Optimizing Default Channel Settings in Google Analytics

Getting the most out of your website reports

As a long-time user and implementer of Google Analytics, I tend to start out my visits to the reporting portal as such:

  1. Open GA
  2. Go directly to Traffic Sources report
  3. Look the the Default Channel traffic

I will go on to say it’s probably the most helpful report for everyday analysis out of all of them. But in order to get the most out of it, you need to make sure your Default Channel settings are customized to your business. This blog will not only help clarify how Google categorizes marketing channels, but also help you clean up and correctly attribute your traffic.

The Basics

Google has a pretty good handle on sources and what type of marketing channel they are, and by pretty good I mean they set the standard. So if Google automatically lumps source = "baidu" into Organic Search, I’m going to believe they know what they’re talking about. And I’m sure they know at least a year before I know.

Here are Google Analytics’ out-of-the-box Default Channel Groupings:

Channel Grouping Google's Rules What it Actually Means
Direct Source exactly matches direct AND
Medium exactly matches (not set)
Medium exactly matches (none)
Here we're talking about where the traffic came from, and specifically if the link someone clicked has NO tagging on it. If GA can't detect a referrer from the Request-URI, then you get 'direct' as your source. This could be someone clicking on a link in an desktop app, a pdf, using a bookmark, or typing your website directly into their browser.
Organic Search Medium exactly matches organic This pretty much speaks for itself.
Social Social Source Referral exactly matches Yes


Medium matches regex ^(social|social-network|social-media|sm|social network|social media)$
This grouping generally does a good job, but sometimes I see m.facebook.com in my list of referral traffic. For this reason I like to add a few regular expressions that pick up source = facebook, twitter, and t.co just in case.
Email Medium exactly matches email This is where tagging standards and protocols come into play. If you're tagging your links with multiple variations of email, i.e. eNewsletter, enl, e-mail, and Email, they will NOT appear within this default channel.
Affiliates Medium exactly matches affiliate This is a default channel that I personally haven't seen much, mostly due to the lack of marketing knowledge around it. Generally marketing departments use "affiliate" and "referral" interchangably.
Referral Medium exactly matches referral If we bring the knowledge we have from the Direct channel grouping, we can apply that Google Analytics KNOWS the referral source (if one exists) from Request-URI. Hence, if there is a value for referral but no other tagging, the traffic is bucketed here. This can be a big source of non-tagged traffic.
Paid Search Medium matches regex ^(cpc|ppc|paidsearch)$


Ad Distribution Network does not exactly match Content
This seems pretty straightforward, but I want to point out that Google defines cpc (cost-per-click) as search traffic. This is because inherently a user searching for your content will be given the ad of highest bidder, and the cost is attributed to a more 'interested' user. This is a very unique type of traffic, a very interested user, and therefore the bidding structure.
Other Advertising Medium matches regex ^(cpv|cpa|cpp|content-text)$ Again, Google likes to bucket these types of visits by the interest level of the user, or the optimization metrics used when serving the ads. Here, the users that are served optimized ads by cpa (cost per acquisition) are going to be much better performing users on the website, and therefore deserve their own channel.
Display Medium matches regex ^(display|cpm|banner)$


Ad Distribution Network exactly matches Content
This is probably the least interested user that is shown an ad - a passive user. Because these ads are bid and bought just for impressions (cpm), the user will be much less likely to actually visit the site and convert. Obviously they get their own channel.

Moving Beyond the Basics

Due to all the things we just read, you need to make absolutely certain you know what your traffic sources are before you start re-grouping them or adding new channels. That means understanding how your customers interact with them on a high-level. If you group display ads with search ads, your conversion rate will get skewed way lower than it should be.

A couple things I generally do when beginning to update a client's Google Analytics is to review how much traffic is coming from the Direct and Referral channels. This usually indicates a lot of marketing materials aren't tagged, unless the website is a very well-known URL, like google.com. Chances are, it's not.

Within the Referral channel, you will be able to find the url of the referral source, and you can backtrack to the link and add utm parameters for proper attribution. This may mean adding utm_medium=affiliate depending on your association with website, or it could truly be an unavoidable referral. (Like when someone links to you in their personal social content.) However, in my experience I usually clean up about half of the referral traffic and re-direct it to it's appropriate channel.

You also have the ability to add a new Default Channel Group, such as Social Paid. This is helpful when you are serving display ads within a social network, and want to identify the traffic independently from the display channel traffic. (To do this you could add source containing Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn AND the medium is cpm. See diagram below.) And this type of channel would makes complete sense, as Facebook display ads probably have different user-interaction levels than a typical display network.

One final thing to remember: Order Matters. What I mean is that Google Analytics will begin checking your Channel groupings one at a time, from top to bottom. If a you have both a Social and Paid Social channel grouping, you'll want to put the Paid Social ABOVE the Social. Otherwise the Paid Social ad traffic would get lumped into the Social channel since it DOES match the requirements.

Final Thoughts

Understanding Default Channel groupings within Google Analytics is one of the most important things you can do - especially since it's such a valuable report. Take the time to get it right and your website reports will benefit greatly.

Until next time,
Happy Analyzing!