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Delving into the Buyer’s Journey: Attribution Modelling in AdWords and Google Analytics

In the non-digital world, businesses have always been keen to know how a new customer found them. For example, in the days of the printed Yellow Pages, if lots of people cited that weighty tome, you could be assured that your listing was money well spent. Even today many printed forms will have a “how did you find us?” section, or ads in magazines will ask you to quote a code when you call to purchase, with that code letting them know which publication you saw their ad in.

One of the beauties of online marketing is how easy it is to get advanced referral data. In Google AdWords, you can easily find out which keyword and which ad copy led to a sale. However, there are deeper, valuable insights to be had, and these come from looking into attribution modelling. Many find this topic difficult to grasp, so don’t worry if it makes your head spin – it is optional.

Attribution modelling looks at the variety of paths someone can take before converting on your website. How many web searches did they make? How many times did they visit your website? Did they visit your Facebook page? Which of these was pivotal to getting the sale or lead?

By default, AdWords awards a conversion to the last click on one of your ads before the purchase or lead was generated. If someone has made three different Google searches over 15 minutes, say:

  • black shoes
  • black high heels
  • (your client’s brand)

then the conversion is allocated to your keyword “”.

But really, they wouldn’t have known about your brand if it wasn’t for the first two searches, and the third search was purely navigational (using a Google search to get to a website even though you know the URL). It turns out that the real generator of the sale was an organic result for the “black high heels” search.

Recently, AdWords changed to allow the adoption of different attribution models. Most AdWords users will be best suited to the default “last click” model, but it is useful to know what the other options are:

  • First Click – the first ad of yours that the searcher ever clicked on
  • Linear – all ad clicks get equal credit. If there were 5, each gets 20% of the conversion value
  • Time Decay – the most recent clicks get more credit. Google uses a 7-day half-life, which means clicks from 8-14 days ago get half the value, and 15-21 days ago get a quarter
  • Position Based – you can allocate conversion credits based on whether the click was the first, last, or somewhere in-between

In Analytics, the options are similar, except there is an extra model which is quite powerful:

  • Last Non-Direct Click – any direct visits to your site are ignored, and Analytics counts the last click, which can be a website link, an ad, social media link or organic search results.

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So, What Should I Do?

My personal preference is for either of these:

  1. Keep the default AdWords setting (last click) and use Google Analytics for deeper insights into a searcher’s journey to a conversion. You should be doing this already. What if 90% of conversions start with an ad click, and finish with a direct visit? Your ads could be successful without you realising.
  2. Position-based. For most of our clients, the two most important ad clicks are discovery (they find out about the brand) and conversion (the last click). With this model, first and last click get 40% of a conversion each, and any in the middle share 20%.

Be very wary about moving away from the default settings. I suggest only changing things if you have had a deep look through Analytics and decided on a best fit. Changes aren’t retrospective, and there is nothing in reports to indicate that you changed the settings.

Bonus Tip – No Need to Change Anything

Changing conversions settings affects the standard reporting of conversions in your account. However, there are still reports you can use instead of changing settings.


Tools > Attribution > Attribution Modelling – compare the different types side-by side. There are other interesting reports here, like Top Paths.


In Analytics, there is a tool that lets you fiddle with Analytics conversions to see which channel gets them from different attribution models. Quickly choose the one that shows the best AdWords performance to your boss 😉

By Robert Skelton

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