, so you can see less granular, aggregate numbers on social media performance.


Google Analytics Channels Blog Image


Default Google Analytics Channels

The default channels are:

  • Direct:
  • Organic Search:
    • Indicates visits from organic (unpaid) search results
    • Determined by medium of organic
  • Social:
    • Indicates visits from social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)
    • Determined when Social Source Referral matches “yes;” Google Analytics also places these in the referral “bucket” matching a list of known social sources or when medium matches social, social-network, social-media, sm, social network, or social media
  • Email:
    • Indicates traffic from links clicked in email messages, whether mass email marketing or individual messages
    • Determined by medium of email
  • Affiliates:
    • Indicates traffic from affiliate marketing efforts
    • Determined by medium of affiliate
  • Referral:
    • Indicates traffic where users clicked a link from another site, excluding major search engines
    • Determined by medium of referral
  • Paid Search:
    • Indicates traffic from PPC campaigns run in search results
    • Determined by medium of cpc, ppc, or paidsearch; also, excludes traffic in “Content” bucket of ad networks
  • Other Advertising:
    • Indicates traffic from online advertising outside of search and display, such as cost-per-view video advertising
    • Determined by medium of cpv, cpa, or cpp
  • Display:
    • Indicates traffic from display advertising, such as Google AdWords remarketing campaigns
    • Determined by medium of display, cpm, or banner, or in “Content” bucket of ad networks (indicating Google Display Network)

Common Problems

While these channels may seem like straightforward categories, Google Analytics lumps traffic into a channel based on the source and/or medium. This means that the quality of the data depends on how good a job we do at tagging our campaigns. For example, traffic can end up being mis-categorized when non-standard tags are used. For example, if you use a non-standard medium for paid search (such as “payperclick”), the resulting Sessions won’t end up in the default Paid Search channel bucket.

To improve your link tagging, visit our article on Consistent Tagging for Better Campaign Tracking.

Untagged Email Marketing Campaigns

If you’re running email marketing through a platform like Mailchimp or Constant Contact, you’ll want to make sure that you’ve turned on the setting to tag links for Google Analytics. If you cannot find the option on your own, check with your email marketing provider to determine how to set this up. Alternatively, you can manually tag the links in your email campaign. This gives you more control over the campaign that your email traffic gets assigned to.

Either way, without proper tag tracking you won’t be able to cleanly segment traffic as coming from email. Instead, visits will show up as referrals from the recipient’s email provider (such as mail.yahoo.com), as well as direct visits (clicks from mail programs such as Apple Mail and Outlook). With a properly tagged email campaign, you’ll be able to see the resulting Sessions in the “Email” channel. This will help you cross-reference the reporting data from your email provider with your actual site traffic and help determine how well your email campaigns are driving traffic to your website.

Failure to Link AdWords Accounts

When running advertising through AdWords, make sure you link your AdWords account to Google Analytics. If you haven’t connected the accounts together, AdWords Sessions will still be classified as “Paid Search”, but Analytics will not know which campaign, ad, or keywords drove the traffic. This lack of data will prevent you from accurately measuring the success of individual AdWords campaigns. If you are a digital agency, or in-house marketer, this missing information could undermine your ability to demonstrate the success of your PPC campaigns.

You can check for proper AdWords attribution by making sure data is showing up in the AdWords section (Acquisition > AdWords > Channels). This will show you an overview of campaign performance, including engagement and conversion metrics.


AdWords Reports in Google Analytics


Once you’ve correctly linked accounts, you’ll see AdWords data categorized as either Paid Search or Display in the Channels section. Of course, these totals will lump together traffic from other channels in those categories, for instance if you’re running Bing Ads paid search in tandem with Google paid search ads. .


Google Analytics Paid Traffic Channels


Stray Organic Sessions

While most organic Sessions will fall into the proper channel, some may come through as referrals. While this may only represent a small amount of traffic, you should note that these are part of the total when accounting for organic search performance. For example, some Bing Sessions have been showing up as referrals instead of organic visits.

Customizing Channels

If the default channels don’t fully serve your purpose, you can create custom channel groupings to categorize traffic as needed. Just proceed carefully with attention to detail, as any misstep in the process can cause traffic to be misclassified. For this reason, we recommend that you never customize the default channel grouping, but instead create a new grouping to implement your customizations. Also, any changes to channel groupings only apply to future visits, not retroactively.

Segmenting Branded & Non-Branded Paid Search

Another useful way to get more insight from your data is to segment branded and non-branded paid search into separate channels. This edit allows you to separate metrics for people already familiar with your brand from those more likely to be having their first contact with your site. For more details, see Google’s instructions here.

Creating Channels for Paid Social

When running ads via social media advertising, you want to be sure to segment the resulting visits from organic social referrals. See our article on tracking Facebook advertising for more details.

However, note that Google Analytics doesn’t include a separate channel for paid social by default. If social ad visits aren’t specifically tagged, they’ll get lumped into the broader Social channel. However, if you tag links with a medium of cpc, ppc, or cpm to indicate paid traffic, the visits will go into the Paid Search or Display channels.

For a clean way of segmenting paid social traffic, you can create a new channel grouping in Google Analytics. Custom channel groupings allow you to view data within your own Google Analytics account without “breaking” the default channels.

Under the desired View, navigate to Channel Settings and Channel Grouping. Next, click New Channel Grouping to create your custom channel.


Google Analytics Creating a New Channel Grouping


For this account, in which Facebook advertising is our only paid social effort, we’ll define a new channel with a Source of facebook.com and a Medium of ppc (representing how we’ve chosen to tag our URLs). After saving this Channel Grouping, we can view the data in the report. Of course, we can define other channels within this grouping to see more data, but for the purposes of this example we’ll stick with setting up the social portion.

Under the Channels report (Acquisition > Channels), we’ll change the Primary Dimension to our new Channel Grouping of Paid Social. This will now separate the Paid Social (Facebook advertising) visits from other types of channels.


The default Channels report in Google Analytics provides a useful basic categorization of traffic that enables you to compare the performance of various types of marketing. However, you should be aware of possible shortcomings in how Google Analytics determines what data falls into which channels. In addition, exercise caution in tagging links properly in order to ensure the best possible accuracy.

Once you’re ready to move beyond the basics of reviewing channel data in the main interface, brainstorm custom channels based on your digital marketing campaigns to better segment your data. You can use channels to your advantage to improve your reporting, your analysis and your online marketing initiatives as a whole.

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9 Comments on “Understanding Google Analytics Channels

  1. SergiPH

    Maybe this is a bit off the topic, but its related to paid campaigns and Analytics.
    After finishing, lets say, a GDN campaign, GA still records acquisition from that source after months.
    One theory is users who clicked that ad, after the campaign is finished they type the URL and the URL with parameters is autocompleted. I’m talking a couple or 3 hundred users each month, though the campaign was quite broad.
    Do you have any article on this? Someone have other hypotheses?

  2. Lindsay Schultz

    When the AdWords account is linked to the Analytics account, but the AdWords campaigns are old, where do the clicks show up in analytics? Are they lumped in with organic or with direct? (Even though my analytics and AdWords are correctly linked up, no sessions are being recorded as paid.) Even before the accounts were linked, I never had any paid traffic appear in my analytics report, even though we were advertising. Yes, my analytics code is correctly set up. So are those unaccounted for paid visits being counted as organic or direct?

    1. markdhansen

      Data from campaigns that ran before the GA and ADW accounts were linked will not show up in GA. Of course, the visits will show up and be classified with source / medium as “google / cpc” – so you will see the traffic and know that it is paid search. But, you will not be able to tell which campaign it came from, what keywords triggered the ad, etc. This “extra data” is what you get by linking.

      AdWords traffic should never show up as organic or direct; even if your account are not linked.

  3. West

    So the campaigns from Adwords will be visible in Analytics under “Adwords Campaigns” and utm_campaign will show up in “All Campaigns”. With channels you can group the source+medium. What about using (theme) campaigns? Like “spring-sale”. If you want to select all source/med or channels with the same campaign. Adwords only shows the campaign name of adwords. Thats not the same.

    1. markdhansen

      Unless you use (theme) as the campaign name, there is no way to capture it in Analytics via linked AdWords using auto-tagging because all the UTM parameters are used up (see: https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1033981?hl=en). However, you might be able to do something like this by using a custom parameter in your final URL – e.g., https://my.landingpage.com&customParam=mytheme.

      Then, on your landing page, use Google Analytics custom tracking code to set a custom variable with the value of customParam.

  4. Brian Brassaw

    Thanks for the great article. I’m working on setting up a Paid Social channel on our main GA views, that’s how I found your article.

    One thing to note about Custom Channel groupings is that they will be sampled if your site deals with sampling. Since our site is sampled I’ll typically use a Custom Channel Grouping on our test view to ensure a change is working properly. Once I confirm that, I’ll edit the Default Channel Grouping on the test view and let it collect for a week or so to make sure everything is running properly. Once it looks good I’ll repeat the process on our live GA view, checking to make sure things are collecting properly regularly.

    1. markdhansen

      Hi Brian. Thanks for your comment. Its a good idea to test things our on a separate view before making changes in production. But, why edit the Default Channel Grouping at all? Why not just use a Custom Channel Grouping?

      1. Brian Brassaw

        The main problem with Custom Channel Groupings is they are sampled if you have a large amount of traffic. Our site receives a large volume of traffic so trying to analyze data of more than a few days when using a Custom Channel Grouping leads to sampling.

        If a site receives a small amount of traffic they can simply use the Custom Channel Groupings since they don’t have to deal with sampling. Though I personally would always, after testing, update the Default Channel Grouping. If you’re going to use a powerful tool like Google Analytics you might as well customize it to fit your needs.

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