Why do ad clicks not match up with Google Analytics data?

This is a question I get just about every week. Someone has an advertising distributor that charges by and reports by clicks. Those clicks don’t match up to the number in Google Analytics. Much worry ensues.

Here’s my standard answer on this topic, it covers most sitatuations:


Ad clicks and GA data:

Differences between clicks and what shows up in GA often can be accounted for in the following ways (in order of how I most often see them):

  1. Make sure the timeframes are the same and that they do not include the present day (GA can have a 24 hr lag in number crunching and thus underreport if comparing with current-day-included click data).
  2. Different measures: for lead gen businesses I typically measure Users. Click data is more closely matched to Sessions. A single User could, in theory, click an ad multiple times resulting in multiple clicks but only one User.
  3. Clicks are measured at the ad distributor’s site. Users/sessions are measured at your website by GA once the page has loaded enough to get the GA script. In theory, people can click an ad and decide to bail before your page loads enough to run the script. In these cases, a click will be measured by the ad distributor but no users/sessions will be measured by GA. Sites with slow load times are especially at risk for this situation; users lack patience for the page to load.
  4. Humans clicking ads twice because of the urge to double click everything. Not much to do here, but it will result in more ad clicks than sessions/users. This tends to be a constant level of noise across the internet.
  5. Old fashioned bot-driven click fraud. GA will not record data about spiders and bots as a user or a session. Some ad systems will register clicks from bots. This is pretty rare. I include mostly for completeness.

Dealing with the difference between ad reporting and GA reporting:

There are a few things that can be done to help with this. One is to make a dashboard that gives you sessions data so you can compare that more easily with clicks.

Another, if the difference is still great, is to simply evaluate the performance of the campaign based on the data in GA. So take the ad spend and distribute it by the actual users or sessions that arrive on site. Be certain to let your ad representative know that this is how you are evaluating performance. This is a good practice regardless, though it does require a spreadsheet.

The clicks are ultimately not the important thing. Ad sellers want you to think about the clicks because that is what they sell. They want to sell you traffic because that’s all they can do. For lead gen businesses, like like most b2b and many b2c businesses like real estate or main street businesses, you want to buy the opportunity to shake someone’s hand.

The best way to stay focused on what’s important for your business is to assemble the data in a way that is meaningful for your own goals. It’s a little bit of sausage-making and inevitably involves some manual labor.

Doing this work helps to answer the real question which is: How much money does an email address cost from this ad distributor? If we do this for each of our different efforts we can discover which is providing the most value per dollar. That knowledge can then be used to inform decisions about ad spends etc.

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