GOOGLE ANALYTICS DEFAULT SETTING SKEWS 20% OF YOUR CONVERSION DATA! HERE’S HOW TO FIX IT.
Have you ever heard of Campaign timeout setting within Google Analytics? Almost no one has and it is skewing most of your
data. Let’s have a look at the problem and how can we fix it.
What is Google Analytics Campaign timeout?
Google gives a very vague definition and explanation of what Campaign timeout (and Session timeout) are:
The default length of time for a session or campaign. An individual session or campaign for a given user ends after the amount of
time specified here has passed (counting from the start of the session or campaign), so long as the session or campaign has not
been stopped through another means.
Let me spare you the trouble and put this into words that most people will understand.
What it means is that whenever a user comes to your site directly, but they had come to your site previously from another
non-direct source (like organic, cpc, or referral), if the first session happened within the time window specified by Campaign
Timeout, then medium and source of the direct visit (or visits) will be overwritten.
You’ve read that right: they will all be overwritten.
By default Campaign Timeout is set for a six months window. Yes, six months!
All clear? No. OK. Let me give you a specific example.
If someone came to your website via a search ad in January and then again directly once each month in February, March,
April and May, instead of one paid ad session and four direct sessions, Google Analytics will show five paid ad sessions in
all reports except one.
Instead of one paid ad session and four direct sessions, Google Analytics will show
five paid ad sessions.
Is Google being evil?
The setting by itself is neither good nor bad. It’s just a different way of evaluating a performance of your campaigns. A look
that favours non-direct touchpoints over direct ones.
The problem most businesses have with it is:
1. exists in the first place,
2. it is set as default,
3. it has been skewing results of their campaigns from day one.
The lack of transparency from Google is the reason why most marketers and analysts are outraged. It’s like dating someone
for months only to find out that they don’t really own a Yacht in Monaco.
It’s like dating someone for months only to find out that don’t really own a Yacht in Monaco.
Can we blame them for having such feelings? Changing the source and medium in all revenue reports (outside of the specific
Attribution reports) without giving an explanation is not being truthful. The only place you can find any information from Google
For example it says that you should “Set the campaign timeout handling to the same amount of time the campaign is going to
run or expected to be relevant. Clicks to a social media micro-campaign might not be relevant for more than a few days after
What should one think about such advice given that it is a property-wide setting that cannot be set-up for different campaigns
Ok, so how bad is it really?
From our experience, once our clients change the setting to normal (meaning to 4 hours which is the shortest time-interval
possible), the participation of direct channel on conversions (or revenue) goes up by 20–30 percentage points.
Bellow you can see two Acquisition Report results from an e-commerce retailer for the same time period with all Google
Analytics settings except Campaign Timeout remaining the same.
As you can see, the participation of Google / cpc goes from 20% (with 4 hours Campaign timeout window) to 27,8% (with 6
months timeout window) – a whooping 40% increase in the performance of the channel. Which consequently is going to also
influence all metrics that you are evaluating with the help of Google Analytics data, including CPA and ROI.
Same account, same time period. Source/medium share of traffic with Campaign Timeout set to 4 hours (left) and to the default
6 months (right).
The participation of direct on conversions (transactions) goes down from 41,6% to 17,2%. All of that credit is redistributed to
other channels like facebook / social, google / organic or email with most of them “improving” their performance by 50–100%.
Take a closer look at the true numbers.
Campaign Timeout 4 hours
Campaign Timeout 6 months
Why is the Campaign timeout setting even there?
Google of course will never comment on the topic. But think about it: the vast majority of Alphabet’s income still comes from its
advertising business (85,8% as of Q3 2018).
At the same time, the majority of advertisers are SMBs who are far from being sophisticated with analytics tools and take the
results presented to them at face value.
To these users, this Campaign timeout setting artificially inflates the ROI of search and other campaigns by double digit
This Campaign timeout setting setting artificially inflates the ROI of search and other
campaigns by double digit percentage points.
Is this a good thing?
Before you start telling that distributing direct visits to other sources is actually a good thing because the insights become more
actionable as you have much more sway in influencing what’s going on in those channels, ponder this:
There is another very easy way to do this in Google Analytics. Within Attribution, you can easily switch between Last Interaction
and Last Click non-direct Models (among others) which essentially does the same thing.
It does so at a place where you would expect it and the Google help text is actually very transparent and helpful in explaining
Taken together, if the only motive of Google was to give us a tool to model out where the credit from direct visits should go to,
it wouldn’t need this behind-our-back Campaign timeout setting.
How does this tie into Multi-touch Attribution?
The biggest sin of the approach Google has chosen is that it overwrites the source of the visit. Therefore, if you don’t upgrade
to Google Analytics 360, which most businesses never will, you will not be able to access the raw data through Google BigQuery.
You will never be able to see which visit sources were overwritten and never be able to see your true data.
The source of sessions are artificially overwritten and there’s no telling of which and how
many were changed. Which in turn affects all your attribution efforts.
So, no matter which attribution model you choose to examine your customer journeys with within Google Analytics – being it last
click, first click, linear or time decay – they are all going to work with data that has been artificially changed.
The biggest problem that follows is that you cannot seriously work with different attribution models until you solve this data
problem. Very much the same way you shouldn’t be a judge in a beauty contest until you fix your vision first.
How to solve the Campaign timeout setting problem? ✅
The most obvious solution would be to immediately go and change that setting from six months to the shortest possible
interval – which is four hours.
But hang on a minute.
If you do that, you will see a sudden drop in performance of all paid campaigns. It will throw all KPIs you have set up with
agencies and/or channel managers on your team into disarray.
And they will hate you for that.
Option n. 1: Run a paralel Google Analytics property ✔️
A smarter way to go around this is to set up a new property within Google Analytics with exactly the same settings as your
original, with one notable exception: length of the Campaign timeout. Then run both of them in parallel.
Campaign Timeout setting can be found in Admin > Tracking Info > Session Settings > Campaign timeout.
Option n. 2: Get a paid web analytics product ✔️✔️
Option n. 3: Get serious about attribution ✔️✔️✔️
Your third option is then to implement an attribution solution that uses its own measurement to track and classify multiple
touchpoints independently on Google Analytics 😉
Why, Google, why?!
Don’t ever forget that Google Analytics is a free product. Google is not making money off it directly, so it has to make them
Back in the pioneering days of digital marketing, Google Analytics allowed most advertisers an easy way to measure results
of their online activities. It played a historical role in giving data to millions of businesses which ultimately brought them ad
For one reason or another though, providing an accurate measurement somehow wasn’t enough for Google. They decided
they needed to show the results in a somewhat better light. Like this, Google was „stealing“ direct sessions that advertiser
would be inclined to attribute to offline and brand campaigns for the online industry.
Everybody in digital marketing was a benefactor of this but Google by far the largest one.
Google brought the trust and ad dollars of millions of businesses into digital. But at what
cost to its credibility?
The question then remains: Can you ever trust Google again?
You be the judge.
The only thing we would recommend is that next time Google is pitching you an awesome accurate free product such as their
most recent offer with Google Attribution, remember how they’ve kept everyone in the dark about Campaign timeout for a
Trusting your ad spend decisions to black-box algorithms – which most attribution vendors are – is daring enough. Trusting it
to a black box of a company that has a history of pulling your leg is a whole different game.
Further reading on the topic:
Understanding Sessions Campaign Timeout Settings in Google Analytics by Optimizesmart
Direct Traffic In Google Analytics And Last Non-Direct Click Attribution by Bounteous (formerly Luna Metrics)
Google Analytics Does What?! by Bluemoondigital
This reply on Quora by David Jurelius