Google Analytics default settings is secretly skewing 20% your conversion data

Have you ever heard of the Campaign timeout setting within Google Analytics? Almost no one has and it is skewing most of your data. There is a hidden setting within Google Analytics that marketers don’t know about and it’s artificially improving the performance of non-direct channels by approximately 50-100%. This affects any of your Data-driven Attribution efforts. Luckily, there is a fix for all of this.

So what is this Campaign Timeout setting and how does it affect your data? Basically, whenever someone visits your site directly, even though they had visited you earlier from another non-direct source (like organic, cpc, or referral), if the first session happened within the time window specified by Campaign Timeout, then the medium and source of the direct visit (or visits) will be overwritten.

 You read that right: they will all be overwritten. Plus, the Campaign Timeout default setting is set for six months!

 Say someone visited your website via a search ad in January and then again directly once each month in February, March, April and May, instead of one paid ad session and four direct sessions, Google Analytics will show five paid ad sessions in all reports but one. 

 This is neither good or bad. It is just a way of evaluating the performance of your campaigns that favors non-direct touchpoints over direct ones. The problem is that it exists, it is set to default and has been skewing campaign results from day one. The lack of transparency from Google is the reason why most marketers and analysts are outraged. It’s like dating someone for months only to find out that they don’t really own a Yacht in Monaco!

So how bad is this really? From our experience, once our clients change the setting to normal (meaning to 4 hours which is the shortest time-interval possible), the participation of direct channel on conversions (or revenue) goes up by 20-30 percentage points. You can see more detailed examples of how this default setting has affected our clients’ reports here.  

 Why this Campaign setting even exists is something Google will of course never comment on. But think about it: 85,8% of Alphabet’s income still comes from its advertising business as of Q3 2018. At the same time most advertisers are SMBs who are far from being sophisticated with analytics and take the results presented to them at face value.

Some might think that distributing direct visits to other sources is actually a good thing because the insights become more actionable as you have more influence over what happens in those channels. However, there is an easier way of doing this in Google Analytics which is by switching to the Last Interaction and Last Click non-direct attribution models. If Google wanted to give us a tool to model out where the credit from direct visits should go to, it wouldn’t need this behind-our-back Campaign timeout setting.

Google’s biggest sin is secretly overwriting the sources of visits, and if you do not upgrade to Google Analytics 360, which most businesses will never do, you won’t be able to access raw data through Google BigQuery. The biggest problem about this is that you won’t be able to work with different attribution models until you solve this data problem. So what can you do about it?

You have a few options. You can change the setting from six months to the shortest possible interval – which is four hours and throw everyone in your team into disarray with the sudden drop in paid ad performance. The first option is to run a parallel Google Analytics property. Another alternative is to get a paid web analytics product. The third option is to finally get serious about attribution and implement an attribution solution that uses its own measurement to track and classify multiple touchpoints independently on Google Analytics.

So can you trust Google Analytics again? You be the judge. We just recommend that next time Google pitches you an awesome accurate free product remember how they’ve kept everyone in the dark about Campaign timeout for a decade.

Pavel Šíma, Roivenue CEO

Pavel Šíma is the CEO of Roivenue, a data-driven platform for managing businesses’ marketing ROI and channel attribution. LinkedIn Twitter

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