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6 min read

Why you shouldn’t compare Google Analytics and Google Ads conversion data.

It’s a common mistake made and one that can have a considerable impact on how much marketers value paid traffic. This blog aims to explain how conversions are counted in both platforms a why they should be used independently, and not compared. As the title suggests, this blog covers Google Analytics and Google Ads, however other marketing platforms such as Facebook and Bing also work in a similar way.

The simple answer is that it’s related to differences in attribution models, and for the most part, this is true. The complexity arises when these differences are combined through importing conversions. The effects this has and the longer version of this answer can be found below!

Before you start running campaigns, you need to make sure you have your conversion actions tracked. Whether this is product purchases or leads via form submissions, this is how you will monitor performance. The two most common ways to do this (for Google Ads) is by importing conversions from Google Analytics Goals or by using a separate Google Ads conversion tag. Both of these methods are valid ways of tracking conversions but have a key difference that will vastly change how revenue and conversions are reported. To help you choose which method is right for you, we first need to understand how each platform counts conversions, let’s pick them apart!

Google Analytics Conversion Tracking

If you are setting up Google Ads conversion tracking, it’s likely you are already utilising Google Analytics and hopefully goal tracking. This makes it the most common method of tracking conversions inside of Google Ads and the easiest to setup. When using this method, it is important to understand that Google Analytics is multi-channel and attributes conversions to the last non-direct source, regardless of all previous activity. Let’s look at a few multi-channel funnels to illustrate this (light blue is the channel they converted on).

In the three conversion paths above, Google Analytics will only attribute one of them to paid and even though paid clearly played a part in the other two customer journeys, zero credit would be awarded. Whilst this is how conversions will be reported throughout your normal reporting, in Analytics, the ‘Multi-Channel Funnels’ area gives you a variety of tools to get a better understanding of where conversions have come from and the most common conversion paths.

Importing conversions into Google Ads

Now you understand how Google Analytics counts conversions, we can see which ones will be imported into Google Ads and which ones won’t. It is also important to note that changing the attribution model inside of Google Ads, won’t affect which conversions are imported, but only how the value (if tracked) and the conversion itself is distributed within Google Ads. Again, to understand this, let’s look at it visually!

In the first example, the last channel is Direct, and because Google Analytics is last non-direct interaction , the conversion goes to Paid (Search Ad 2) and is imported into Google Ads. At this point, the attribution model you are using comes into play but only takes into account paid interactions. For example, if you were using the linear attribution model, 50% of the conversion would go to ‘Search Ad 1’ and 50% would go to ‘Search Ad 2’.

In the second example, the last non-direct interaction was with a Search Ad, so again, this would be attributed to Paid and imported into Google Ads. If you were using first-click attribution here, 100% of the conversion would go to the ‘Search Ad’ as there are no other paid interactions before it. Again it is important to note that at this point all other channels are disregarded.

In our final example, the last interaction was Organic, and because of this, the conversion is not imported into Google Ads, even though the two previous interactions were both with paid ads. Regardless of what attribution model you have selected inside of Google Ads, this conversion will not be imported.

Key Takeaway: You can’t change the way Google Analytics counts conversions, it is always last non-direct interaction unless you are viewing a Multi-Channel Funnel report. This has a direct impact on which conversions are importing into Google Ads.

Native platform conversion tracking (Google Ads)

In our explanation above, we have gone into depth around how Google Analytics counts conversions and how these are processed when they are imported into Google Ads. Now we can pick apart Google Ads and how the native tracking attributes conversions.

The second way to track conversions inside of Google Ads is by using the native tracking snippet on your website. This can be added manually with the provided code snippet or via Tag Manager (recommended). The tag needs to fire whenever a conversion action is completed such as a form submission or purchase and if applicable, a value tracked.

This method is more involved than importing conversions via Google Analytics, however, it does come with the benefit of allowing you to include view-through conversions in your reporting. View-through conversions are when a user has seen one of your ads, but not clicked on it, and later converted. This is not possible when importing conversions from Google Analytics.

The key difference in using native Google Ads tracking is in how it counts conversions when compared to Google Analytics. Let’s revisit a previous example of three multi-channel conversion funnels.

In this example, every conversion would be attributed to paid search. This is because the native tracking for Google Ads is not aware of any channel other than itself and will just see that a Google Ads interaction at some point within the look-back window, has attributed to a conversion. The specific attribution model selected inside of Google Ads will then be applied to the conversion and the value attributed appropriately.

Key Takeaway: Google Ads isn’t multi-channel and is only aware of itself. If a click led to a conversion, it will track.

Which one should I choose?

There is no right or wrong answer here, the most important thing is to understand how each method tracks conversions and ensuring that your client (who is likely using Google Analytics) is aware of this. The method you choose should depend on how much credit you want to attribute to paid search. If you notice the best performance is from last-click attribution, then importing from Google Analytics will be sufficient, however, if you see that multiple paid Search interactions tend to lead to more conversions, you will probably benefit from spending the additional time to implement the native tracking tags.

Whichever method you choose, always make use of the multi-channel conversion reports so you get to see the full picture and understand the part that every channel plays.