The Complete Guide to Channels in Google Analytics
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The Complete Guide to Channels in Google Analytics

Learn the fundamentals of channel groupings in Google Analytics and begin to understand how your traffic is attributed in GA4 with our handy guide

Updated December 2023

Whether you’re still using Universal Analytics or have switched to GA4, being able to understand and analyse 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.

To do this, you need to know which reports indicate how traffic arrived at a website.

You can do this in a number of ways in Google Analytics 4, but, most commonly, this is achieved by looking at channels in the User Acquisition and Traffic Acquisition reports within the Reports workspace.

 
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What are channels in Google Analytics?

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’ll provide examples throughout this guide.

Specifically, we’ll help you understand:

  • The default acquisition channels in Google Analytics 4
  • How the source and medium relate to channels
  • Advanced analytics

Default channel groupings in Google Analytics 4

The default channel groupings in GA4 are:

  • Affiliates
  • Audio
  • Cross-network
  • Direct
  • Display
  • Email
  • Mobile Push Notifications
  • Organic Search
  • Organic Shopping
  • Organic Social
  • Organic Video
  • Paid Other
  • Paid Search
  • Paid Shopping
  • Paid Social
  • Paid Video
  • Referral
  • SMS

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

First of all, let’s answer one of the most common questions about channels in GA.

What is Direct in Google Analytics?

Direct refers to all traffic that has directly landed on your website, rather than coming via another source.

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.

Now, let’s look at the other default channels available in GA4.

Organic Search

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

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 the performance reports in Google Search Console.

Referral

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

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.

Organic Social & Paid Social

The Organic Social and Paid Social channels track traffic that comes from social media, including:

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

To ensure that traffic is properly attributed to the correct social channel, you should use UTM links when sharing your links on social media. This is particularly important for paid social campaigns.

Email

The Email channel is for any traffic that’s 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 either the direct or referral channel, depending on whether a customer has clicked from an email software or a web-based email service.

If you’re interested in learning more about tagging, explore our Introduction to Google Analytics 4 Reporting course.

Paid Search & Cross-network

The Paid Search and Cross-network channels contain traffic that comes from your paid search ads, as well as performance max, smart shopping and discovery campaigns.

Once again, it is highly important to properly tag ad campaigns to ensure that traffic is categorised properly, either with UTM tagging for non-Google sources, or by linking Google Marketing Platform products to GA4 for Google campaigns to ensure that they are automatically categorised.

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 programme links are properly tagged so that fees are accurately paid, as well as traffic tracked in Google Analytics.

Display

The Display channel in Google Analytics 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.

Paid Other

The Paid Other channel is to indicate traffic from other forms of paid online advertising outside of search and display.

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

Unassigned

Traffic in the Unassigned 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 are 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, medium and source/medium dimensions in Google Analytics 4 in both the User Acquisition and Traffic Acquisition reports within the Reports workspace, by switching to those dimensions using the dropdown.

 
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Sources are where your site visitors have come from; essentially, where they were before they landed on your site. This could 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, what sources and mediums are available in Google Analytics, and how are they grouped together?

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’s so much more to learn.

Although default channels provide great initial insights, you can also customise or create a custom channel to alter how you categorise the traffic that’s coming to your website.

This can be particularly beneficial if you have a disproportionately large amount of traffic in the Unassigned channel. 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.

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

Want to learn more about mastering Google Analytics channels? Find out more with our Google Analytics courses.

About the author

Nick Comber

Senior Director, Training (Analytics & GMP)
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