Channel Grouping – 3 Reasons Why Google Data Studio Grouping Beats Analytics

One of my clients and I were recently going back and forth over how we configured the Default Channel Grouping in Google Analytics.

Yes, we did customize the Default Channel Grouping. Of course we’ll redefine how our data is categorized if we have the option. I recommend you read Annielytics’ well-argued case for it.

Every day we would find a different new problem, like WhatsApp or Mailchimp going to the Referral channel, or like one of the top search engines, Yandex, not being recognized as Organic Search. Even though we made sure we included a “System Defined Channel matches Organic Search” OR clause on top of our manually added values in case we missed anything.

After many similar examples and doing detective work for every traffic source or medium that was attributed to the wrong channel, I realized the better alternative was right in front of me. 

Turning to the tool I use on a daily basis, and that offers a lot more freedom, came as a natural solution. I proposed to my client to replicate the channel grouping in a Data Studio dashboard if we want more accurate data. My presentation was so good that he didn’t understand too much of it:

So I decided to write this article and talk about why I think the Data Studio channel grouping beats the Default Channel Grouping in Analytics (and sometimes even the Custom Channel Grouping – you’ll see why).

Let’s start with a quick overview. 

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Channel Grouping in Google Analytics

Channel groupings are rule-based groupings of marketing channels that help us change the way Google Analytics labels and aggregates the incoming traffic for advanced data analysis.

There are four types of channel groupings available in Google Analytics:

  • Default Channel Grouping
  • Custom Channel Grouping
  • Private Channel Grouping (Custom Channel Grouping at the user level)
  • MCF (Multi-Channel Funnel) Channel Grouping – it allows you to see how multiple sources have contributed to conversions.

Today we will focus on the first two.

Default Channel Grouping in Google Analytics

The Default Channel Grouping in Google Analytics is the pre-defined by Google group of channels, the place where you see the most common traffic sources like Paid Search, Organic Search, Direct, Social, and more. 

Getting the most out of your reports can be a make or break matter, so these groupings are extremely important in analyzing the performance of your business.

It can be accessed by navigating to the Acquisition > Overview report and Acquisition > All traffic > Channels. 

You can edit the Default Channel Grouping by redefining one of the marketing channels, adding a new channel, or even removing an existing one. However, be aware that any edit will permanently change how the new traffic is classified and reported by Google Analytics.  

For more details about the Default Channel Grouping, here’s a great article that walks you through everything you need to know, from prerequisites and setup to performance and segmentation analysis. 

Custom Channel Grouping in Analytics

The Custom Channel Grouping is a rule-based grouping of user-defined marketing channels. This means that you can create your own channels using properties like:

  • Source
  • Medium
  • Campaign
  • Ad Group
  • Keyword
  • Search Query
  • Ad Content
  • Ad Format
  • Ad Distribution Network
  • Destination, Display & Landing Page URL
  • Placement Domain
  • Placement Type 
  • Source / Medium
  • System Defined Channels
  • Custom Dimension

The Custom Channel Grouping can be created at the view level or at the user level.

What is the difference between the two? The one created at the view level can be visible to all the users of the reporting view, whereas the one created at the user level can only be visible by the user who created it. 

According to Google, you can create a maximum of 50 channel groupings per view and 100 private Custom Channel Groupings per user. 

In order to get a more in-depth analysis of the channels’ performance, a Custom Channel Grouping is the way to go. Although they have their own limitations, Custom Channel Groupings are more flexible, compared to the Default Channel Grouping.

Creating your own Custom Channel Grouping in Google Analytics helps you correct the common traffic channel misattribution, and also capture the traffic channels specific to your own business and marketing tactics.

Default Channel Grouping vs. Custom Channel Grouping

Let’s have a closer look at the differences between Default Channel Grouping (DCG) and Custom Channel Grouping (CCG). For a more visual experience, take a glimpse at this infographic from Digishuffle

  • DCG is available at view level, whereas CCG is available at both view and user level. A private CCG can be promoted to view level. Also, you can share a CCG with other users by sharing the template link. Note that when you do this, your analytics data is not shared, only the configuration information.
  • DCG can be seen as a dimension in Lifetime Value Report, Custom Reports and Dashboards, and via Analytics Reporting API. On the other hand, CCG is not available in any of these. 
  • In DCG, editing the channel will permanently change the classification of traffic sources by Google Analytics, while in CCG, this will not change anything. Instead, it will temporarily create a new channel that can be used for analyzing performance.
  • DSG is accessible by anyone who has access to the reporting view. In CCG, you have the option to keep it private. 
And now guess which type of channel grouping is available in Google Data Studio?

Channel Grouping availability in Data Studio

That’s right, just the Default Channel Grouping! Unfortunately, the Custom Channel Groupings that are configured in Google Analytics aren’t available in GDS.

Or is it unfortunate? I think GDS beats Analytics, even compared to some capabilities of the custom grouping. Read on to see why!

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The drawbacks of grouping in Google Analytics

If Google Data Studio grouping beats Analytics, it means Analytics must do something wrong. But what exactly? 

Drawback #1: The order of the channels is important

How you sort the channels will be important in Analytics, as the traffic data will get filtered from top to bottom. 

This is true for both DCG and CCG. You don’t want to see your data inappropriately attributed or in the Other category, right?

So I cannot stress enough the importance of knowing your channels and knowing your channels’ order. 

The rules for each channel are executed in a specific order. Those rules decide how the grouping should work. If you create the rule in the wrong way, a channel that is upper on the scale might catch the traffic that you intended to send to another channel below it.

The traffic data is filtered from top to bottom, so channels that are very specific should be applied higher up than those that are more generic. You can change the order in which these rules are executed. Simply drag and drop the marketing channels in the order you find the most suited to your business. Pay attention, though, for DCG this could mean it will start aggregating some of the data in a channel different than the initial one.

Drawback #2: You need to create the rules flawlessly from the start

For the Default Channel Grouping, you need to create the rules flawlessly, otherwise, you won’t see the data correctly. Plus, and that’s really important – the changes won’t be applied to historical data.

On the other hand, when it comes to Custom Channel Groupings, there’s more room for testing. The changes can be applied to historical data and the permanent classification of traffic sources isn’t affected. But we’ll get into these details a bit later on. 

So, here’s what to pay attention to when creating the rules:

  1. Work with clear inclusions / exclusions. Define how the rules interact: “AND” means that all items must be matched, while “OR” means any items. Choose between the different match types, depending on your use case: Exactly matches, Contains, Starts With, Ends With, Is One Of.
  2. Know your RegEx.
  • Regular Expressions may seem a bit more difficult to implement, but they allow you to create different advanced matching rules within the text. For example, if you want to combine all social sites into a single rule, you might have a rule like this: “^facebook\.com| instagram\.com|twitter| linkedin||youtube| instagram”.

Drawback #3: Changes affect the grouping data

When it comes to the Default Channel Grouping, the changes are:

  • Permanent and cannot be undone
  • Don’t apply to historical data

Even if you change just one channel’s name, it will create a new channel.

Important to mention here – the initial data is not affected, just the way in which Analytics labels the incoming traffic. You will still see the correct data in the Source / Medium or other reports that aren’t related to channel grouping.

For the Custom Channel Groupings, as Data Runs Deep puts it, changes are “retroactive, the conditions you have set in your groupings will query the data for your given date range and apply its groupings irrespective of when the custom groupings were created”. 

As we’ve mentioned above, you can edit, copy, and even delete a Custom Channel. However, you cannot delete the Default Channel Grouping.

So why is Data Studio better than Analytics when it comes to channel grouping?

Wait. There is one downside. Let’s start with it.

The downside is: you still have to know your RegEx.

data studio regex
Comic by xkcd

Go to your Analytics data source level and create a new field.

You can name it “GDS Channel Grouping”. After this, we’ll create a custom CASE WHEN formula that will group our data into the channels we need. By the way, remember our CASE WHEN library?

Take a look at Data Runs Deep for a few examples on how to use the CASE statement for Custom Channel Groupings in Data Studio, and to Michael Howe-Ely to read about the whole process. 

For using calculated fields in Data Studio you don’t need to change anything in Google Analytics to see your data, and you have better control over it. 

Okay, so this is how your formula will look like, just longer. 

But it’s totally worth it. Why? Let’s see!

Reason #1: The new, correct data is instant

Forget about changes affecting the grouping. You now have the freedom of trial and error. Even if you make mistakes, you can check and recheck until you aggregate all the traffic in your business’s specific channels. 

So even if you play with the (for most of us) complicated RegEx, you can tweak and refine it until you nail it.

Tip: create a draft page where you can double-check your channel grouping formula with a double filter: GDS Channel Grouping + Source/Medium. You can even add a Page Link column, for a triple check.

Revisit this draft page periodically. Depending on your traffic volume, you can check it once a month or maybe once every two or three months.

The best part is exactly what I said earlier. If you discover things that you missed in the last 30 days, you can update your CASE WHEN formula, and the data will update instantly and will be reliable. 

Unlike Analytics, where the changes will be seen in 24 to 48 hours. And remember, for the changes in the Default grouping, you cannot even see the data historically.

Reason #2: The order of the channels doesn’t matter

We do recommend, however, that you organize them in an order that helps you avoid forgetting anything. For example, keep Social – Paid and Social – Organic next to each other. 

If in Google Analytics the channel order is essential, in Data Studio you will be in control of how you group them. You are not constrained by a specific order.

Reason #3: You can use any kind of dimension with GDS

When creating the channel grouping rules in Analytics, you’ll see there are some Dimensions that you’re able to use in other reports but are not available for the rules. Again, this is a situation for both the default and the custom grouping. 

Here’s a great example from Michael Howe-Ely: Device Category is not an option when trying to define the rules in Analytics. 

On the other hand, in Data Studio, you will be able to mix a source with a device category and see the split performance of a channel on mobiles or desktop. 

Channel Grouping - 3 Reasons Why Google Data Studio Grouping Beats Analytics 2
Custom channel grouping CASE statement by Michael Howe-Ely

You can also create all kind of advanced calculated fields and use those ones in the CASE statement.

Good custom channels to Consider

Depending on what you want to see, there are a lot of custom channels to consider, based on sources and mediums specific to your organization.

For instance, you can have:

  • Brand vs. generic keywords
  • Ad content analysis
  • Organic search desktop traffic
  • Organic search mobile traffic
  • Retargeting traffic channel
  • Notifications and chats
  • Paid and earned social media
  • Tactical email channels
  • Advertising – search, display, or video, if you’re running video advertising
  • Affiliate advertising  
Be thorough with your configuration. For our client, we reached a 40 lines CASE WHEN statement.

Final words on why Google Data Studio beats Google Analytics at Channel Grouping

I rest my case. I hope by now you can also see how GDS takes it to the next level. Both Google Analytics and Data Studio are powerful platforms, but when it comes to channel grouping, Data Studio wins the game. 

With only the Default Channel Grouping available in GDS, you are likely to be missing out on some valuable data that would otherwise help you gain more insights into the performance of your marketing efforts. Missing out on data means leaving opportunities on the table.

Do you agree or disagree with my point of view? Leave a message on my LinkedIn and let’s debate this.

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