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Google Ads Attribution: Understanding The Fundamentals

Google Ads Attribution: Understanding The Fundamentals

Google recently announced that some of their attribution models are “going away“. This is news that many advertisers may have missed. Those who did see the announcement may well have found themselves thinking: “So what?”

Attribution is a core concept in the world of digital marketing and it’s all about trying to understand which channel (or even which individual ad) helped you to make a sale. Initially, in the early days of attribution, a basic model took hold: it’s what is known as last click attribution and you’ll still see it used today.

Last click attribution works by assuming that it was the last click on to your website that ultimately generated your sale. So, to take an example, if someone clicks on a Google Ads link and then makes a purchase, then Google Ads is attributed as the channel that generated the sale. That would be irrespective of what happened prior to that click on the Google ad.

But there’s a problem with the last click attribution model and it’s something that became evident at quite an early stage in the world of online advertising. The problem is that user behaviour is often quite complex and there will often be multiple touch points prior to purchase.

Multiple touch points and the attribution problem

Let’s work through a hypothetical example of an online store selling pet accessories (let’s call them Fantastic Pet Treats). The store has a relatively low online profile. But the owners have invested in various forms of advertising.

They’ve maybe decided to use some Facebook ads, which have caught the eye of a dog owner. That dog owner hasn’t purchased from this particular store before. Indeed, they’ve never heard of the store. They’re not going to purchase right now because they don’t need to make a specific purchase – there’s no urgency to the process. Even if they did need to buy right now, they’re not sure about using this unknown store.

A few weeks later, the dog owner is looking for some pet treats. They carry out a Google search and see multiple Google ads listings, including from Fantastic Pet Treats. They click on a number of the ads, including on the Fantastic Pet Treats listing. They remember the store from their previous visit (resulting from that Facebook ads click).

They’re thinking that they might purchase from the store. But they want to check that it’s a legitimate business and so they run another search on Google. This time, they search for “Fantastic Pet Treats store online reviews”. They read through a few of the reviews, assuring themselves that this is a reputable store.

Finally, they type the store name into Google and access the store via an organic link. They now make the purchase.

Looking at the customer journey, they clicked through to the store on 3 separate occasions:

  1. Firstly, from a Facebook Ad
  2. Secondly, from a Google Ad
  3. Finally, from a Google organic listing

In the above scenario, last click attribution would assign the sale to the Google organic listing click. But we can see that Facebook and Google Ads both contributed to the sale too. This goes to the very essence of attribution: how do you credit channels for a sale in the most accurate manner?

How does Google handle attribution?

So let’s return to Google’s recent announcement: they are going to discontinue some of their attribution models. Once they have done so, what will be left?

Last click attribution

Last click attribution, once the default throughout the industry, will be left in place. As explained above, this credits the entire sale to the channel from which the last click originated.

Within a Google Ads account, if a customer clicks on links from multiple ad campaigns (which happens more frequently than we might imagine), then the campaign that received the last click would be attributed with the entire sale.

Last click attribution offers the advantage of simplicity. It’s easy enough to understand and we can see what’s going on (for the most part). But it’s not particularly sophisticated and we can see from our worked example above that it will only give us part of the picture.

Data driven model

The data driven attribution model is to be Google’s new default method of attribution. The data driven model uses machine learning to examine each individual touch point and to weight each click accordingly, identifying how much of an impact each click had on the sale.

This sounds logical, but it’s not for everyone: it’s less transparent than the last click model, while the machine learning also relies upon a large enough dataset to identify trends. For advertisers who are in the early days of using Google Ads, this isn’t a realistic option.

With the other 4 methods of attribution to be removed, last click attribution and the data driven model are all that is left. So Google’s announcement, which might have passed you by, is all about reducing the number of choices that you have available when attempting to identify precisely what impact your advertising is having on your business.

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Keith Barrett
With more than 15 years of digital marketing experience, Keith Barrett is a fully Certified Google AdWords Partner. Offering insights into the world of PPC marketing in the UK, Keith is a Senior Consultant here at Search South. If you'd like to hear more of Keith's thoughts, then you can subscribe to our newsletter.