The Beginner's Guide to Google Analytics Channels for Nonprofits

Channels, (the ones in your Google Analytics account, not TV), refer to different sources of site traffic. Think of Google Analytics channels as buckets, organizing the many different paths to your site by type. There are 7 main default Google Analytics channels you want to watch, but you can also add new channels in the Admin section of your account if necessary. Google Analytics decides what traffic goes in which channel based on the ‘source / medium’ of that traffic. Now, what can we find in each of these “buckets”, and why should we care about them? This definitive guide to Google Analytics channels will answer these questions, as well as unearth some unique caveats we can expect from certain channels.

1. Direct

Google Analytics’ “Direct” channel refers to traffic from users who arrive directly at your website domain (see what GA did there?). This typically means that they’ve either bookmarked your website, or typed your URL directly into their browser. But, if someone shares your website URL in a text, or if they if they send it in a personal email and don’t campaign tag the link, then traffic from people who click through that link will be labeled as “direct.” Over time, Google Analytics has been hiding more and more data, so ‘Direct’ is also where a lot of unknown traffic gets filed away, with the medium (not set).

2. Organic Search

“Organic Search” refers to traffic from users who find your website through a search engine. They’ve gone to a Google or a Bing, searched for a phrase or question, and then clicked on your organization’s link in the search engine results page. Building your organic traffic (perhaps via content marketing) is a great way to widen the top of the funnel and introduce more users to your nonprofit. You can use Google Search Console to see what keywords people were searching when they clicked over to your site.

3. Social

“Social” refers to social media traffic! Pretty self-explanatory, this traffic can be from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Instagram, and any other social platforms that you (or your supporters) might be using. Keep in mind that if you’re running social media ads and not campaign tagging your URLs, your paid traffic might end up here. Note that “m.facebook.com” means someone came to your site from Facebook’s mobile app, and Twitter comes up in GA as “t.co.”

4. Email

“Email” refers to traffic from Britney Spears. Just kidding. Another self-explanatory one, this channel pulls in any traffic that comes from your email newsletter, or from people who share a URL to you site in an email and campaign tag the link. As mentioned above, if they don’t tag the link, the traffic will get filed as “direct,” so you may be getting more email traffic than you think. Same goes for your own email newsletters – be sure that your email marketing tool is properly integrated with Google Analytics, or that you’re tagging all links, so you can accurately track traffic and conversions from your emails (and give your comms team the props they deserve).

5. Referral

Google Analytics’ “Referral” channel refers to traffic from other websites that aren’t known social media platforms or organic search engines. Keep an eye on this channel, because you’ll be able to see what sites are linking to you so you can

  • Know if your partners are linking to you
  • Find partnership opportunities with other organizations that are linking to you
  • Remove referrer spam :-/

Building your referral traffic from reputable and authoritative sites (especially .edu’s and .gov’s) will also help boost SEO.

6. Paid Search

“Paid Search” refers to most traffic from ads. This channel will automatically encompass any traffic from Google Ad platforms, including your Google Ad Grant traffic and YouTube ads, and the like. When running campaigns on other platforms, like Facebook or Twitter, be sure to use UTM tags so that traffic gets properly categorized in this channel.

7. Other Advertising

Google Analytics’ ‘Other Advertising’ channel refers to paid traffic that is not captured by the Paid Search channel. Typically, this is traffic that has the medium “cpv” or “cpa” (cost per view, or cost per acquisition). This channel will likely fill up with traffic from ads that you tagged yourself. Keep an eye on this channel to be sure those ad dollars are working hard for you.

Those are the 7 default Google Analytics channels to watch (so to speak). Go forth, and track! Seeing (Other) in your account? Find out what it means and how to fix it.