While Google Analytics and AdWords can and do report on the same campaigns, it’s important to recognize that comparing data between the two platforms will never be apples-to-apples. The different terminology, tracking settings, and attribution are important to recognize when diving into any problem and marrying data between the platforms.


In this post, we’ll examine some of the differences between GA and AdWords and how to reconcile them. We’ll start with key definitions and how they differ between platforms, then move to attribution wrinkles and best practices for interpreting the data.

Key definitions

There are some terms that are the same in Google Analytics and AdWords. Others seem interchangeable but in fact are not. Here are some metrics that are commonly confused:

-Sessions (GA): Previously called visits, this is the number of individual sessions initiated by users. Any activity that re-starts after 30 minutes or more of down-time triggers a new session.

-Users (GA): Previously called unique visitors, this is the number of individual people who visited your site within the specified reporting period.

-Clicks (AdWords): The number of times that users clicked on a PPC ad in the SERPs. Multiple ad clicks by the same user may lead to a single session, or a single click could cause multiple sessions. When clicks exceed sessions, either users clicked multiple times within the 30-minute window or people abandoned their click before the landing page completely loaded and the GA code fired.

-Goals (GA): Customizable conversions set up to track key on-site actions. Possible goals to track include completed events, views of a key page, sessions with a minimum time on site, etc.

-Conversions (AdWords): These may include phone calls, goals imported from GA, or conversions tracked when the conversion pixel fires.

Another major difference between AdWords and Google Analytics is the attribution cookie length. GA’s standard cookie-length is 6 months, but it’s customizable from 1 min to 24 months. AdWords, on the other hand, has a 30-day standard length and is customizable between 7 and 90 days.

Comparison pitfalls

Not only is the terminology different, there are two fundamental differences in attribution that make data comparisons tricky:

1. GA attributes to the day of conversion, while AdWords attributes to day of last click. As a result, any account with <100% conversions happening on the day of the click will see a reporting difference between GA and AdWords.

2. While both platforms use last-click attribution by default, GA uses the last non-direct source, while AdWords uses the last AdWords click. For example, someone who visits the site via a paid ad and then an organic listing before converting will be attributed to paid search in AdWords and organic in Google Analytics.

Best practices for comparing data

While GA and AdWords conversions may often be very similar, there are many causes to reporting differences. For the best comparisons between the platforms, follow these best practices:

-Compare using AdWords “Conversions,” not “converted clicks,” since GA has no “converted clicks” equivalent.

-Add paid search click-assisted conversions to last-click conversions in GA before comparing the two platforms.

-Understand the percent of paid search conversions within the GA cookie window but outside the AdWords cookie window. This will give you insights on both latency (which you should communicate to your client) and should help you determine the appropriate AdWords cookie length. Since GA has a standard campaign cookie length of 6 months, you have more data to review than if you looked at the AdWords time lag report. If an account has a high percentage of conversions and revenue coming in 30+ days after the click, it could be a good idea to expand the AdWords cookie length for better attribution.

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Caitlin Halpert
Caitlin Halpert is an Account Director at 3Q Digital. She has worked in digital marketing since 2011 and held positions at Dealer.com and iSearchMedia before joining the 3Q team in March 2014. Caitlin graduated from Dartmouth College and is a native of Vermont.