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What are Channels in Google Analytics?
Read Time: 7 Minutes

What are Channels in Google Analytics?

27 Nov, 2020 Read Time: 7 Minutes
LiveClass
Published by
Nick Comber
Analytics & Google Marketing Platform Trainer
LinkedIn
Inspire Inform Ignite

Understanding Google Analytics Channels

Being able to understand and analyze channels is essential. You need to know what they are and how to interpret their performances to tell if a new digital marketing strategy is required, and to see how an existing campaign is performing.

You can find channels in Google Analytics under Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels.

Screenshot of google channels report menu

But what are they?

Channels are groupings of different sources (the origin of traffic, e.g. a search engine such as ‘google’ or a domain name) and mediums (the general category of sources, e.g. ‘organic’ for all organic search or ‘referral’ for all web referrals). Because of their close connection, we will provide examples throughout this guide. You’ll find a handy table with examples in section 3.

In this guide, we’ll help you understand:

  • The default channels in Google Analytics
  • How the Source and Medium relate to channels
  • Advanced analytics

What are the default Google Analytics channels?

The default channel groupings in Google Analytics are:

  • Organic Search
  • Direct
  • Referral
  • Social
  • Email
  • Paid Search
  • Affiliates
  • Display
  • Other Advertising
  • (other) or (unavailable)

These default channels give you a broad overview of the sources and mediums that bring traffic to your website. 

Organic Search

Organic Search refers to all traffic from users who have clicked on your organic listing in a search engine results page (SERP).

GA organic channel

Increasing SEO efforts can help improve your organic visibility in search engines, such as Google and Bing, and drive more users to a website. 

To help you understand more about your Organic Search visitors, you can see what keywords people were searching for when they clicked on your listing using Google Search Console.

Direct

Direct refers to all traffic that has directly landed on your website. 

GA direct channel

This channel shows you how many people have typed your URL address into the search bar, or landed on your website from an existing bookmark.

A visit will be considered ‘direct’ if a link has been shared without a campaign tag, and then clicked on. Links like this are often shared via text messages, personal emails, or a business communication platform like Slack.

If the medium is equal to ‘(none)’ and the traffic is unidentified, it will also be considered direct. This is why direct can have unusually high numbers.

Referral

The Referral channel records site visits that come from websites that are not social media or search engines.

GA referral channel

If another website (such as an online newspaper) links to you and somebody clicks through to your site, this will be part of the referral channel.

Increasing the number of links you have on high-quality websites can grow your referral traffic. A digital PR campaign can be used to gain off-site links. This can also be beneficial for your Organic Search traffic as gaining links will help raise your domain authority, which can see you rank higher in the SERPs in positions with higher click-through rates.

Social

The Social channel tracks traffic that comes from social media.

GA social channel

The following traffic sources may appear here:

  • Facebook
  • Pinterest
  • Instagram
  • YouTube
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

To ensure that traffic is properly attributed to social media, you should use UTM links when sharing your links on social or offering automatic social share tools on your site.

Email

The Email channel is for any traffic that has come directly from an email newsletter or other email marketing you have sent out.

Email traffic is only measured with UTM tagging in place. So, any untagged links in emails will be attributed to the Direct channel.

For more information, visit our guide on tagging

If you’re interested in learning more about tagging, explore our Google Analytics course.

Paid Search

The Paid Search channel is the traffic that comes from your paid search ads.

Traffic can come from ads running in search engines, such as Google, Bing, AOL or Ask.com.

Once again, it is highly important to properly tag ad campaigns to ensure that traffic is categorized properly.

Affiliates

The Affiliates channel refers to traffic from any affiliate marketing.

Affiliate marketing is when you agree with a third party (an individual or an organisation) to drive traffic to your site in exchange for a fee. Affiliates are paid using different models, such as pay per conversion. This can be preferable to using other forms of paid advertising as it guarantees a return on investment.

It is important that affiliate program links are properly tagged so that fees are accurately paid, as well as traffic tracked in Google Analytics.

Display

The Display channel measures the traffic your website receives from display ads.

These will usually be banner-style adverts and can run across a wide variety of websites.

The Display channel enables you to easily see the impact of all your display activity in one place. Because display ads may be on multiple websites, there will be various traffic sources. This channel combines them all together.

Other Advertising

The Other Advertising channel is to indicate traffic from other forms of online advertising outside of search and display. An example of this would be cost-per-view video advertising.

This is not to be confused with the ‘(Other)’ channel.

(other) or (unavailable)

Any traffic in the (other) or (unavailable) channel will be visits that have come via a Source / Medium not associated with the other default channels.

What is Source and Medium in Analytics?

As we mentioned earlier, the Source and Medium are connected, and channels is how Google Analytics groups these together.

To fully understand how channels work, it’s necessary to know the basics of Source and Medium too.

You can find the Source and Medium information in your Google Analytics account within Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium.

GA source/medium reportl


Sources are where your site visitors have come from before they land on your site. This will usually be a search engine, such as Google, or another website such as Facebook.

Mediums indicate how the user arrived on your website. For example, this could be a referral (clicking on a link on the other website), organic (an organic listing in the SERP), or CPC (a cost per click paid ad).

If we use Google as an example, traffic could come here from organic or CPC. Equally, organic and CPC traffic could come from a different search engine, such as Bing or Yahoo. That’s why the combined channels view helps us understand an overview of the type of visits a website is receiving.

So, how exactly do these different sources and mediums get grouped together?

This handy table explains: 

Default channels 

Source
(Visitor’s Location)

Medium
(Vehicle) 

Organic Search

Google
Yahoo
Bing

organic

Direct 

Direct
(typed in URL in search browser)

(no medium)

Referral

Website that is not Social Media or Search Engine

referral

Social 

Facebook
Linkedin
Twitter

social

Email

Newsletter

email

Paid Search

Google
Youtube
Facebook

paid search

or

cpc (cost per click)
ppc (pay per click)



 

Advanced Google Analytics channel settings

We hope that this guide has given you a good understanding of the basics of how channel groupings work, and how they relate to the Source and Medium. But the reality is that there is so much more to learn.

Although default channels provide great initial insights, you can also customize or create a custom channel to alter how you categorize the traffic that is coming to your website.

This can be particularly beneficial if you have a disproportionately large amount of ‘(Other)’. By taking the time to manually assign Source / Medium combinations to an existing channel or create a new custom channel of your own, you can gain a more accurate view of how users are landing on your website.

But, this isn’t as easy it sounds. You should only do this if you know what you are doing. A mistake can cause traffic to be incorrectly categorized, which can misinform your marketing strategies.

 

Want to learn about mastering Google Analytics channels? Find out more with our Google Analytics courses or check out our range of Google Analytics guides

 

 

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