Understanding Google Analytics Channel Grouping

Staring at your acquisition traffic report in Google can make your head spin trying to figure out where your traffic is coming from. You might be asking… How does Google categorize all this information? What causes this information to be categorized incorrectly? And how can anyone reliably use the traffic sources data?

Well, we’re here to shed some light on what can be a confusing and frustrating experience for marketers and business owners.

For starters, here is a Google help page that outlines how they define the default categories and organize incoming traffic to your site. https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/3297892?hl=en

Unsurprisingly, the content on that page only gives you the technical definitions so we’ll be summarizing what each channel should represent and, in the future, how to properly set them up.

The Default Google Analytics (GA) Channel Grouping is a report comprised of the most common sources that send traffic to your website.

In the Google Analytics UI, the default channels can be found by navigating to a couple places:

  • Acquisition > All Traffic > Overview


  • Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels


Next, we’ll break down each of the default channels.


Default Google Analytics Channel Grouping



Direct traffic includes mostly visits to your site where users typed your URL directly into their browser. This can also include visits from users that saved a page on your site as a bookmark/favorite or clicked a link on an email that had no UTM parameters. (We’ll explain what UTM parameters are later in this article).



Referral traffic is composed of visits from other sites. When you click on Referral, the subsequent report gives you the domains from where the traffic came from (known as “Sources” in GA). Click again and you’ll be presented with the specific page (known as Referral Path) where a user came from. You can use this report to identify who is linking to your site and uncover partner opportunities.



Social traffic includes visits from a social network, such as Facebook and Twitter. The full list of what is considered a social media site by Google Analytics can be found here: https://www.annielytics.com/blog/analytics/sites-google-analytics-includes-in-social-reports/


Note: Google will not automatically detect ads and paid links social platforms like Facebook or Twitter unless you properly tag them with UTM parameters (which we’ll explain below).


Organic Search

Organic Search contains traffic that arrived on your site from a search engine. This does not include any paid search traffic.

The full list of what is considered a search engine by Google Analytics can be found here:



Paid Search

Paid Search includes traffic from search engines that were from paid sources, such as Google Adwords and Bing Ads. Most major paid search engines offer auto-tagging, which is a feature that automatically adds UTM parameters to your links so that Google Analytics can recognize them as paid search links. Other common phrases that are related to paid search are search engine marketing (SEM), pay-per-click (PPC), and cost-per-click (CPC).



Display traffic combines visits from paid display and banner advertising. If you use Google AdWords and select auto-tagging for your destination links, Google will automatically categorize these as display traffic. You can reference the following Google article if you would like more information on how auto-tagging works:



Also, to check if you have auto-tagging turned on, read this helpful article:


Here is a screenshot of where to find if you have auto-tagging turned on (Settings > Account settings > Auto-tagging under Tracking should be set to Yes):



Email traffic is visits that originated from an email. In order for these visits to get proper categorized in Google Analytics, you or your email provider must add the proper UTM parameters for GA to recognize them as email traffic. Simply placing a link in an email without proper tagging will end up categorized as direct traffic. Fortunately, most major email tools, like MailChimp and Constant Contact, offer auto-tagging options that work well.


Other Advertising

Other Advertising, which shows up as “(Other)” in the default channel grouping, is a category that catches the rest of your traffic that doesn’t fall into any other category. Typically, traffic in this category will have some custom UTM parameters.


Source and Medium

In order to understand how these channels work, let’s go more in-depth with UTM parameters.

A UTM parameter is simply a method of categorizing a link that is driving traffic to your site. Google Analytics uses 5 different parameters to organize traffic into the channels we mentioned above. We’ll discuss the 2 most important parameters below, source and medium.



The source parameter is where traffic to your site came from (e.g. facebook.com, wsj.com, usatoday.com, etc.)

Note: Though they may sound interchangeable, “source” is a more general term and “referral” is a traffic type of source.



The medium is how the traffic got to your site (e.g. email, social, banner, etc.)

Note: In Google Analytics, “medium” is a more general term and “channel” is a specific type of medium.

In other words, think of “medium" as the vehicle someone used to get to you and “source" as the location they came from. Taking this analogy further, you might have taken an Uber from your house, so here Uber is the medium while the source of where you came from was your house.

Here is an example of a Google Analytics report that displays the source and medium:


Make it your own

So, what is the point of talking about all these channels? The purpose is to understand how Google categorizes your traffic.

Did you know you can adjust your links so that they fall into the proper categories and even modify the channels to fit your personal marketing strategy?

Stay tuned! We will be publishing more technical and in-depth content on how you can organize and create your own custom tags and channels.

To start, here is a great article on how to update your Google Analytics Channel Grouping settings:


Hopefully, we’ve cut through what can be confusing about channel groupings in Google Analytics and have helped you make sense of how Google categorizes your traffic source data. There is much more to share so be sure to sign up for updates to learn more.