In Part I, we explained why analytic tools like Google Analytics (GA) are naturally imperfect. To recap: (1) GA’s programming isn’t perfect and neither is the data fed to it, and (2) GA still provides workable insight because its inaccuracies happen in a consistent way.
For Part II here, we’ll explain three common sources of GA inaccuracy that are beyond your control. The point is not to frustrate you with this information; the point is that illuminating what you CAN’T control will give you a clearer context for what you CAN control, which we’ll cover in Part III.
Without further adieu, three uncontrollable causes of analytic inaccuracy:
#1 — Cross-browser traffic. This is a good place to start because we’re all innocent participants in this behavior, yet the problem it creates for GA is clear.
Let’s say you’re browsing Facebook on your computer, you get served an ad, and (whaddya know) you decide to click it and browse a while. The next day, you decide to buy from the advertiser, but you use your phone instead of your computer (for any number of reasons).
It’s true: this counts as a sale regardless of how you got here. But it’s also true that GA’s attribution will be inaccurate, and we know this because (A) the Facebook ad was indeed the original cause for your purchase, yet (B) you’ve severed the trackable link between the ad and your purchase, making attribution to ads impossible. (Most likely, the attribution would be Direct—if you went straight to the store on your phone—or Organic Search, if you used Google to find the store again.)
This problem might be solvable in theory, but not in practical reality. For now, Google Analytics simply won’t be able to close this gap (however small it is).
#3 — Dark traffic. Not a good thing, but at least it’s not as bad as other things starting with Dark (like night, magic, or Side). Dark traffic is, put simply, traffic that Google mislabels as direct—and it’s called “dark traffic” because it’s unclear where it’s actually coming from. (Though, in general, we know that dark traffic can come from URLs within emails, links on social, secure sites starting with HTTPS, mobile apps, and a bunch of other places.)
Just to refresh: “direct traffic” means that a visitor got to a page on your site by typing something directly into the URL bar. Direct traffic is supposed to be kinda special, like the web-browsing equivalent of memorizing someone’s phone number (at least far enough for your phone to finish it for you)—but dark traffic kinda screws that up for us.
There are ways of estimating your dark traffic, which might be relevant information—but we still include this problem in the “Beyond Your Control” group because being able to measure something is different from being able to change it (Heisenberg be damned).