How to Use GA4 Default Channel Grouping

Understanding the new features in GA4 will help you to make the most out of them.

Today, we’ll talk about GA4 default channel groupings.

Default channel groupings are not exclusive to GA4. They’ve been around for a long time and are used in UA all the time, albeit being limited in numbers and flexible in configuration.

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They have been expanded in GA4. Certain definitions and rules have changed, so knowing about them will help you analyze your data better.

Understanding what channels are performing better in terms of bringing in traffic and conversions is something that will help you optimize those channels.

So, let’s try to learn how GA4 channel grouping works. By the end of this post, you will learn about:

Let’s get right into it!

What are the Default Channel Groupings?

Channel groupings are the names of channels that bring in traffic to your website. These channels are grouped based on different rules from definitions set by Google.

They give us a high-level view to analyze the performance of different channels, and if one is doing better than another then we can direct our efforts toward that channel. Otherwise, we would be wasting our limited resources on unfruitful channels.

For instance, you could be spending a lot of money on running ads, but your analytics show that your Organic Search is bringing a lot more traffic. Therefore, you would want to direct more efforts toward SEO.

Compared to UA, GA4 has expanded the default channel groupings by adding 16 more groupings under its umbrella, which also include Audio, Video, SMS, and Mobile Push Notifications. More on that later.

You can find the Session default channel groupings and their performance data under the main ReportsAcquisitionTraffic acquisition report.

Screenshot of Traffic acquisition report showing GA4 default channel grouping

You can also find the default channel grouping under the User acquisition report selected by default.

The only difference here is that it would be the First user default channel grouping compared to the Session default channel grouping in the Traffic acquisition report.

Screenshot of User acquisition report in GA4 showing first user default channel grouping

What if you want to look at the source/medium traffic sources in more detail? In the same Traffic acquisition report, you can do two things:

  1. Click on the drop-down menu that reads ‘Session default channel grouping’ and select Session source/medium.
Screenshot showing the option to choose Session source/medium as a dimension instead of the default channel grouping in GA4’s traffic acquisition report
  1. Add a secondary dimension by clicking on the ‘+’ icon and search for source/medium which you can add based on sessions or users.
Screenshot showing how to add source/medium as a secondary dimension in GA4 traffic acquisition report

Now that you know what channel groupings in GA4 are and how you can find the source/medium dimension in GA4, you can start analyzing their performance for your website and optimize them further.

Let’s also see how these channel groupings compare to each other in Universal Analytics and Google Analytics 4.

How do Channel Groupings in GA4 Compare to UA?

As hard as it might be, you will have to change your outlook on some of the channel groupings in UA because of how they are being defined now in GA4.

Let’s discuss what are the three major differences between them:

  1. You cannot create custom channel groupings in GA4 as you could in UA.
  2. It is not possible to change the rule-based definitions in GA4, so you are stuck with what Google has already defined and should strictly follow them.
  3. You cannot add any new channels to the already existing channel groupings in GA4.

This sounds a little too much of ‘not’ which is somewhat against the argument that GA4 is quite flexible.

Let’s see how the definition of the common channels has changed, and take a glance at some of the new channels added by Google in GA4.

ChannelUniversal AnalyticsGoogle Analytics 4
DirectSource exactly matches direct
AND
Medium is either (not set) or (none)
Same definition
Organic SearchMedium exactly matches organicSource matches a list of search sites
OR
Medium exactly matches organic
Social / Organic SocialSocial Source Referral exactly matches Yes
OR
Medium matches regex ^(social|social-network|social-media|sm|social network|social media)$
Source matches a regex list of social sites
OR
Medium is one of (“social”, “social-network”, “social-media”, “sm”, “social network”, “social media”)
EmailMedium exactly matches emailSource = email|e-mail|e_mail|e mail
OR
Medium = email|e-mail|e_mail|e mail
AffiliatesMedium exactly matches affiliateSame definition
ReferralMedium exactly matches referralSame definition
Paid SearchMedium matches regex ^(cpc|ppc|paidsearch)$
AND
Ad Distribution Network does not exactly match Content
Source matches a list of search sites
AND
Medium matches regex ^(.*cp.*|ppc|paid.*)$
DisplayMedium matches regex ^(display|cpm|banner)$
OR
Ad Distribution Network exactly matches Content
Medium is one of (“display”, “banner”, “expandable”, “interstitial”, “cpm”)
(unavailable) or (other) Sessions don’t match any channel description(other) is used for an aggregated row due to cardinality limits
unassignedNot AvailableUnassigned is used when there are no other channel rules that match the event data.

In addition to the changes, there’s a list of several new groupings for traffic which are categorized under Manual, Google Ads, Display & Video 360, and Search Ads 360 traffic.

New channel groupings for manual traffic in GA4:

  • Cross-network
  • Paid Shopping
  • Paid Social
  • Paid Video
  • Organic Shopping
  • Organic Social
  • Organic Video
  • Audio
  • SMS
  • Mobile Push Notifications

New channel groupings for Google Ads traffic in GA4:

  • Paid Search
  • Paid Video
  • Display
  • Cross-network
  • Paid Social

New channel groupings for Display & Video 360 in GA4:

  • Display
  • Paid Video
  • Audio
  • Paid Other

New channel groupings for Search Ads 360 in GA4:

  • Paid Search
  • Paid Social

While other channels are clear, the Cross-network one means that marketers will now be able to analyze the performance of their Performance Max and Smart Shopping Campaigns.

You can find the definitions of these groupings from the Default channel group Google documentation. You can also download the list of over 800 websites with their source category at the bottom of that page.

This file would help you to understand into what source categories these major websites fall, especially if you have the traffic coming from any of them. There are four source categories: Search, Social, Shopping, and Video.

Moving onto how we can use GA4 default channels in the explorations to get draw insights.

How to Deal with (other) Channel Groupings in GA4?

It is quite frustrating when you see (other) under the default channel grouping as it makes it difficult for you to understand what’s happening.

This problem is not exclusive to GA4 as it exists in UA, as well. There are a few ways to deal with it in GA4 so you can easily analyze your data.

Why does it happen? Cardinality. Simply put, it happens when a dimension has many unique values. The backend table in GA hits the row limit, so it puts the remaining values into the (other) group.

What does it mean that a dimension has unique values? Take the example of the Device category. It has, at most, four unique values, i.e., Desktop, Mobile, Tab, and Smart TV, so its cardinality is 4. It is unlikely that you will hit the row limits for this dimension in a day.

But dimensions like Page path, Item Id, or Page location can have many values assigned to them and can easily fall into the high-cardinality dimension group. 

For eCom websites and/or websites with hundreds of unique pages, there will likely be high cardinality for these dimensions.

How do you deal with it in GA4? Here are a few good practices that can help you deal with seeing (other) in the channel grouping in GA4:

  1. It’s best to use GA4’s standard reports whenever you can because tables in those reports reduce the chances of dimensions being grouped into (other) channels.
  2. Switch to the Explorations report if you see the (other) row in the standard reports. 
  3. Use predefined dimensions whenever possible, because creating custom dimensions for similar data will put unnecessary stress on GA.
  4. Use the User-ID feature rather than creating a custom dimension for users, to avoid cardinality issues.
  5. Only use high-cardinality dimensions when you need to, especially when adding secondary dimensions in either standard or custom reports.
  6. Export the data to BigQuery to avoid cardinality issues.

Using GA4 Default Channel Groupings in Explorations

At this point, we are not looking at different reports we can create in explorations, but only at how we can use the channel groupings for our analysis.

Why would you want to do that? Maybe because you want to use segments, different types of visualization, and/or you want to look at other metrics without touching the default reports.

For this example, navigate to Explore and Create a free-form report. 

Once you’re in the report, click on the ‘+’ icon in dimensions to add default channel grouping (as attribution or traffic source) → Choose metrics → Add Segments (optional)

Screenshot of a free-form report showing how to add default channel group as dimension, metrics, and any optional segments

This final report shows the data for the Mobile Users segment for channel groupings that brought traffic to different pages along with other performance metrics like conversions.

Screenshot of a custom report in explorations showing default channel groupings with a segment to analyze their performance

This is one of the many ways that you can customize and use default channel groupings in GA4 to analyze performance.

For instance, if you have multiple referrers for one channel like Facebook (m.facebook.com / referral, facebook / ppc, etc.), then GA4 won’t automatically add it all under Facebook traffic.

This is where you can create a report in explore by filtering traffic for Facebook in the source/medium dimension, which was previously solved with custom channel groupings in UA.

Limitations of GA4 Default Channel Groupings

There are a few more limitations that come with these channel groupings, and knowing that would help you to use them better.

The most common way of messing up the data is when you have used incorrect UTM tags that do not match, as per the rules mentioned above by Google, and you end up seeing either wrong attribution or way too high ‘Unassigned’ traffic.

This is not specific to GA4, as it’s the same with UA. So, if you have been using the wrong UTM tags, then you cannot do much with the historical data.

However, in GA4 there’s a way around fixing that data, even though it is not possible within GA4’s interface.

BigQuery is the way. This free integration with GA4, which isn’t available with UA, will help you to export the data to BigQuery and then define the rules for your channel groupings.

This will provide you with correct numbers even for historical data. You should have a working knowledge of BQ and SQL to do this.

Now would be a great time to press the reset button and get rid of any bad practices that you’ve picked up over the years for setting up your UTM tags.

Standardize your UTM tags that follow the rules laid down by Google for GA4’s channel groupings to ensure you receive the correct data.

As difficult as it might be, a big part of migrating to GA4 is unlearning our habits and practices for UA.

It is also a good practice to audit your account periodically to ensure that you’re getting quality data and that nothing is messing up with your channel groupings due to wrong UTM tagging.

Summary

Now you should have a good understanding of what are default channel groupings, how they are different in GA4 due to certain changes in their rule-based definitions, and what are additional channel groupings available to you now.

Whilecan’ty to change the rules in GA4 anymore as well as create custom channels, we can use the powerful explore section to create one-time custom reports and use them for our analysis later on.

Moreover, it is now more important than ever for marketers to standardize and use correct UTM tags to ensure that the traffic is correctly bucketed under the appropriate channels and keep auditing your account from time to ensure your data quality.

However,  if you face a data-pollution problem due to wrong UTM tagging, then you can export the data to BigQuery in GA4. You can query it there, as well as define rules to correctly attribute the data to their channels.

Remember, you ought to know your way around BigQuery and SQL to do so. Here’s a helpful tutorial to get you started with BigQuery.

Please let us know how you are using the default channel groupings in GA4 for your analysis in the comments below! Especially those 16 new additions!

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