online media tracking discrepancies

Diagnosing Media Tracking Discrepancies

Anyone who has tracked an online media campaign with Google Analytics or another website analytics provider has likely come across a noteworthy discrepancy in how many clicks are reported from media vendors vs. how many visitors are reported by Google.

“My online ad vendor says they delivered 904 clicks, but Google Analytics is only showing 817 visits from their campaign. What gives?”

If this scenario is all too real for you and you think you are all alone, you are not. Before succumbing to stress or wrongfully accusing your media vendor of “padding” the numbers, let’s first seek to understand the potential culprits behind media tracking discrepancies.

Some Discrepancy is Normal

If you find that clicks reported by your media vendor match exactly with what analytics is providing, stop what you are doing, kiss the keyboard and pay homage to the media analytics gods. This is highly uncommon and almost never happens. Even clicks reported by Google Adwords are likely to differ from what Google Analytics gives you. It’s downright nutty.

Due to several factors listed below, a 7 to 10% discrepancy is normal. And the reported click numbers are usually higher than what Google Analytics reports. Here’s why:

  • Media vendors typically report clicks. Analytics reports visits. Multiple clicks on the same ad may be registered as a single visit.
  • Partial page loads may deliver the appropriate experience to the visitor, but the analytics script may never fire. This is common for visitors with low visit durations or those on mobile browsers and others with slow connection speeds.
  • Sometimes the audience has adjusted their browser settings to disable tracking script. In this instance, the click will be registered, but the visit to your site probably will not.

If your discrepancy is much greater than 10%, you have a media tracking issue.

Steps to Resolve

clue board gameDiagnosing media tracking discrepancies is a lot like the board game, Clue. You have to turn over a few cards before you deduce that the killer was Mr. Green in the Library with the rope (although I never trusted that Professor Plum creep).

Here are some potential moves, ordered from simple to most complex, to help you pinpoint the ad tracking glitch.

The Easy Stuff

First, ask yourself these questions and double triple check that the answer is “yes.”

  1. Is your Google Analytics tracking script appropriately placed on your intended landing page and firing as it should?
  2. Did you append your URLs with campaign tracking code? Hint: use the Google URL Builder or build your own concatenating spreadsheet.
  3. Are you using the correct report/filter/advanced segment in Google Analytics to measure campaign success? Hint: if tagged correctly you can typically go right to the “Acquisition > Campaigns” report in Google Analytics.

Related to #2 above, all of your campaign URLs should look similar to this:

Chances are you can check all these items off your list. Onward…

Next Level Up

Sometimes there can be an issue with the URL used for your campaign. If possible, find your campaign’s ad in the wild or have your media vendor provide an example of where it is served. When clicked, does the URL direct the audience to the correct page and does the campaign tracking code (from the URL builder referenced above) actually show in the browser’s URL bar?

If you are using any vanity URLs that redirect, be sure that the link provided to your vendor ultimately sends the site visitor to a URL string that includes the tracking script. If you appended the vanity URL with tracking script, it’s probably going to redirect before Google Analytics can recognize the campaign tracking.

Do you campaign URLs all work properly? Check, check? OK — the next and final step up is where it might get weird.

Media Server Related

It’s important to know that many media providers and vendors utilize ad servers. Most ad servers have no issue with handling tracking code-appended campaign URLs and the majority have been dummy-proofed for Google Analytics compatibility.

If you have checked all the boxes to this point, the problem probably resides with the media vendor or the ad server they utilize. Here’s a few things that could happen.

  • The media vendor’s ad server is inexplicably stripping your tracking code.
  • The media vendor might be using some tracking script of their own that conflicts or overwrites your code.
  • The campaign URLs provided were poorly or incorrectly implemented by the media vendor.

If the issue lies somewhere in this area, I highly recommend contacting the media vendor to map out the ad serving process. Don’t be shy – it is in their best interest to help you solve the measurement errors to secure future insertions/buys.

Some More Discrepancy Diagnosis Tips

  • Check All Your Channels – Are you seeing measurement issues with just one media vendor or all of them. If more then one vendor is providing faulty numbers, the issue is likely with the code you provided or on your landing pages.
  • Conduct Ad Server Mapping – Prior to engaging with a media vendor or launching a campaign, map out how ads are served to various placements as a proactive measure. This process will help you plan how tracking code should be implemented and how to quickly diagnose issues when they arise.
  • Get Specific with Tracking Parameters – Use a standard naming convention for your campaign IDs that references campaign, placement, and creative (e.g. utm_campaign=CAMPAIGN_PLACEMENT_CREATIVE or utm_campaign=HolidaySale_Yahoo_728x90Rudolph). Taking this extra step from the start might save you some time when determining where the issue lives. For example, if you can quickly see that your 728×90 “Rudolph” Leaderboard has a higher tracking discrepancy than any other creative used in the campaign, you can start diagnosis there immediately.

Please know that tracking discrepancies are fairly normal. When trying to find the root cause of a media tracking issue, please know that there might be more than one guilty party. The problem could actually be a combination of circumstances that is not allowing Google to track with greater precision.