Google Analytics & Feedburner: A Love-Hate Relationship

I love Feedburner.

For those that are unfamiliar with Feedburner, it tracks how many people subscribe to an RSS feed, the various applications that access your feed, and how many people take action on your content. It will even track how many people subscribe via email. All wonderful metrics related to interaction with your syndicated content.

Some people, like me, syndicate all of their content via RSS. But others will will only syndicated a snippet of content in the feed in hopes of driving people back to a website where the content lives. This is true for most publishers like Search Engine Land and the BBC.

In this case a feed becomes a source of traffic and must be measured as such. Luckily there is a simple integration with Google Analytics that makes it easy to see how much traffic is coming from a feed.

Feedburner will automatically inject the Google Analytics Campaign Tracking parmeters into your feed. Then, when someone clicks on a link in your feed, the traffic to your site will correctly identified as coming from your syndicated content.

(You can read all about campaign tracking in a previous post if you are not familiar with it.)

It’s important to note that Feedburner will only tag SOME of your links. More on this later.

You can find the campaign tracking settings in the Configure Stats” section of the Analyze tab. Here are the default settings:

Default Feedburner settings for Google Analytics.

Default Feedburner settings for Google Analytics.

Digging into this a bit more, here’s a description of values that Feedburner will insert into the various campaign tracking parameters:

  • Source: This value is set to “feedburner” by default. It identifies that the visitor came from content that was syndicated by Feedburner. I would not recommend changing this.
  • Medium: The channel where the feed was distributed. Remember, Feedburner can distribute your content via RSS, Twitter or Email. Feedber alters the value of medium depending on how the feed is accessed. The values will be either “feed”, “email”, or “twitter”.
  • Campaign: This is just the feeduri and feed name. Because my feed name and URI are the same, I actually simplified this to just be the feed name. But no need to change this.
  • Content: The application where a click request originates, e.g. Google Reader, Gmail. Can be interesting to see how people are consuming your content.
  • Term: not used by default

So that’s the good news. We have a tool that measures the reach of our feed on a daily basis and the traffic back to our site from that feed.

Now the bad news.

There are some quirks when it comes to Feedburner. Specifically, not all of the links in a syndicated post are tagged with the Google Analytics campaign parameters. The result is incorrect traffic source data. Let’s look at some data to understand the impact.

Here’s a simple graph of direct traffic to my blog. All of the annotations with start (shown at the bottom of the graph) are dates when I published a new article. You can notice the spike in direct traffic on the day of, or the day after, that I publish the post.

Direct traffic to this site.

Direct traffic to this site.

Now, let’s focus on Dec 8 and 9, the large spike of Direct traffic and look at some of the landing pages for direct traffic.

Top landing pages for direct traffic.

Top landing pages for direct traffic.

The top landing page for direct traffic is:

/blog/2011/12/08/the-google-analytics-social-data-hub-more-than-meets-the-eye/index.php

I don’t think anyone is going directly to that page. I do believe that a lot of people are going directly to /blog/index.php. But people are not typing /blog/2011/12/08/the-google-analytics-social-data-hub-more-than-meets-the-eye/index.php into the browser. This is clearly an issue.

Direct traffic can often be caused by links that are not tagged. Depending on server redirects, we often see untagged email traffic, especially from application like Outlook, incorrectly tracked as Direct Traffic. I’m guessing that’s happening here.

So let’s go one step further. Let’s go right to the source of the problem. Here is an email that Feedburner sends to those that subscribe to my feed via email. A quick investigation reveals that the link in the header, which links to the sire URL, is not tagged. So that would increase direct traffic to /blog/index.php.

However, the link to the article page is tagged, which is great news.

A blog post sent from Feedburner.

A blog post sent from Feedburner, some links are tagged and some are not.

A quick look at the links at the bottom of the page reveal that the links are NOT tagged.

Not all of the links in a Feedburner Email are tagged.

Not all of the links in a Feedburner Email are tagged.

So that link at the bottom of the page, the one to the post “The Google Analytics Social Data Hub – More than Meets the Eye?”, that’s the link that’s responsible for driving a lot of direct traffic to the site.

You may be asking why doesn’t Google record this as referral traffic? Due to redirect, the value of document.referrer, which would normally be the referring site is blank. Resulting in direct traffic.

ARGH!

So there you have it. Feedburner is AWESOME. A fantastic way to track content syndication. But beware, there are quirks. Specifically not all of the links that are in an email are tagged.

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    Comments

    1. Reid Dossinger says

      I actually gave up on this integration a little while ago and just turned it off entirely. I can see how it would be helpful to the people whose feed is being picked up and syndicated on other sites, but to me, I would rather have see the referral traffic than just a big chunk of traffic from “Feedburner”.

      I kept hoping that the distribution endpoint would get smarter so that you could just put it in the utm_source, but it very rarely tells where it’s coming from. Occasionally, you would get “GoogleReader”, but usually it stays blank.

      Feedburner has, for the most part, been really great over the years. But it seems like it’s just being kept functional at this point, and certainly not improved.

    2. says

      Great and detailed article!

      I find that there’s one major problem with GA tagging your RSS feed (through feedburner or whichever service you use).

      It is great for tagging those people who consume your content via an RSS reader. However RSS feeds are often “syndicated” on misc. sites like link directories, even if you don’t want it. So a link with GA tagging to your content will appear on some random site out of your control, and you then loose the ability to correctly track that.

      Plus, people going to your content from an RSS reader, often tend to share exactly that URL on fx. Twitter or Facebook, forums or their own blog. With the tagging parameters. And then you won’t get that trafic tagged correctly.

      I used to have GA tagging on my RSS feed, but chose to remove it. I’d rather have the RSS-reader visitors be dumped into the direct trafic bucket, rather than run the risk of a lot of other traffic channels being poluted or tagged incorrectly.

      But it’s an interesting discussion. There sure are both pros and cons against tagging your RSS feed.

    3. says

      Y’know, if your’e using a CMS, you could add in conditional tags that automatically insert the tracking codes to links.

      Yeah, it’s one more step you or your webmaster need to take but if you need more accurate data, what lengths are you not willing to go?

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