Understanding Attribution Modeling Helps You Serve Clients Better

Digital Marketing Consultant

Transparency in digital marketing means that clients have access to a lot of tools and reports, be it AdWords, Analytics or Search Console. This has both merits and demerits. The merits are your client can get a quick snapshot of the work you are doing for them anytime and anywhere, thereby showcasing how much of a digital marketing super start you are.  The demerits are that there get to see data that they don’t really understand and this usually causes problems for you.  I am sure you have received a call or email saying – “Hi xxx, we notice that our cost per acquisition is way too high. Is there something that you can do to improve this?” Hair raising right!

Your client is referring to Cost Per Acquisition as reported by Google AdWords. What you client does not understand is that this is actually the Cost Per Last Click Acquisition.  Clients usually do not understand how Google AdWords and Analytics actually attribute conversions and this is where you need to educate them.  A Keyword can do one of the following when it comes to conversions – initiate, assist or complete a conversion.


Analytics reports are not always what you see is what you get, but rather what you interpret is what you get.  Attribution modeling is an advanced Google Analytics concept which even seasoned digital marketers battle to understand.  An understanding of attribution modeling helps both you and your client understand the true performance of your marketing campaign and determine true ROI.  To understand Attribution modeling you have to be able to understand the following:

  1. The customer journey is not simple but complicated
  2. Customers constantly switch between digital channels
  3. Customers use multiple devices
  4. Both direct and branded traffic are grossly misrepresented in Analytics

The customer journey is not simple but complicated

Customers do not always use the navigation path that we expect them to follow. There is no guarantee that a user who comes to your website via a PPC landing page will convert. That same user might return to the website home page in a different session and then make a purchase.

Customers constantly switch between digital channels

A user might come to your website for the first time by clicking a paid advert on Google, but then return to your website via branded organic search or directly by typing in your URL in the browser – and then make a purchase. When you look at your reports it will seem as if Paid Search is not working, yet in reality it is.

Customers use multiple devices

It is quiet common for a user to start browsing your website using a desktop/laptop at work and then continue browsing later that same evening (at home) using their smartphone. They might even only make a purchase the next day using their tablet. In Google Analytics the user who browses the product page using a desktop computer at work is different from the one who browses the rest of the website using a tablet from home. Similarly this user is also different from the one who makes a purchase the next day on the tablet. This is because cookie information is not shared across devices. Here is how GA will record this user behavior:


  • User 1 clicked a paid advert and browsed the product page using a laptop at work, but didn’t make a purchase. Thus AdWords does not get a credit for this conversion.
  • User 2 goes to the website directly and browses the rest of the site using a table at home, but does not make a purchase.
  • User 3 goes to the website directly and browses the rest of the site using a smartphone. The user then makes a purchase. Thus Conversion credit goes to direct visit.

The truth of the matter is user 1, 2 and 3 are all the same person.

Both direct and branded traffic are grossly misrepresented in Analytics

You might have noticed in your Anaytics reports that a lot of sales are being attributed to direct and organic traffic. How can direct traffic and organic traffic be getting so many sales? Customers generally don’t convert on their first visit to the website, whether they come through branded keywords or none branded keywords or some other marketing channel – thus a return visit is more likely to happen before a conversion/transaction can take place.

There are 2 ways in which someone can return to a website – direct visit (typing in www… in the browser) and by using branded organic keywords.


It is easy to return to a website by typing in part of a website in the browser window or by searching for the brand name (that you remember) on Google. This user behavior results in both direct and branded organic keywords getting high conversions in Google Analytics. All untagged or improperly tagged campaigns (display, email, social etc) can be treated as direct traffic in GA.

In Google traffic is treated as direct whenever a referrer cannot be passed. There are a number of traffic sources that cannot send a referral such as mobile applications, word, excel and pdf documents. 302 redirects at times results in lost referral data. At times browsers do not pass referrals especially during http to https redirects (due to security reasons). Thus it will look like conversions are all coming from direct traffic as opposed to other sources.

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