Why are my transactions coming from Direct or Referral in Google Analytics with no marketing attribution?

Shopping behavior

Connecting marketing data with sales data is an age-old problem, and the crowded digital landscape has made this even more complicated.

Google Analytics is supposed to give you the power to attribute sales (or purchase transactions) back to marketing campaigns, but this doesn’t happen automatically.

Note: Frustrated by data mismatches in Shopify analytics <> Google Analytics? There’s a guide for that! Learn how you can reconcile your data mismatches automatically

The good news is that it’s entirely possible to get the right marketing channel attribution for sales activities.

Accurate marketing attribution starts with the right Google Analytics (GA) setup. Start by asking yourself the following troubleshooting questions:

  • Have you got a large enough sample to compare data?
  • Is the tracking script set up on your purchase confirmation page?
  • Do you have a cross-domain tracking problem?
  • Is your marketing campaign tagging complete?
  • (For subscription stores) Are you looking at only first-time payments?
  • Are you marketing mostly via offline campaigns, word of mouth marketing or mobile apps?

These steps will help you figure out if your Google Analytics setup is correct, and how to use GA to get a complete view of user behaviour. A trustworthy GA setup takes a bit of work, but with a smart analytics dashboard like Littledata, much of that work can be automated.

In fact, steps 1 through 4 can be checked automatically with our free Google Analytics audit tool.

First things first: are you checking the right report? The best way to see marketing attribution is in the ‘Channels’ report in Google Analytics, under the ‘Acquisition’ section:

Acquisition channel report in Google Analytics

Do you have a large enough sample size to compare data?

Firstly, can you be sure the sales are representative? If you only have two sales, and both are ‘Direct’, that could be a fluke.

We recommend selecting a long enough time period to look at more than 50 transactions before judging, as with this example:

Acqusition channel report in Google Analytics

Is the tracking script set up on your purchase confirmation page?

It you are getting some transactions recorded, but not 100%, then it may be possible to optimise the actual tracking script setup. See our technical guide to ecommerce tracking.

This can be a particular problem if many of your sales are on mobile, since slower page load speeds on mobile may be blocking the tracking script more often.

Do you have a cross-domain tracking problem?

If you see many of your sales under Referral, and when you click through the list of referrers it includes payment gateways (e.g. mybank.com or shopify.com), that is a tell-tale sign you have a cross-domain problem.

This means that when the buyer is referred back from the payment domain (e.g. paypal.com), their payment is not linked with the original session.

Tip: Did you know you can track your customers’ PayPal orders in Google Analytics?

This is almost always a problem for Shopify stores, which is why our Shopify app is essential for accurate tracking.

Is your marketing campaign tagging complete?

For many types of campaign (Facebook, email, etc.), unless you tag the link with correct UTM parameters, the source of the purchaser will not be tracked.

So if a user clicks on an untagged Facebook Ad link on their Facebook mobile app (which is where 80 – 90% of Facebook users engage) then the source of their visit will be ‘Direct’ (not Social).

Untagged email campaigns are a particular issue if you run abandoned cart / basket emails, as these untagged links will be ‘stealing’ the sales which should be attributed to whatever got the buyer to add to cart.

Tagging is a real problem for Instagram, since currently the profile link is shown in full – and looks really messy if you include all the UTM parameters.

We recommend using a service like Bitly to redirect to your homepage (or an Instagram landing page). i.e. The link redirects to yoursite.com?utm_medium=social&utm_source=instragram&utm_campaign=profile_link.

Check out Caitlin Brehm’s guide to Instagram links.

Are you looking at only first-time payments? (for Shopify subscription stores)

Tracking the source of recurring payments is impossible, if the tracking setup was incorrect at the time of the first payment. Unfortunately, you can’t change Google Analytics retrospectively.

So if you are using our ReCharge integration, and you want to track lifetime value, you will have to be patient for a few months as data from the correct tracking builds up.

Tip: Here’s a guide to calculating LTV in Google Analytics for your subscription store

Is most of your marketing via offline campaigns, word of mouth or mobile apps?

It could be that your sales really are ‘direct’:

  • If a buyer types in the URL from a business card or flyer, that is ‘Direct’. The only way to change this is to use a link shortener to redirect to a tagged-up link (see point 4 above).
  • If a user pastes a link to your product in WhatsApp, that is ‘Direct’.
  • If a user sees your product on Instagram and clicks on the profile link, that is ‘Direct’.

See any further issues (including the ones above) that are causing your marketing attribution to be incorrect in GA? We can help!

Get in touch with our team of Google Analytics consultants here.

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This is a guest post by Patrick Rauland, co-founder of the Lift Off Summit, a

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