Why AdWords and Analytics Don't Match

By Eric Couch | @ecouch11 | Account Manager at Bing Ads

In PPC, we live and die by our data.  We make recommendations, optimizations, additions, and subtractions all based on the analysis and interpretation of actionable statistics.  Millions upon millions of dollars can hang in the balance based on every change we make.  With stakes that high, then, it can be incredibly frustrating and/or terrifying when confronted with the idea that your data might not be correct.

Specifically, I’m referring to the common scenario when AdWords and Analytics don’t match up.  Normally, these two are designed to play nicely with one another under Google’s wide umbrella.  However, there are times when the two services have been known to disagree with one another – leading to sleepless nights, hair loss, and a general questioning of one’s core beliefs for many Account Managers (or maybe just for me).

Regardless, here are a few potential causes for your Analytics and AdWords-based infighting:


1.  AdWords and Analytics Aren’t Linked

A bit basic, yes – but it’s also important to be sure.  As a refresher, the process for linking up your Analytics account with AdWords is located here.  It’s important to note that if your accounts aren’t linked, your CPC visits will be listed as “google/organic” – leading to a major discrepancy in your AdWords clicks vs. Analytics visitor data.  In addition, you’ll need to enable auto-tagging (or manually tag your links, your call) and import your cost data to see the full range of your campaign data in Analytics.

Similarly, if you’re one of the unfortunate souls who’ve linked up an incorrect or outdated account, simply follow these steps to get back on track.


2.  The Analytics Code Isn’t Correctly Installed

I’m no coder – but there are a few things to keep in mind when you install the Google Analytics tracking code (the process of generating and placing the code is detailed here) on your landing pages.  Depending on where you’ve placed your code (i.e., if you’ve placed it outside of the header tag), script errors on your page may prevent the code from firing properly – leading to more data discrepancies.

In this scenario, it’s also possible that the visitor may bounce (click on a different link, hit the back button, stop the browser, etc.) before the entire page loads.  AdWords will still register the ad clicks in this case, but without the execution of the Analytics code, no data will be sent to Analytics.  This can happen with both clicks and conversions, so it’s something to keep in mind – follow the recommended placements for your Analytics code!

Note:  If you actually are a coder, you can probably feel free to disregard that last bit.  If you dare.

This is also a good place to note that latency will have an effect on these metrics as well – if your landing page is slow (which already draws the ire of the Quality Score Gods), you’re running the risk of bad data by preventing the Analytics code from working properly via the bounce mentioned up above.  Fast landing pages are happy landing pages.


3.  You Have a Redirect On Your Destination URL

Now we’re getting to the good stuff.  If your destination URL redirects to a different URL, the tracking tags I mentioned so long ago up above are removed.  Without that unique ID appended to the destination URL, Analytics won’t know where the visits came from – leading to yet more data discrepancies between your AdWords and Analytics account.  In this case, you’d have to change the destination URLs in your ads to the redirect URL destination to fix your data.

Similarly, if you’re accidentally sending people to a 404 page, this will also not record a visit in the Analytics interface.  Obviously.


4.  AdWords and Analytics Attribute Conversions Differently

As detailed in this helpful post I found while researching, it’s important to remember that AdWords and Analytics handle conversion attribution differently.  In the example provided in the linked post, the conversion path matters when it comes to Analytics.  The AdWords cookie persists for 30 days after a visitor clicks on your ad, and any transaction made in that time frame will be recorded as a conversion in the AdWords interface, regardless of source.

However, Analytics only cares about the referral information provided at the time of sale.  If a user clicks on your ad and is cookied, but later converts via an email campaign, organic search, or other any method that’s not a PPC ad (save for a bookmark or direct URL visit), then there will be a conversion discrepancy – AdWords would rightly take credit in the interface, but Analytics would attribute it differently based on the referral information used in the transaction.


5.  Clicks and Visits Are Very Different Things

There’s an important distinction to understand when it comes to clicks and visits, helpfully laid out by Google here:

  • Clicks indicate how many times your advertisements were clicked by visitors.
  • Visits are recorded when the Google Analytics tracking code fires on the landing page of your site.

In essence, then, clicks are the raw data of visitors going through to the landing page.  Whether or not the visit is recorded depends entirely on the Analytics code, and the potential issues with that code have been laid out above (code placement, site latency, bounces, redirects, etc.).

Now, as mentioned in the Google post, there are a few reasons why you might see more visits than clicks.  Campaign tracking cookies remain active for six months after a visitor clicks on your ad – so if the user returns to your site within that time frame, a visit is can still be attributed to the correct AdWords campaign, with no corresponding click being recorded.

The next reason had to do with the “gclid” parameter, to which I’ll leave the explanation to Google employee Kat G. from the post above:


“Analytics uses the ‘gclid’ parameter in your Destination URLs in order to identify visits from AdWords ads. The gclid parameter shows up in your landing page URL when a user arrives at your site from your ad. For example, if your site is www.example.com, when a user clicks on your ad it will appear in the address bar as:


If visitors bookmark your website along with the gclid parameter, Analytics will records visits from this bookmark as visits from your AdWords ads. However, AdWords advertisers won’t be charged for these visits since it’s not an actual click on the ad.”


So that’s the long and short of it.  If you’re seeing the same discrepancies in your data, take a look at this list and start troubleshooting!  Or, take a look at the official Google help section here.  Analytics is one of the most valuable tools we have at our disposal, so understanding how it interacts with AdWords, and how it differs from AdWords, is an important topic for every PPC professional.

What are some of your tips for dealing with this issue?  Is it just a ghost in the machine, or a simple misunderstanding between two members of the Google family?  Let us know in the comments, and thanks for reading!