Is Google Analytics location data accurate?

Google Analytics location data is important to analyze the performance of your organic and paid campaigns. As for all data-driven decisions, you need to understand first how reliable this information is. Join me on the quest to find out if GA knows where Waldo is?

How is location determined in Google Analytics?

Google Analytics determines the location of visitors based on the IP address of their device. The physical location is retrieved from a database that maps IP addresses with locations.

This location method has been around for a while and is also used in the new version of GA.

This may sound strange, because Google has far more advanced technology to locate users. In Google Maps, for instance, GPS plays an important role.

That made it possible in 2018 to find Waldo on Google Maps.

Although this was part of an April Fools campaign, it illustrates the vast differences between what a company can do and what it does because there are higher forces at work that protect the privacy of users. I will get back to this.

Let’s first understand how IP location technology impacts the accuracy of location data.

How accurate is Google Analytics location data?

Location data in Google Analytics is not 100% reliable. The more you zoom in on a location (country, region, city), the higher the error percentage.

There are basically 4 reasons these errors occur.

#1 IP addresses are not location data

To explain its purpose, an IP address is often compared with a physical address. In this simplified metaphor, the mail carrier needs to know where to deliver his bits and bytes package.

I don’t want to steal your valuable time by going into details about how ISPs, cell towers, browsers and antivirus software assign, change and hide your IP address.

What matters to you is that GA uses IP addresses to determine the location, but these can differ from the actual IP address of the user.

Simply put: GA gets the impression that your IP address is ABC, which is located in New York. But your actual IP address is XYZ and you are shopping in London.

#2 Missing location data in GA

Google Analytics uses a 3rd party vendor to determine the location of users.

Source: GA support https://support.google.com/analytics/answer/1009667?hl=en

This warning fits perfectly in the tradition of Google Analytics to not spend many words on explanations, such as why it is sunsetting UA.

Not all location data exists, or is updated live. As a result, you can encounter “not set location” in, for instance, the traffic acquisition report.

Give it a try and use Town/City as a secondary dimension.

Let’s dig deeper and get to the reason GA is still using technology that is bound to produce errors in location data.

#3 GDPR, IP & PII

The GDPR considers an IP address as PII (Personally Identifiable Information).

That is not only a mouth full of acronyms.

It is also today’s world where privacy is becoming more important than ever.

Although you were not born with an IP address, that nerdy number with dots in between can reveal personal information about your whereabouts.

Luckily, reporting and collecting are two distinct steps of the whole process. GA collects IP addresses, but it anonymizes them so you don’t see them in GA.

To help you visualize this, I stole an image from an article by Jeff Sauer, founder of Data Driven U, about IP tracking in GA.

#4 Country, region, city

The accuracy of a location depends on the scale you are using. In GA4, you can dig 3 levels deep: country, region and town/city. The more you zoom in, the higher the error rate.

Pro tip: If you connect BigQuery to GA4, you can also retrieve data on the level of continents and subcontinents.

You can choose and change the geographic dimension in many of the reports.

In the GA4 real time report, you can see none or all of the geographic location levels. If you don't see anything at all, there may be a problem with your real time report.

In all cases, do not blindly trust location data in GA.

So, what is even the point of this information?

How can this affect your business?

Although location data in Google Analytics is not accurate, it is still useful to answer 2 important questions about the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns.

Do your organic campaigns reach your target location?

Unless you are running an app or a big tech company, you are not aiming to have visitors from all over the world.

To target specific countries, you can optimize your site in different ways.

  • The domain extension, for instance, can give a strong signal to Google that you are focusing on a certain country.
  • But also local language variants, phone numbers, an address and content about local cultural habits can play a huge role in whether Google will show – and keep showing – your site in a region or not.

Location data can help you figure out whether your site attracts organic visitors from the countries, regions and even cities you are targeting.

This is even more important if you have several domain names for different countries. In that case, you want to be absolutely sure that all your content and SEO efforts pay off.

But again, don’t be blind for the bigger picture.

Let’s assume you have a visitor from Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. If your business is not targeting the UK, it’s easy to think that this visit won’t make any difference.

In reality, however, this specific visitor could be your next big client who was on a holiday and had nothing better to do than visit your site.

You see where I am getting at?

Approach user location data in a mobile world with the greatest care

Do your paid campaigns reach your audience?

Advertising platforms give you the impression that it’s easy to target users of specific regions. The truth is that this is far more complex.

Google Ads, for example, does not only use IP addresses to locate users. If they have given permission, Google can also show ads based on their “Web & App Activity”.

Search history, interests, visited places, and so on. They all help Google and advertisers to show relevant ads, including products or services in your neighborhood.

If you run paid ads, be aware that you are using two platforms that collect and process user location in different ways.

When you compare the data, you will smell either rotten eggs or oven-baked cookies.

Don’t let location discrepancies scare you off and stop you from running paid campaigns. Also don’t follow the trail to locations that smell as the promised land, region or city, filled with visitors that cannot get enough of your offering.

Conclusion

Don’t make critical business decisions based on location data from Google Analytics alone.

The data is not fully reliable. Especially when you look at Town/City level, you can expect flawed data.

On the other hand, do not ignore where your visitors are located. This information gives you at least a rough idea of how successful your organic and paid campaigns are.

Finding Waldo is impossible in Google Analytics. He may be anonymized or camouflaged as John or Jane Doe. But even with anonymized and aggregate data, our Data Driven programs can turn your business or career into a success story. Regardless of where you are located.

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