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Source vs Medium: What's the Difference?

Apr 27, 2021
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In Google Analytics, the source and mediums are the two main categories of data that you can use to track your website traffic. Knowing how to use this information is critical to your digital marketing success.  You need to have an understanding of where people are coming from in order to build strategies that work. In this video, we will review the differences between sources and mediums in Google Analytics. 

 

Video Transcript:

In this video, we're going to be talking about something really important and that's understanding Source and Medium within our analytics software. In this case, we're going to be looking at Google Analytics and understanding the difference between these two things and how we can leverage them to know whether or not our marketing activities are working the way that we've intended.

Why is this important? You need to have an understanding of where your traffic's coming from in order to build strategies that work. You could be spending a lot of time and energy on one channel that's not producing while another channel may be producing. And this is why having a basic understanding of your analytics and knowing where people are coming from is so critical to your overall success.

What is Source:

Let's start by looking at source.  The source is the origin of your traffic.

This would be the search engine. We've got Google, here's an example, or a specific domain. It's the actual site domain or URL that sends the traffic. Some of these examples would be Google, like we mentioned, or Baidu could be another one. Bing would be another organic search engine. You could have things from your automation or your email software.

For instance, HS Automation; its HubSpot automation would be the source of that traffic. We could also have social sites like pinterest.com, youtube.com, things of that nature. The thing to notice here is you can create your own sources within your UTMs. Those are our tracking codes that we use. And we have a video on UTMs as well, or they will be pulled in automatically by Google and what they understand within the analytics software. The sources report will show the sources of the traffic, so the actual sites, the actual brands that are sending the traffic to our website.

What is Medium:

This brings up the next question: what is medium? This is going to be the general category of that source.  Medium is going to tell us a little more from a higher level, what bucket that source would actually fit in.  For example, we'd have something like organic, and within organic we'd have Google, we'd have Bing, we'd have Baidu, we'd have Yahoo, we'd have DuckDuckGo. All of those would be organic search engines. We have these broken down to some other areas. You'd have none, right? If you don't know the medium, this is where you'd see a lot of direct traffic coming through. You'd have email or referral or paid. Those are all examples of mediums because you have multiple different types of sources underneath that medium.

Medium is NOT Channel Grouping:

One thing to note is you also have something in Google Analytics called channel grouping. This is not the same as a medium. It looks the same. It may have some similar attributes, but channel groupings are rule-based groupings of your traffic. This is really important and helpful too. Out of the box, Google will have what's called default channel grouping, and these are rules set by analytics, but you can also create your own channel groupings if you want to break down your data in other ways. This is not the same as medium, but medium can influence the channel groupings.

How to Read Source Reports

One of the things you'll see is the source medium report. And this is where it pairs the information from both the source, where we are looking at the site or the actual location of the traffic, and the medium, which would be the bucket that it would fit in.

Google organic or example.com/referral. Now let's shift over to Google Analytics so you can see this in action. When you log into your Google Analytics account, you're going to have navigation over here on the left-hand side. All of this information that we're looking for is going to show up under acquisition. This is not a G4 account. This is a universal analytics account. G4 is a little bit different and breaking these down can be a little bit more complex. I personally gear myself towards Universal Analytics right now still because I feel like I know it better, and I can get more data out of it. But G4 is something you should learn as well. Now, getting back to this report here on the left-hand side, we would click acquisition. Once I open this dropdown, we've got Overview, we've got Traffic, we've got Google Ads, Search Console, Social, and more.

If we want to take a look at our source media, we need to do that down here with all traffic. We talked before about channels. These are the default channel groupings that Google is going to have out of the box.  If I click on channel, it's not giving me source and medium. It's giving me my default channel groupings, which are a rules-based bucketing of our traffic. Here you've got Organic Search, Direct, Referral, Social, Email. There's a lot of different types that can be used in here. You can set your own channel groupings if you want, but this doesn't tell me about source and medium. To get there I need to click on Source Medium, or I could also click here and do Source Medium, just the Source or just the Medium. If I click on Source Medium, now we'll start to see our traffic break down further.

How to Read the Analytics

So as you can see, Google Organic is the leading cause of traffic to our site. Next, we've got some direct traffic. We've got some Baidu Organic, we've got some HubSpot Email Automation, Bing Organic, Pinterest Referral, amp traffic. So this is traffic coming from amp listings, YouTube Referral, and more. As you can see here, I can start to get an idea of where I need to spend most of my time, or am I getting a payback for the investment and the time and energy I'm putting into certain channels?

For instance, we do a lot of work with SEO, go figure, right? And we see that our number one traffic driver is Organic Search from Google. We can also see maybe there are ways that we need to improve our HubSpot automation if we want to drive more traffic there. Maybe we want to do more with Pinterest referrals. We can start to dig into these reports and understand the medium. We're talking about Referral Traffic, Social Traffic, Organic Traffic, and then the sources that we're marketing on.

This was a quick overview of understanding what source is, what medium is, and how we can use them together to get a heartbeat or a better understanding of how our digital marketing efforts are performing. If you have any questions about what we talked about today, or you have another question on analytics or digital marketing in general, please comment below. We'd love to continue that conversation with you. Until next time, Happy Marketing.

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Ryan Shelley, CPBI

By Ryan Shelley, CPBI

Ryan is passionate about helping companies make a more personal connection online with their customers and prospects. He is a regular contributor to Search Engine Land, the largest and most popular SEO news site on the web. His works have also been featured on the HubSpot Blog, Business2Community and by LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

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