Digital Publishing Platforms
4 mins read

“Google gets far more of the credit”: Publishers’ attribution problem—a marketer’s perspective

You’re listening to a podcast. The guest describes a product that sounds compelling, alluring, something you’ve been looking for… What happens next?

Yup. You search Google.

And then what? Google shows you the website for that alluring product, and you click. Maybe you explore the site a bit, perhaps give them your email address or even buy the product.

Next month, the marketing team for that product analyzes where their traffic’s coming from, and see that, *TA DA*, visitors from Google search were the top-performing cohort. That podcast you heard about them on? It’s nowhere. Sure, maybe they mentioned a special URL to visit, but when you couldn’t perfectly recall it, you searched Google. Heck, you might have even unintentionally searched Google using that URL correctly, but the search monopolist STILL gets the credit because you used the search bar or the Google app instead of the browser-URL input.

So, the marketing team takes their findings to the executive team, who determine that… surprise surprise… marketing should spend more money and effort on Google, and stop fiddling around with those silly podcasts. After all, Google sent all that high-conversion traffic, right?

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

But when marketers and executives look at whether brand marketing, especially digital investments (podcasts, YouTube channels, editorial contributions, social media marketing, digital PR, etc), have an impact, they instead see Google searches. Spikes and rises that aren’t perfectly attributable to a particular event or story don’t get credit, and even when they do, it’s credit that’s usually shared or undermined by Google’s “(not provided)” keywords and padlock on web navigation.

Attribution modeling is how marketing budgets are crafted at companies big, medium, and small. And by obfuscating the true path people take to discover your site, Google gets far more of the credit than they deserve.

For a huge percent of the “searches” they get, they’re really just a middleman between a navigating user and a website… a privately-owned tollbooth on the publicly funded highway of the Internet.

Not all of this Google’s fault. Removing organic keyword attribution was an obviously craven, hypocritical, indefensible move, but much of what’s happening in marketing attribution is because Google is a very good product for navigating the web — arguably superior to using URLs and web addresses. Why type in or remember a URL when Google will make sure you get to the right destination, even if you slightly misremember a name.

Marketers are being misdirected. Instead of investing in our brands by doing things that will make us memorable to our audiences, we’re getting nudged to buy ads — the last, attributable form of online marketing in a world obsessed with privacy theater > real privacy.

How do we combat unattributed marketing?

Three ways:

  1. We accept that much of marketing is non-attributable, that investments in detailed measurement often cost more than they’re worth, and (perhaps most saliently) that the harder a tactic/channel is to measure, the less competitive and higher-ROI it usually is.
  2. We need to intentionally dedicate real budget to serendipitous, hard-to-measure channels and tactics, and justifying them using geographic and/or time-series-based, implied attribution.
  3. We have to get great at explaining this conundrum to the people determining where, how much, and whether we can make more creative investments.

I’ll briefly focus on #2 above, because implied attribution is a powerful tactic to add to our toolboxes.

When your brand is mentioned on a podcast, talked about during a webinar, promoted through sponsored placement, amplified through an Instagram campaign, featured in an industry report, etc… Those things almost always happen at a specific time and/or in a particular geography.

STOP explaining quarterly reports that show brand growth (branded search volume, direct traffic, type-in, increased social followings, etc) as “natural,” and start defining them as a combination of all those un-measurable tactics you invested in. It’s near impossible to know which specific mention or brand touch resulted in a visit, but it is possible to know when and where it happened and didn’t. Those spikes and lulls are the key to earning future investment.

If you’re forced to justify sponsoring that event with provable data, make it clear that it’s possible, but will literally be as much or more work than the investment itself. You’ll have to show month over month lift from the show’s audience (based on their geography, time zones, or email addresses (if you get them). Or, better still, build a model of what “natural” organic/brand growth would look like based on doing only the prior year’s work. Make sure that model uses prior years’ investments (preferably 5-10 years worth if you have them). Then show time year-over-year lift in the 6-10 weeks following the event, while controlling for every other marketing investment you did or didn’t make and…

Yeah.

This right here is why superbly measurable attribution and high-ROI investments rarely go together. Because if they did, everyone would pour dollars into them, just like they do with Google and Facebook ads. It’s also why Facebook and Google hide/obfuscate so much of the traffic data that would make their platforms easier to measure… Because then organic social and SEO would compete for your ad dollars, and they will not be having any of that nonsense!


The best news here, is that for those willing to take risks, willing to make some great bets and some bad ones, willing to put money and time toward serendipitous, brand investments, marketing can become a true competitive advantage.

Rand Fishkin
Founder, SparkToro

This article was originally published on SparkToro as “Too Much Creative Marketing is Stifled by Attribution” and is re-published with kind permission.

About SparkToro:  SparkToro is a new software company from Moz founder, Rand Fishkin. Its mission is to make it easier to discover the websites, blogs, podcasts, social accounts, and publications that reach your audience.  @randfish | @SparkToro