Troubleshooting Discrepancies Between Google Analytics Visits and AdWords Clicks

Thursday, September 24, 2009 | 7:04 AM

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It is not unusual to see a discrepancy in the numbers reported for AdWords clicks and Google Analytics visits from your AdWords campaigns. There are a few reasons as to why this happens even if your Google Analytics implementation is correct. However, there are steps you can take to ensure that the discrepancy is kept to a minimum. Below we look at some common implementation errors plus any steps we can take to identify campaigns, ad groups, and keywords that are causing us trouble. Finally, it never hurts to cover other best practices we can put in place to ensure that we are measuring and reporting to the best of our abilities.

Step 1: Check that you have the basics covered!

1. Ensure that your AdWords account is linked to your Google Analytics account. Also ensure that the correct accounts are linked. It is not uncommon to see an old AdWords or Google Analytics account from a previous campaign being used accidentally. If this is the case, you need to first unlink the accounts before re-attempting to link up the correct accounts.
2. Check that you have cost data applied to the profiles that you are troubleshooting.
3. Check that auto-tagging is enabled in your AdWords account.
3a. If you cannot use auto-tagging for whatever reason, at least ensure that you are manually tagging your links. Be sure to use "utm_source=google" and "utm_medium=cpc" to see data in your AdWords Campaigns report. Otherwise you will see these visits reported in the Campaigns report instead.

Step 2: Identify troublesome campaigns, ad groups, and keywords

Navigate to the Traffic Sources > Adwords > AdWords Campaigns report and then select the Clicks tab. Look at the difference between visits and clicks for each campaign. Something is obviously wrong if you see:
  • zero visits and several clicks for some campaigns.
  • zero visits across all your campaigns. This usually indicates that the gclid auto-tagging parameter is being dropped (more on that below).
  • no campaigns at all or all campaigns are reporting zero clicks. There may be an issue with how your AdWords and Google Analytics accounts are linked. Now is the time to refer back to Step 1 and ensure that you have the basics covered.
If you are seeing a visits and clicks discrepancy for some campaigns and not others, it's time to take a look at the components of the campaign to identify the offending culprits.

Step 3: Identify the culprits!

If we are seeing a discrepancy and the number of visits is larger than zero, it usually signals that some components of the campaign are being tracked correctly while others are not. We can attempt to find these culprits by selecting "Ad Group" from the "Dimension" drop down menu and examining the visits vs. clicks discrepancy at an ad group level.

Below, you can see that we have identified a few ad groups with a significant discrepancy. Let's take a look at the ad group "Icon Stix and Stonz Magnet Game" - the one with the most clicks but zero visits! If you don't have keyword level URLs, this is a really good place to start. Go to your AdWords account and find the destination URLs of this ad group.

If you have keyword destination level URLs or placement level destination URLs in your ad group, you can drill down further to discover which keywords or placements contribute to majority of the discrepancy.

Below is a report for another campaign that is also targeting the Search Network. The ad group contributing to the discrepancy is highlighted below. To find out which keywords are contributing most to the discrepancy, click on the ad group in order to drill down to the keyword level report.

Once you have identified the keywords that are not being tracked correctly, go into your AdWords account and pull out the destination URLs associated with those keywords.

You should now have a list of Destination URLs for the ad groups or keywords that are causing you heartache.

Step 4: Address the culprit(s)

Now that you have a list of problematic URLs, there are a few basic checks you can make at each URL:

Is the Google Analytics tracking code implemented correctly on the landing page?
Make sure that the tracking code is installed on the landing page. Yes, it seems so obvious, but you would be surprised by how many times this is the offending culprit! You can go one step further and use a tool like Firebug or Fiddler to confirm that the Google Analytics tracking code is working correctly on your page.

As good practice you should ensure that the tracking code is installed on all your pages. You should be doing this as part of your regular site audit (you do have a regular site audit process in place don't you?). There are various third party services out there such as SiteScan to help you scan your site for Google Analytics implementation discrepancies.

Where is the Google Analytics Tracking Code placed on the landing page?
It is recommended best practice to place the Google Analytics Tracking Code towards the bottom of the page's HTML source code. In doing so you ensure a faster page-load time for your visitors and thus provide them with a favourable user-experience. There are always exceptions, though. For pages with ecommerce or event tracking, it might be necessary to place the Tracking Code at the top.

If your site is slow to load, which can sometimes be a problem for visitors from Southeast Asia, then you may find that the visitor leaves the page before the Google Analytics code has had a chance to load and execute. In that case Google Analytics has trouble understanding that the visit originated from an AdWords click. You can try moving the Google Analytics Tracking Code to the top of the HTML source code instead and see if that provides you with better reporting. Remember, however, that this may impact your page-load times, so take user-experience into account before making this change. The best option, however, is to improve your site's performance in order to decrease page-load times. Take a look at Google Speed for tips and tricks on improving latency.

Are the auto-tagging or manual tag parameters in the URL that the visitor ends up on?
In some cases, your Destination URL redirects to another URL. If your Destination URL redirects to another URL, ensure that it maintains the "gclid=aBcD123" parameter that is appended to the URL as result of AdWords auto-tagging. If the gclid parameter is missing on the page that the visitor is eventually taken to, then Google Analytics has trouble understanding that the visit was due to an AdWords click. Similarly, if you are manually tagging your links, ensure that the "utm_source", "utm_medium", "utm_campaign", "utm_term" (optional), and "utm_content" (optional) parameters are maintained.

A quick way to test whether tracking parameters are being stripped from your Destination URL is to paste the URL in your browser bar and append "?gclid=tEsT" or "&gclid=tEsT" to it and hitting enter. Take a look at the URL that you end up on - does it still have "gclid=tEsT" in it? Note that the value of the gclid parameter is case-sensitive so you must see "tEsT" exactly.

If you don't see the gclid parameter or its value is distorted then we need to rectify the situation. The simplest option is to change the Destination URL to bypass the redirect and point to the ultimate URL that the user lands on. So if your existing Destination URL is X and the user ends up on Z because of a redirect X -> Y -> Z, it makes sense to change the Destination URL to simply Z. If this is not an option, then the next option is to speak to your webmaster about ensuring that the gclid or manual tag parameters are passed along in the redirects.

Are you using auto-tagging and manual tags?
If auto-tagging is switched on in your AdWords account and if some of your Destination URLs include manual Google Analytics tag parameters (e.g. "utm_source", "utm_medium", etc.) then there can be discrepancies in reporting. It is best practice to either use auto-tagging or manual Google Analytics tagging but not both in an account.

Are you accidentally filtering out paid visits?
Your profiles may have been set up with filters that are filtering out paid campaigns or pageviews to your campaign landing pages. Inspect the filters for your profile by going to your Analytics Settings screen and clicking on the "Edit" link next to the profile. Scroll down and take a look at the "Filters Applied to Profile" list. If you see any exclude or advanced filters in the list, they may be the culprit.

These are just a few tips to help you identify which AdWords campaigns are not being tracked correctly by Google Analytics and how to fix the issue. Take a moment to ensure that you are following the above best practices as you create and activate new AdWords campaigns. Doing so will save you a lot of reporting heartache in the future. If you have any additional troubleshooting tips or best practices around clicks vs. visits discrepancies please share them with us in the comments below.


Jackie said...

Can we have images used in your illustrations?

Timston said...

it is a good illustration on what to do when clicks are zero and visits are not.

but most common problem is when clicks are 20-30-40% more than visits.

it's even worse when you have both manually tagged campaign (some other campaign than adwords) and adwords auto-tagged campaign going simultaneously. more than once i saw that manually tagged campaign had 0.5-1% discrepancy in clicks and visits, while auto-tagged adwords campaign had 20-30%.

googlers always say this could be due to "no cookies, no JS, visitors leaving too fast, or fraud clicks". but discrepancy usually way to high for that.

HelsBells said...

I'm with Timston, I was hoping this article was going to enlighten me on my simlar discrepancies.