Anyone who manages PPC accounts has likely come across at least one tracking or attribution issue which results in inaccurate conversion data in their analytics and advertising platforms. Not only is this irritating in that it usually results in the value of PPC being underrepresented, it also makes account optimisation very difficult or even impossible.

In many cases, tracking issues are caused by a particular problem with website or Analytics setup which can be solved once diagnosed. In the modern digital landscape, however, there are many factors which make attribution more difficult that are not so easily overcome. This blog will outline the key stumbling blocks and outline some methods for optimising accounts when faced with them.

Me, on the phone to Google Support

The Problems

Ever-Increasing Tracking Protection

One of the biggest topics in digital marketing over the last year has been updates to tracking protection launched by various browsers including Safari, Firefox, and to a lesser extent even Chrome. Without going into great detail on how the changes work (the above links should be sufficient), some browsers now block use of third-party cookies by default, with Safari even limiting the lifetime of first-party cookies to 7 days. 

This initially seems like a nightmare for advertisers, especially as it’s fair to assume that online privacy will continue to grow as a user priority. As most current ad attribution methods rely on first-party cookies, widespread adoption of a 7 day lifetime would make long lookback windows impossible. This would be incredibly damaging to advertisers with typically long conversion windows, particularly ecommerce businesses with high-value products. Any touchpoints in a user’s conversion pathway before the 7 day window would be ignored by the attribution model. Brand awareness and engagement campaigns are likely to be particularly affected by this.

Me again, after ITP 2.1 dropped

While such possibilities seem scary, it’s important to remember that this isn’t the end of attribution as we know it. A huge amount of conversions take place within a 7 day window for many advertisers, and even for those that don’t, attribution models will still work within the 7 days. We won’t be forced to rely purely on last interaction data. Even so, ignoring the impact of increasing tracking protection would be unwise.

Multi-Channel Conversions

In the current digital climate, it’s becoming increasingly rare for conversions to happen in a single channel. To meaningfully reach users, advertisers must catch their attention at every point of the funnel. While this isn’t a problem in itself, as most of us are well-equipped to run campaigns across platforms targeting users at different stages of intent, there is of course the potential that users will eventually convert through a non-paid channel. This causes the contribution of PPC to be underrepresented; users may have clicked multiple ads on different platforms before eventually converting organically.

The vast majority of advertisers will already be aware of this issue and know of the methods available to demonstrate the true contribution of PPC. However, these methods aren’t necessarily foolproof – the second half of this post will explain one way in which you can report your value as accurately as possible.

Offline Conversions

Most businesses, with the exception of pure ecommerce, will take in at least a fraction of sales offline, whether this be over the phone or in-store. This is often very difficult to attribute to online channels. While some fairly sophisticated call tracking solutions exist, they can be expensive and rely on sales staff to input the outcome of the call into their software. This means that businesses can be reluctant or slow to implement such solutions and as such these sales are not accurately attributed. The same can be true of in-store sales in cases where the customer was led to the store from online advertising.

This can be especially harmful to businesses whose products are high value. One of our clients here at Impression takes so many phone orders that in some months as little as 20% of total revenue comes through their website despite not having a brick and mortar store. Due to only basic call tracking and the clients overall goals, we have found a way of working with them that makes difficult attribution much less of a problem. The second half of this post will outline this in greater detail and explain how there may be value in adopting such a method for even more clients in the future.

The Solutions

Be Smart With Use Of Attribution Models & Windows

There’s no ideal workaround to better tracking protection, although that’s not to say that browsers won’t develop a solution which respects privacy while allowing more detailed attribution. But with due consideration of your business’/client’s conversion window and what attribution settings will work best for them in light of recent changes, you can mitigate the negative impact of tracking protection. 

The first thing to ensure without fail is that your tracking doesn’t rely on third-party cookies. Most advertisers will already have this in place for Google platforms by now, but in case you don’t, read this blog by our own Lauren Capon for three ways to do so. Other platforms have also adapted to this, with Facebook Pixel cookies now being first-party by default alongside Bing UET cookies.

The next step is to confirm that your attribution model/window matches your account’s needs as best as possible. Those managing accounts with high order values and longer conversion funnels need to bear in mind that users are likely to be close to the point of conversion within the 7 day attribution window, which will probably give brand a much greater weighting. Therefore, setting attribution windows to 7 days and using a model which gives more weight to early interactions in this period may help to mitigate this somewhat. This is far from an ideal solution, but makes the best of a difficult situation.

Tracking and attribution in 2019

Monitor Assisted Conversions

PPC doesn’t always result in direct conversions, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t contributed to conversions in the long run. Even in cases where a client takes all of their sales through their website, PPC can be undervalued when assisted conversions are not taken into account. Monitoring these is essential for understanding the true contribution of PPC to your accounts.

The quickest way to do this is simply to check the Assisted Conversions report in Google Analytics – this can be found in Conversions > Multi-Channel Funnels > Assisted Conversions. From here, you can segment data by campaign either by adding campaign as a secondary dimension, or changing the data type to Google Ads only. This allows you to understand the overall impact of each of your campaigns individually, which is particularly important for low-intent awareness campaigns.

It’s also possible to create custom Supermetrics reports which automatically update, enabling you to monitor assisted conversions very easily on a daily basis – watch this space for an upcoming blog post on how to do so!

Explaining assisted conversions for the 10th time this week

Optimise Based On The Bigger Picture

In some cases, it’s extremely difficult or impractical to accurately attribute all of your account’s conversions, making it difficult to track the effectiveness of campaigns. For example, clients with a lot of phone sales that cannot implement sophisticated call tracking may appear to have a lot of campaigns without any sales attributed to them, when in actual fact these ads have driven a phone call at a later date or store visit which has led to a sale. Standard PPC practice would suggest that such campaigns should be paused, or budget distributed elsewhere, but this may in fact stifle overall sales in such cases. 

One of our clients at Impression suffers from this problem across their entire account. When we first took on the account, some of the decisions we made based on performance in the Google Ads account caused sales to drop quite drastically year-on-year because we were making cuts to campaigns which were driving offline sales. After becoming aware of this issue, our decision was to ignore the conversions we saw in Google Ads and Analytics, and focus on the client’s bigger picture. Most of all, the client was concerned with spending 9% or less of their total monthly revenue on advertising. Rather than attempt to force this target to fit Google Ads, we asked the client to update us with daily sales figures across their key departments (around which our campaigns were structured) as often as possible. We then began to optimise the account to drive more traffic than the previous year with the lowest CPCs possible, and soon found that overall revenue picked up due to the increased exposure. Spending was within the 9% of revenue and the client was happy.

Later, we found that revenue dipped soon after we’d made some minor bid reductions to some high spending shopping products. We asked the client for a list of their top 500 selling products, and found that the products we’d cut back on were some of their best sellers across the entire business. Following this, we added custom labels to our shopping campaigns based on how well products had sold in the sheet sent to us by the client, and restructured bids around this. Revenue subsequently picked up while cost dropped.

The above is not intended to be a brag (although we are pretty good at this PPC thing). It intends to demonstrate that most clients will be happiest when their business is doing well overall, regardless of how well PPC performs individually. It’s very important that PPC activity doesn’t operate in a vacuum, especially given the current digital landscape in which attribution and tracking may become increasingly difficult. Aligning PPC activity based on overall goals of the business is an effective strategy, even when it may not seem to be the case in the conversions column of their advertising platforms.

Summary

Here’s the TL;DR version for those of you who couldn’t struggle through the previous 1,500 words.

Problems

  1. Tracking is getting more difficult and this is only likely to continue due to user demand for better online privacy
  2. Without tracking multi-channel conversions PPC is likely being undervalued
  3. Offline conversions mean that PPC activity is all too often segregated from the overall goals of the business

Solutions

  1. Use the attribution models and windows which are appropriate for your business
  2. Monitor assisted conversions in Google Analytics as much as possible
  3. When tracking and attribution are exceptionally difficult, optimise accounts based on the business’ bigger picture – PPC doesn’t operate in a vacuum!

If you have any thoughts or ideas on tracking and attribution (or just want to vent) please leave a comment below!

Luke Northbrooke

PPC Analyst

I'm a PPC Analyst helping clients achieve better ROAS through highly optimised paid search and social. The not so proud holder of the title of Impression's worst ping pong partner

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