Google gives a very vague explanation of what the Campaign timeout and Session timeout settings even are:
The default length of time for a session or campaign. An individual session or campaign for a given user ends after the amount of time specified here has passed (counting from the start of the session or campaign), so long as the session or campaign has not been stopped through another means.
We have to break this down. It might take a few minutes to properly understand, but it’s certainly worthwhile.
What it means is that whenever a user comes to your site directly – maybe they opened a browser tab and typed in your URL manually or used a bookmark – but had come to your site previously from another non-direct source: like organic, cpc, or referral; and if this first session happened within the time window specified by Campaign Timeout, then the medium and source of the direct visit (or visits) will be overwritten.
You’ve read that right: they will all be overwritten. By default Campaign Timeout is set for a six months window. Yes, six months! All clear? No. OK. Let me give you a specific example.
If someone came to your website via a search ad in January and then they returned again directly, once a month in February, March, April and May; instead of one paid ad session and four direct sessions, Google Analytics will show five paid ad sessions in all reports except one.
For more specific examples of how exactly Google Analytics overrides the source and medium of the sessions, see this great post by Optimizestart.
The setting by itself is neither good nor bad. It’s just a different way of evaluating the performance of your campaigns, one that favours non-direct touch points over direct ones.
The problems most users have with it is:
The lack of transparency from Google is the reason why most marketers and analysts are outraged. Can we blame them for having such feelings? Changing the source and medium in all revenue reports (outside of specific Attribution reports) without giving an explanation is not being truthful. The only place you can find any information from Google is a joke.
For example it says that you should “Set the campaign timeout handling to the same amount of time the campaign is going to run or expected to be relevant. Clicks to a social media micro-campaign might not be relevant for more than a few days after launch.”
What should one think about such advice regarding a property-wide setting that cannot even be set-up for different campaigns separately? It’s incoherent.
From our experience, once our clients change the setting to normal (meaning 4 hours which is the shortest time-interval possible), the amount of conversions credited to the direct channel increases by 20-30%.
Below you can see two Acquisition Report results from an e-commerce retailer for the same time period with all Google Analytics settings except Campaign Timeout remaining the same.
As you can see, the contribution of Google / cpc goes from 20% (with 4 hours Campaign timeout window) to 27,8% (with 6 months timeout window) – a whopping 40% increase in the performance of the channel which consequently is going to also influence all metrics that you are evaluating with the help of Google Analytics data, including CPA and ROI.
Same account, same time period. Source/medium share of traffic with Campaign Timeout set to 4 hours (left) and to the default 6 months (right).
The contribution of ‘direct’ on conversions (transactions) goes down from 41,6% to 17,2%. All of that credit is redistributed to other channels like facebook / social, google / organic or email with most of them “improving” their performance by 50–100%.
Take a closer look at the true numbers.
Why is the Campaign timeout setting even there?
Google, of course, will never comment on the topic. But think about it: the vast majority of Alphabet’s income still comes from its advertising business (85,8% as of Q3 2018).
Meanwhile, the majority of advertisers are SMBs far from being in the know with analytics tools and take the results they’re presented with at face value.
To these users, this Campaign timeout setting artificially inflates the ROI of search and other campaigns by double digit percentage points.
This Campaign timeout setting artificially inflates the ROI of search and other campaigns by double digit percentage points.
Before you start saying that distributing direct visits to other sources is actually a good thing, because the insights become more actionable as you have much more sway in influencing what’s going on in those channels, ponder this:
There is another very easy way to do this in Google Analytics. Within Attribution, you can easily switch between the Last Interaction and Last Click non-direct Models (among others) which essentially do the same thing.
It does so at a place where you would expect it and the Google help text is actually very transparent and helpful in explaining its meaning.
Taken together, if the only motive of Google was to give us a tool to model out where the credit from direct visits should go, this questionable campaign timeout setting wouldn’t be needed.
The biggest sin of the approach Google has chosen is that it overwrites the source of the visit. Therefore, if you don’t upgrade to Google Analytics 360, which most businesses never will, you will not be able to access the raw data through Google BigQuery. You will never be able to see which visit sources were overwritten and never be able to see your true data.
The source of sessions are artificially overwritten and there’s no telling which and how many were changed. This affects all of your attribution efforts!
So, no matter which attribution model you choose to examine your customer journeys within Google Analytics – be it last click, first click, linear or time decay – they all are working with tainted data.
The biggest problem this creates is that you cannot seriously work with different attribution models until you eliminate this data tampering; much the same way one shouldn’t be a judge in a beauty contest with impaired vision.
The most obvious solution would be to immediately go and change that setting from six months to the shortest possible interval – which is four hours. But hang on a minute. If you do that, you will see a sudden drop in performance of all paid campaigns. It will throw all KPIs you have set up with agencies and/or channel managers on your team into disarray. And they will hate you for that.
A smarter way to go about this is to set up a new property within Google Analytics with exactly the same settings as your original, with one notable exception: length of the Campaign timeout. Then run both of them in parallel.
Your third option is then to implement an attribution solution that uses its own measurement to track and classify multiple touch points independent of Google Analytics 😉
Why, Google, why?!
Don’t ever forget that Google Analytics is a free product. Google is not making money off it directly, so it has to make it somewhere else.
Back in the pioneering days of digital marketing, Google Analytics allowed many advertisers an easy way to measure results of their online activities. It played a historical role in giving data to millions of businesses which ultimately brought them ad dollars.
For one reason or another though, providing an accurate measurement somehow wasn’t enough for Google. They decided they needed to show the results in a self illuminating light. This way, Google steals direct sessions that advertisers would otherwise be inclined to attribute to offline and brand campaigns.
Everyone in digital marketing is a benefactor of this but Google benefits by far, the most.
Google brought the trust and ad dollars of millions of businesses into the digital age. But at what cost to its credibility?
The question then remains: Can you ever trust Google again? You be the judge.
The only thing we would recommend is that next time Google is pitching you an awesome ‘accurate’ free product such as Google Attribution, remember how they kept everyone in the dark about the Campaign timeout setting for a decade.
Trusting your ad spend decisions to black-box algorithms – as most attribution vendors do – is daring enough. Trusting it to a black box of a company that has a history of pulling your leg is a whole different game.
Further reading on the topic:
Understanding Sessions Campaign Timeout Settings in Google Analytics by Optimizesmart
Google Analytics Does What?! by Bluemoondigital
This reply on Quora by David Jurelius
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