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Why Analytics and AdWords don’t always match: basic and advanced issues

September 11, 2015.Finn.0 Likes.0 Comments
Home/Blog/AdWords/Why Analytics and AdWords don’t always match: basic and advanced issues

I just finished discovering the reason(s) Google Analytics report stats didn’t align with the Google AdWords reports for a client. There were two issues I had to address:

  1. Traffic discrepancy between AdWords and Analytics
  2. AdWords traffic not reporting in Analytics

Here were the steps we took:

  1. Breathe. Focus.
  2. Remember Google Analytics is a trending tool
  3. Check for data gaps
  4. Confirm you have Admin Status for both AdWords and Analytics to do analysis
  5. Check connections and settings in accounts
  6. Test tracking data
  7. Check Google Analytics filters and views
  8. Check AdWords changes in spending, traffic patterns, and campaign additions
  9. Still nothing? Don’t got to AdWords yet, go Advanced
  10. Still? Now talk to your AdWords rep

Why we took the steps is written below:


I took the longest way possible, opting for the reactionary, symptomatic fix of something I thought was simple instead of using Dr. Gregory House’s method for solving problems:

“When in doubt, plan broad.”

It’s literally my first rule of Digital Marketing, and I broke it.

Case in point: I’m writing this to let you know the way I SHOULD have figured out the traffic discrepancies between the Google AdWords and Google Analytics accounts I was working on.

To know the steps I actually took to solve this problem, read the steps in this article in backwards order, and then append “and snack on your favorite comfort food” to steps 9, 8, 6, 5, 3 and 1. For that, you can start here and scroll up.

Otherwise, let’s begin.

By the way, remember to take good notes on your work. You’ll need them later.


1 – Breathe, then get coffee. (Seriously. Clear your head and get focused.)

At first glance this sounds scary, especially if you hadn’t dealt with this before. What’s probably happening is that somewhere, some bureaucrat is screaming, “bad data,” and “everything is ruined,” and other nonsensical bullshit. I mean, not the client I had in this situation. They’re pretty awesome. Quite awesome. But, right now, I’m thinking in general worse-case scenarios. You know, “When in doubt, plan broad.”

Now, remember: it’s probably not your fault, especially if you didn’t initially set up the account and weren’t paid to do a diagnostic. That said, if you take over an account, do a best practice diagnostic regardless of whether or not you get paid. The headaches saved will be worth it. In fact, if you have enough revenue coming in, hold your ground and don’t take over the account unless you get paid to do a diagnostic. This helps with my personal rules — Rule #2 of Digital Marketing: CYA , quickly followed by Rule #3 of Digital Marketing: Get it in writing, or email, or something that can be used for documentation.

At this point, your Keurig should be done pouring coffee into your Starbucks city collectable cup. Go get it and let’s dive in.

By the way: if anyone wants to send us the Florida version of the Starbucks “You Are Here” stacking mugs, we wouldn’t say, “no.”

2 – Remember: Google Analytics is a trending tool

As awesome as Google Analytics is, the truth is that for as accurate as it is, the basic offering of the product is still a 3rd-party trending tool. Back in ‘08 we did a comparison study in the ole’ agency based on our hard numbers and realized that it was about 87%-88% correct. It’s still good, but we kept using our old standard of campaign ID tracking to get as accurate as we could. Even today we still see some e-commerce glitches here and there, but that’s for another post. It looks like for their improvements, there’re still discrepancies, which should be expected and not feared.

Don’t go down this data-comparison rabbit hole yet! This will lead to advanced, time-consuming fixes that might not be needed, or not might not be there. Keep it basic and broad first. In these cases, the simplest explanation is typically the most basic. We’ll cover “Advanced Fixes” in step 9.

Premium Analytics providers

If you want deeper, richer, more accurate 3rd party data, there are two really, really good choices that stick out from the pack to me, but you’ll have to pay for them:

Each will cost you about the same annually as it would to pay cash for a starter home in a flyover state, but if you’ve reached those EOSes, you can invest in the tool-of-choice and get pretty incredible insight, along with each respective company’s attentive service.

Now you’ve started working on the CYA

These facts alone will help you out, especially if you fall under the not linked section of the next step.

3 – Check for Data Gaps

Go to the AdWords Date Range Tab and check the following ranges for data gaps:

  • Last month
  • Last 6 months
  • Last year
  • All time

If the line graph has flat lines, especially leading up to the date range where the issue was noticed (including today) – assuming no changes have been made to the website templates / layouts – then either you’re not receiving data or your view access has changed.

While you’re at it, double-check your AdWords data to confirm it was properly running to the right domain. Remember:
http://yourdomain.com is different from http://www.yourdomain.com. There’s always a chance that a redirect is occurring and AdWords isn’t registering it.

In our situation, we first found a sign of what the trouble was because the data had flat-lined, according to the access we had.

4 – Confirm you have Admin Status for both AdWords and Analytics to do analysis

Now, make sure your account has view rights to them. You’ll need them to check settings in both. If you don’t have them in both, you won’t get to check the settings in either platform.

Why not check admin access BEFORE viewing reports?

Good question. The answer lies within my personal Digital Marketing Command #2: CYA. If you don’t have access, you have to ask someone. If you have to ask someone, then it’s usually someone higher up on the chain. Before you ask someone higher up the chain, you’ll want to make sure you’ve covered a few steps and collected enough data to make a good argument for admin access before you begin.

In our case, when we first went through the steps (backwards), I did not have admin access to the AdWords account so I was not able to confirm the settings.

5 – Check your connections and settings in both accounts

Once you’ve confirmed that you have have admin access to both the AdWords and Analytics account, it’s time to make sure the settings are aligned. Make sure you confirm the Analytics link groups.

I) Make sure AdWords and Analytics are linked and tagged

This is the part where you make sure your AdWords and related Google Analytics accounts are properly linked. If you’re not sure how to do that, read this Google.com tutorial on how. Pics and everything.

If they are linked and tagged, good.

If they are not linked, don’t panic.

The traffic typically shows up typically as Organic (for AdWords, it appears in Google organic), like any other untagged ad traffic that isn’t a linked AdWords account. It’s not optimal, but then you’ve got my personal Digital Marketing Command #4 working for you: Always Trust the Hard Numbers.

There is bittersweet good news: if the accounts aren’t linked, or at least manually tagged, then you’ve got a reason for the first issue – traffic discrepancy between AdWords and Analytics: that trend traffic blurb mentioned in step #2. That’s progress.

What are “hard numbers?”

Hard numbers is a term we used to use at the ole’ agency to describe stats, figures, and other bits of data that come direct from the source.

Remember, Analytics is collecting data. It’s not initiating the traffic. If you’re running paid advertising, you’ll always have a backup in the 3rd party provider’s numbers. You’ll always want to compare, but if you’re skeptical of your providers, then you should be using something more powerful than a free trending tool to track the traffic. That’s a rabbit hole for another day…

In this case, the hard numbers are definitely in AdWords. Now if you don’t have Google Analytics linked, you probably don’t have Google Webmasters linked. Check for a Google Search Console Webmaster Tools link as well because if you do have Webmasters linked, then you’re starting to get search queries to go with the keywords.

More importantly, if you have at least Google Conversion tracking, you still have really good trend data.

That’s a start.

From here you can start to do a little data recreation.

6 – Test Tracking Data

Check your website code to make sure the pixel is installed and operating properly. If you don’t know how, talk to someone who does: a front-end Developer, SEO / SEM Specialist, AdWords rep…

Other reasons for the traffic discrepancy between AdWords and Google Analytics

Speaking of hard numbers, another thing to note is that there are several reasons why AdWords “clicks” don’t always sync up with Analytics “sessions.” Most all of it sits on the Google Analytics end. Why? Because AdWords can track every click. It’s in their system. They have hard numbers. Google Analytics needs a few things to go right before it tracks a session:

  • the landing page needs to load
  • the pixel on the landing page needs to load, track, and submit the data
  • the visitor’s web browser needs to have cookies, JavaScript, and image download enabled

So even if the tracking code is always properly installed, it doesn’t guarantee it will track data. The new standard for placing the Google Analytics tracking code on a page is to position it just above the closing head tag, which means less of the page needs to load, and more is tracked. If it’s still in the legacy position, above the closing body tag, then damn-near the entire page has to load properly. If a piece of code up the page doesn’t load properly and keeps the rest of the page from loading, the tracking pixel won’t fire.

7 – Check Google Analytics filters and views

Another all-too-often mistake seen is when a user makes a filter in Google Analytics without having a copy of the profile. The filter excludes everything except what specific segment of data they wanted to see. The user treats the filter the same way they treat the custom reports. It’s typically a horrible mistake.

  • Filters will not track data it’s not supposed to.
  • Custom Reports will only use the data provided.

Make sure a duplicate profile is made which tracks raw, unfettered data, for just such an occasion.

8 – Check AdWords changes in spending, traffic patterns, and campaign additions

This is how our problem began. It was only when we enhanced traffic that we started to see the numbers not matching up. It was like we turned up the water pressure and found leaks in the plumbing.

I – If you run multiple AdWords and / or Analytics accounts

Check all those as well to make sure the problem is isolated.

II – Also check for changes to the website.

Sometimes developers accidentally forget to include bits of code when building a new website. Hell, I’ve seen a top media institute pay 6-digits for a site and go a year without being indexed in Google because their design company forgot to remove the nofollow from the robots.txt file. Shit happens.

9 – Still Nothing? Go Advanced.

If you’ve gotten here and still haven’t found a glimmer of insight as to why AdWords isn’t tracking or why there’s a discrepancy, then it’s time to look to the website and its code.

I – JavaScript code conflicts

At this point it’s time to get a developer to see if there’s a code conflict that’s keeping the tracking pixels from firing, assurances that the tracking pixels are for the account, and that there are no custom configurations keeping the pixel from behaving properly. This could include cookie manipulation within the code that’s making the code believe a session is not active when it is, and stuff developers better than I could talk about.

II – Website load / uptime

If you don’t have access to the web server logs, then there are third party tools that one can use to begin tracking website load and uptime. This will help you determine if the pixel has time and opportunity to fire during a session.

Here are some quick tools for that:

10 – Still nothing? Now, call your AdWords rep

Remember back before step one explanation when I said, “take good notes“? Make sure you grab them before you make the call to either your AdWords rep or their support line. For as helpful as they can be, they’re infinitely more helpful if you’ve already done due diligence to solve the issue. What will probably happen is if they go through the steps and can’t find anything either, they’ll probably have your dev team (if you have one) schedule a call with one of their dev support team members.

Maybe. Every issue is unique.

That’s it.

It’s about how each issue I’ve seen goes. If you have one that’s super unique, lemmie know.


Sources for further reading.


PS: Our results

I’m still waiting on the admin access to AdWords, but from the looks of the flat-line data, there’s a chance that it’s the Analytics pixel but I’d bet house odds if I were a betting man that the issue is going to come from within the AdWords admin setup. Given the way

  • the data flat-lined yet the accounts are linked
  • every other AdWords and Analytics accounts and for other clients
  • the page layouts for the site haven’t been touched

I’ll keep y’all posted.

 

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