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How Multi-channel Funnels Give You More Insight Than Ever Before

by Tim Leighton-Boyce

Screenshot: SEO Keyword Grouping GA Multi Channel FunnelsUpdated: March 2012

Multi-channel Funnel Reports in Google Analytics bring us a whole new depth of understanding to how people come to web sites over the course of several visits.

Now we can see how some channels are more valuable than we thought up to now. They’re helping make sales which are being credited to something else.

And there’s a bonus: we can also start working with our SEO keywords and other sources of traffic with a level of control which was previously only available for paid advertising and other campaigns.

In real time. Retrospectively. With no pre-configuration effort (so not like campaigns, then).

The most stunning of these reports, in my opinion, is the Top Conversion Paths report. For the first time ever it shows the history of a series of visits.

What’s more, it groups them by channel so that you can see the most common sequence of routes to the site. For example: social, followed by search, followed by email.

What’s even more, you can create your own custom groupings which means that you can start working with your organic search keywords in groups, like ‘head terms’ and ‘long tail’ or ‘brand’ and ‘generic’, just as you would with paid search. Or you could group your social sites according to different types, or separate different classes of referring sites, and so on.

The standard groupings include things like:

  • ‘Paid Search’ — PPC advertising
  • ‘Display’ — banners etc
  • ‘Other advertising’ – other paid advertising
  • ‘Organic search’ — unpaid search visits
  • ‘Social’ — Facebook, Twitter and a long list of other social sites (take a look)
  • ‘Referral’ — referred visits
  • ‘Email’ – visits where the medium has been tagged as ’email’ (exact)

This allows for a very powerful summarised view of the pattern of visits like this:

Screenshot: Google Analytics Top Conversion Paths report

But this default view only scratches the surface of what you can do with these reports.

The real power lies in the fact that you can create your own custom groups. The interface for doing this is great and you can (should!) use the basic groupings as a template to get you started.

The first thing I would do is to split those ‘Paid Advertising’ and ‘Organic Search’ groups down so that you can separate searches for your brand keywords from generic searches for more general terms. Those are two hugely different types of search.

In order to get new customers you need to be able to clearly understand the steps which someone takes from doing a generic search for something you supply through to the point where they know about you and your brand.

At this point I should pause and thank Matt Trimmer at iVantage who pointed out that Custom Channel Groupings has the facility for doing exactly what we need.

Here’s an example of what such a report looks like. This is much more revealing than the default version.

Screenshot: Separate Brand and Generic Search Groups in Top Conversion Paths

Suddenly it’s obvious that most of the search visits are from people who already know about the brand. Generic search doesn’t appear until much lower down the list.

The Custom Channel Groupings interface makes it very easy to copy and then edit the basic group configuration.

The slowest part of the process is working out what your brand keyword variations are. There are full instructions in an earlier article on How to Start Working with Brand Keywords in Google Analytics

Once you have your list of keywords it’s all point and click from then on. This 6 minute video shows you what to do:

Separating brand from generic search is the first thing I would do with these reports. But the potential to go further is huge. This approach means that you can start working with groups of unpaid keywords in the same way as you do with paid keywords. For example, you can start breaking those generic search terms down into ‘head’ and ‘long tail’ groups.

Things to Watch Out For with Multi-channel Funnels

  • You have to have goals or ecommerce configured for these reports to work
  • The default view takes all goals into consideration. I think it’s better to be selective about which goals you are reporting on, particularly if you have many micro-conversion goals set up. For most ecommerce sites, I would tend to consider the ecommerce transactions on their own and then look at key micro-conversions separately. It stands to reason that you might get a series of micro-conversion visits before a final transaction visit, so you need to keep them separate.
  • These reports only work with goals configured and they only show visits with goals. But goals could include non-bounce visits if you so wished.
  • Experiment with the drop down menu which allows you to choose whether to see all the visits, even if they only have one step, or more than 2, and so on. The ‘more than’ options are the most interesting when you are looking for patterns. But don’t treat those as the default or you risk missing the fact that only some visits have any history at all.

That last point is an absolutely critical one. The history of multiple visits is based on cookies. People now use multiple devices to visit sites and some systems also delete cookies, which means that many real-life returning visitors are counted as new visits by Google Analytics and all cookie-based systems. So what we have here is a sample. These reports provide much more insight than we have had up to this point. We can now see the history of a series of visits. But it’s not the complete picture: this is great for assessing relative numbers  and trends, but the actual numbers should only be treated as indications.

Resources Relating to Multi-channel Funnels

Here’s a beginner’s introduction video from Google:

There’s a more serious one here: [Opens in new tab]

[Other good sources are appearing all over the place at the moment, so I will continue to update this list.]


  • [March 2012] Google have introduced new standard channel groupings in Google Analytics. I think it’s wise to take a look at the actual definitions (start to create a new custom set based on the standard definitions, but don’t save). You may find that some of them won’t work for you. For example I work with clients who use several variations of medium for their email campaigns, such as ’emails’, so the standard exact match for ’email’ is no good. A ‘contains’ match would be better for them. Here’s the official guide to the standard Google Analytics Channel Group definitions.
  • [November 2011] The introduction of secure search by Google means that a growing proportion of organic search visits do not have any keyword information. These will show as ‘Not Provided’ in your keyword reports. Since you do not know whether these searches were for ‘Brand’ or ‘Generic / Non-Brand’ terms, it now makes sense to add a third organic search Channel Group for ‘Not Provided’.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Brian Clifton September 9, 2011 at 8:22 pm

Great post Tim. You’re right to point out the very large caveat of this not working for people coming back to the site via a different device. I consider this the biggest error bar by far. The effect is to artificially shorten the paths. I am hoping to have some data soon to show the extent of this and what impact it has…

That said, MCF reports provide a fantastic insight into what channels/campaigns drive conversions. Class leading in my view…

Best regards, Brian

Tim Leighton-Boyce September 12, 2011 at 4:25 am

Thanks, Brian. I’m sure everyone will be very interested in the data you mention. What little evidence I’ve seen so far suggests that the scale of the issue is quite large. But I also suspect that it will vary according to the web browsing habits of the audience for each site. The more data we can assemble, the better.

Meanwhile the reports are already delivering great insight and value. I’ve seen some remarkable evidence of the (even) greater importance of email, for example.

Alex April 18, 2013 at 6:16 am

Dear Tim,
Thank you for your great post! Just one question please.
I’m wondering, why through Multi-channel funnels I can see let’s say 14 conversions while from All Traffic – Ecommerce tab active – filtered by Source: {one of my referral websites} I can see only 8 transactions?
Which data I should believe? Why there’s such a difference?
Thank you!

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