I had this question from a client recently and performed some research to uncover the answer. We use Zappos.com in the examples below – please note that they are not a client of Location3 Media, I just really love shoes!
How does Google Analytics associate visits to campaigns?
We already know that when a user visits from a source other than direct, and then returns via direct traffic, Google Analytics will attribute his or her visit back to the first visit. For example, if you search for “Steve Madden shoes” and click on an organic search engine listing for Zappos.com, and then later you type Zappos.com directly into your browser, Zappos’ Google Analytics will see two organic visits for “Steve Madden shoes.” However, this only happens with direct (or bookmarked) visits. I you then later click on a link to Zappos from a link on Facebook, Google Analytics will correctly report it as a referral visit from Facebook.
So in the above example, you would have two visits for organic, “Steve Madden shoes” traffic, and one from Facebook referral traffic.
The exception to this rule is the Social report suite and the Multi-Channel Funnels reports in Google Analytics, which show the actual traffic source. In these reports, you would see one organic visit, one direct visit, and one Facebook visit.
But what if I am seeing really, really old campaigns still showing up in Google Analytics?
This may just mean that your campaigns did a good job giving users an initial exposure to your website, and they have been returning directly ever since.
Campaign cookies have a six month expiration window, but they refresh each time you visit. This means that as long as users are returning directly within that six month window, they will continue to be seen as coming from that original source. If they take longer than six months to decide to come back to your site, their old campaign cookies will be trashed and they will appear in Google Analytics as a direct visit.
We wanted to verify this was true, so we took advantage of our Google Analytics Certified Partner status and reached out to the GACP forum. There, Gavin Doolan @ Google confirmed this was the case by performing a test for us, monitoring the expiration date of the campaign cookie with each refresh and noting that the expiration date was continually moved back with each new visit, as long as the visit was performed before the expiration date on the previous visit.
Hopefully that helps to clear up your questions about campaigns in Google Analytics! Please feel free to ask more questions or leave comments below.