Google Analytics Goals VS AdWords Conversion Pixels

Grant Marlowe - December 23, 2016

Welcome to the big leagues! The Analytics hot shots! If you are interested in this article it means you are asking yourself some fairly advanced web analytics questions and you should reward yourself with a pat on the back just for reading these lines. What is the difference between using Google Analytics Goals to measure a conversion versus using, let’s say, a Google AdWords Conversion Pixel? Asking this question suggests you are well on the way to becoming an analytics samurai!

The reason for this praise is due to the way it requires us to think as analysts and marketers who need to make the most informed business decisions with our budgets. It means that you are thinking about a cornerstone in the web analytics space, and that is, proper channel attribution. The way in which you attribute your websites conversions determines what strategies you continue to cultivate, and which get abandoned. This is why it is so crucial to understand the way credit is assigned based on the different platform configurations.

To keep things clean, simple and straightforward we will highlight the major differences between the two most common conversion scoring methods, Google Analytics Goals and Google AdWords Conversion Pixels.

Google Analytics Goals

Goals in Google Analytics (GA) make things incredibly easy to track. GA offers an array of goal ‘types’ from URL based to Time Duration. You can even configure custom Events as Goals. The beauty with Goals is the ability to define and create them all within the GA interface. No coding necessary. Do you have a Thank You page users see when they complete a conversion? Trigger it as a Goal in Google Analytics without editing a single HTML file.

The drawback to using Google Analytics standard reporting model is that because it is built on a Last-Non-Direct-Click attribution model, 100% of credit for a Goal Completion is given to the Channel that the converting user arrived to your site on (as long as it was not Direct.) This means that if you’re running Paid Search efforts and the user clicks on your paid advertisement, and then returns to the site later via Organic Search and triggers your Goal, 100% of the conversion is attributed to Organic Search and Paid Search gets no love at all. (Not cool, man.)

Google AdWords Conversion Pixel

AdWords Conversion Pixels attribute conversions in a slightly different way. They are just a bit more territorial than GA Goals and so they assign conversion credit back to AdWords, regardless of at what point in the conversion cycle AdWords assisted. So, one quick example would be if the user arrives to your site via Email Marketing, returns to the site by way of AdWords, and then proceeds to return to the site four times through Organic Search before finally converting…AdWords says “Hey, we played a role in this conversion, we get the credit” and your AdWords reports would increment by one, for that particular conversion.

Now, if this model feels like the better option for your business, there are a few things to keep in mind:

  1. In order to collect conversion data in AdWords you need to physically add the conversion pixel to the website’s source code. Whether adding directly to the site or deploying through a tag management system, the conversion pixel script needs to be placed on the website in order to begin tracking conversions.
  2. Remember earlier discussing the different ways to define a conversion within Google Analytics: Time Based, Pages Viewed & Custom Events? Well those options are not available when working with the AdWords Conversion Pixel. Only firing when a specific URL is loaded is a conversion recorded in the AdWords UI.
  3. The lookback window is set to 30 days by default for AdWords conversions. Meaning that if a visitor arrived to the website via AdWords on day 1, did not convert, and then returned on day 31 via Organic Search, AdWords gets no credit. (This lookback window can manually be stretched as far back as 90 days, but this is not the standard setting.)

As a result of understanding the nuances surrounding how these systems assign credit, you may come to find that you use GA reporting for some KPIs, and AdWords reporting for others. Both models clearly have their pros and cons. Oftentimes, there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ technique that can be used to determine the best choice for your business. However, the important thing is to understand the basis for each attribution model, how they differ, and how that, in turn, can impact your reporting numbers. Once this is clear to you, it can lead to improved data analysis and better tools for making business decisions!

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