Understanding Google Analytics’ “Coffeyville” Flaw

Over the past few years, local business owners and marketers have become more sophisticated and are paying closer attention to Google Analytics. We love working with these clients. The more engaged they are, the more collaboration we can expect; and, therefore, the more effective their digital marketing and advertising campaigns will be.

As the level of interest in all things analytics increases, so do questions related to the various quirks and features of Google Analytics. After-all,  local marketers want to make sure they’re getting value for their investments in digital marketing services such as SEO, social media management, pay per click or other digital advertising or marketing services.

Digital marketing can be a confusing area, even for veteran marketers. The relative complexity of the digital marketing space combined with rampant advertising fraud and questionable metrics add to the uncertainly. We’re going to discuss one such anomaly today related to Google Analytics and geolocation.

A Quick History of Google Analytics

You can read a more complete history of Google Analytics here. This is the short version:

Many people are surprised to learn that Google didn’t initially develop the product. In 2005, Google acquired Urchin Software Corp. and relaunched Urchin On Demand as Google Analytics in 2006. Of course, over the past decade the product has gone through several iterations and extensive upgrades. in 2012, the website analytics platform was redeveloped to include “Universal Analytics.” This new version included features suited to the mobile age: cross-platform tracking, tracking code with the ability to collect data from nearly any device, and  custom dimensions and metrics. Today the product is part of the Google Marketing Platform.

Over the years, Google has been carefully integrating their Analytics platform with other Google-developed and acquired technologies such as Adwords (now Google Ads), YouTube and DoubleClick (discontinued, with the features now included in Marketing Platform and Google Ads.)

So what does all of this have to do with Geolocation anomalies? The point here is that, while Google is one of the most amazing technology companies in the world, much of their technology stack has been cobbled together through acquisitions and various internal projects, leading to unexpected limitations.

How Google Analytics Does Geolocation

Geolocation Issues In Google Analytics

Google Analytics, unlike advertising demand-side platforms (DSPs), exclusively uses IP addresses to determine “approximate location.” This usually includes city and country codes.  Surprisingly, Google doesn’t use their own data to return these results. Rather, Google contracts with a third-party data source to provide location data. It essentially collects the IP address from site visitors, sends that data via an API to a third-party data company and then receives the approximate location from that company.

What happens when the location cannot be determined or is incomplete? Interestingly, when the result is simply the “United States,” Google Analytics generally displays that location as Coffeyville, KS, which just so happens to be very close to its geographic center!

Now, Google doesn’t reveal their geolocation data partners. However, several likely suspects have similar, known issues.

Frustration for Marketers

There is a frustrating technology limitation for local digital marketers. While advertising platforms and DSPs have improved at warp speed, particularly when it comes to geolocation, Google Analytics and similar platforms are still lagging. Thus, we find an environment where digital marketers can target exactly the audiences they seek, while attribution through Google Analytics gets more difficult.

True, there are several alternative platforms competing with Google Analytics. However, with Google Analytics, the price is right: zero. Alternatives such as Adobe Analytics and others can set you back thousands of dollars per month, and there’s no guarantee that similar geolocation issues won’t exist. Geolocation at the micro level isn’t the primary focus for these tools.

Advice for Local Marketers

So, what to do if you’re seeing far too much traffic from Coffeyville, Kansas? Undertanding the underlying issue may be comforting. Consider this as a blind spot for marketers of all stripes. By relying on tried and true digital adverting and marketing tactics such as geofencing, search retargeting, reputation management, SEM, SEO and Facebook, you can be confident in your strategy. After-all, digital platforms are fundamentally more measurable than traditional marketing efforts.

As always, it pays to be skeptical and work with partners willing to share their knowledge before and after the buy. No technology is perfect, and it’s best to go into any plan with your eyes wide open.

If you need help with your digital marketing efforts, have questions about our services or just need assistance with your website, contact us today! We offer free, no-obligation consultations, marketing audits and ongoing support.