Detailed Guide to Channel Grouping In Google Analytics 4 (GA4)

Google Analytics 4 (GA4) has many new predefined groups, compared to GA Universal, which improve automatic traffic categorization. However, the ability to create custom channel groups is very limited. This can complicate the work of marketers and analysts. 

Marketers will have to adjust their campaign tagging methods so that campaign traffic is properly allocated to the new GA4 channel groups.

Meanwhile, analysts now have to create custom channel groups manually and repeat this procedure each time a new report is needed.

In this article, we cover the GA4 channel grouping features and what to do for those who are accustomed to using custom grouping in their reports.

Note: This post was originally published in Dec 2022 as a comparison between GAU and GA4 and was completely updated in November 2023 for accuracy and comprehensiveness. 

What is Channel Grouping in Google Analytics (GA4)

Channel Grouping in Google Analytics (GA4) is a method of categorizing traffic into meaningful channels, allowing marketers and analysts to understand the origins and behaviors of their website visitors. 

By default, GA4 provides a set of predefined channels such as Organic Search, Direct, Email, Paid, and Social, but users do have the ability to create custom channel groupings to better align with their marketing strategies.

Benefits of Channel Grouping in GA4

Channel grouping in Google Analytics 4 offers several benefits, including-:

  • Streamlined Traffic Analysis: Categorizes user interactions into meaningful groups for a clearer view of traffic sources.

  • Improved Marketing Insights: Identifies the most effective marketing channels, facilitating campaign optimization.

  • Efficient Resource Allocation: Helps allocate resources more effectively by understanding which channels perform best.

  • User Behavior Understanding: Aids in comprehending user behavior, allowing for enhanced engagement strategies.

  • Personalized Content: Tailors content to better match audience preferences, leading to improved user experiences.

  • Data-Driven Decision-Making: Enables data-driven decisions, adapting to changing market dynamics for better performance.

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Channel Grouping in Google Analytics 4 vs Universal Analytics

In the transition from Universal Analytics to Google Analytics 4 (GA4), the concept of Channel Grouping remains important but with notable differences. 

GA4 channel grouping introduces more advanced machine learning capabilities, enabling it to automatically categorize traffic sources more accurately. This offers a deeper understanding of user behavior and marketing performance. 

Additionally, GA4 allows for greater flexibility in custom channel groupings, making it a more adaptable choice for businesses seeking detailed insights. While Universal Analytics offers standard predefined channel groupings, GA4 provides a more advanced and customizable approach to analyzing and categorizing web traffic.

Compared to Universal Analytics, Google Analytics 4 (GA4) now has 19 more default channel groups:

Google Analytics 4Universal Analytics
DirectDirect
DisplayDisplay
Organic SearchOrganic Search
EmailEmail
AffiliatesAffiliates
ReferralReferral
Paid SearchPaid Search
Paid SocialSocial
Paid VideoOther Advertising
Cross-network
Organic Shopping
Organic Social
Organic Video
Paid Shopping
Audio
SMS
Mobile Push Notifications

You can also apply custom channel grouping for Google Ads traffic:

  • Paid Search

  • Paid Video

  • Display

  • Cross-network

  • Paid Social

Here is the list of channels for Display & Video 360 traffic:

  • Display

  • Paid Video

  • Audio

  • Paid Other

And last by sometimes important - channels for Search Ads 360 traffic:

  • Paid Search

  • Paid Social

Some Google Analytics universal channel groups remain unchanged in GA4, such as Direct or Organic Search.

Some groups in Google Analytics 4 have been given broader definitions, such as Email, Affiliates, and Paid Search. 

Some groups were not in Universal Analytics at all, such as Paid Social, Organic Social, and Video.

Additionally, all of the channels in Google Analytics 4 are divided into four subgroups:

  1. Channels for manual traffic

  2. Channels for Google Ads traffic

  3. Channels for Display & Video 360 traffic

  4. Channels for Search Ads 360 traffic.

What else is different about channel grouping in Google Analytics 4?

  • You cannot add new channels to the default channel group.

  • You cannot edit the rules for the default channel group.

Note: Unlike Universal Analytics, Google Analytics 4 is case-insensitive in UTM tags, so it behooves you to make the tags easy to read and interpret. Keep the tags lowercase. You can also add spaces as long as you make sure that the format stays consistent.

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Understanding Default Channel Grouping in Google Analytics 4

In Google Analytics 4 (GA4), default channel grouping classifies incoming traffic into distinct categories, allowing you to analyze the sources of your website visitors. These predefined default channel grouping include:

  • "Direct" (users who enter your URL directly)

  • "Organic Search" (traffic from search engine results)

  • "Referral" (visitors from other websites)

  • "Social" (social media referrals)

  • "Email" (email marketing)

  • "Paid Search" (search engine advertising)

  • "Display" (display advertising)

  • "Other" (uncategorized sources). 

These GA4 default channel groupings provide a quick overview of your website's traffic sources, aiding in understanding user behavior and marketing effectiveness.

The default channel groups also have dimensions known as 

  • Default channel grouping- The channels by which users arrive at your site/app

  • Session default channel grouping- The channels by which users arrive at your site/app when they initiate a new session.

  • First user default channel grouping- The channels by which users first arrive at your site/app.

Please note, you cannot edit Default Channel Group in Google Analytics 4.

How to view the Default Channel Grouping Report in Google Analytics 4

Open Google Analytics 4 and go to the Reports section in the tab on the left.

Reports section

Open the reports in the Acquisition section:

Acquisition section

Choose the Traffic acquisition report, which contains all summaries of channel groupings:

Traffic acquisition report

To view statistics in terms of channel grouping, select Session default channel group in the drop-down list:

Session default channel group

In this report, you will find:

  • a breakdown of users by channel group by day

  • the total number of users by channel group for the selected period

  • a detailed table with data on the main metrics (sessions, users, events, conversions, etc.)

Google Analytics Traffic acquisition report

What is Custom Channel Grouping in GA4?

Custom Channel Grouping in GA4 enables users to define unique groupings that align with their marketing strategies beyond the default channels. By setting specific rules and conditions, users can categorize traffic to reflect their business goals, allowing for more granular analysis. 

Custom channel groups in GA4 can be set as the main dimension in many reports, like Acquisition, and as a secondary dimension in standard reports, such as Events. They are also usable in custom reports, explorations, and for creating audience conditions. Notably, they can reorganize past report data. However, one limitation is their inapplicability in the Conversions paths report, restricting their use in some advanced analysys.

    Benefits of Custom Channel Grouping

    By utilizing custom channel grouping in Google Analytics 4 you can customize them according to your own rules; it will be more convenient to analyze their effectiveness and see the whole picture.

    With Universal Analytics, you can set up channel groups according to your UTM structure. Google Analytics 4 is not as flexible — you must adjust the UTM structure to match the channel groups.

    Obviously, the correct UTM markup will matter more in Google Analytics 4 than in Universal Analytics. And the more employees and partners you have involved in marketing campaigns, the more difficult it will be to bring it all into the right form and a unified structure.

    Unlike the GA4 default channel grouping, a custom channel group can be applied to historical data. This way, you can fix possible errors in UTM markup.

    Let’s summarize the benefits of custom channel grouping:

    • Transparency — You can group channels according to your own logic that is understandable to you and not rely on a conditional black box.

    • Fewer problems with UTM tags and possible errors in them

    • Possibility to change the channel grouping logic for historical data

    • If you don't require extensive external reporting or analysis, utilizing API might not be necessary.

    When is it appropriate to use custom channel grouping?

    1. You’re using a custom traffic source and/or channel.

    2. Google Analytics shows several different referrals for the same channel in reports. For example, Facebook. With the help of GA4 custom grouping, all these referrals can be combined into one Facebook group.

    1. Different traffic sources are part of the same marketing channel. For example, Google Analytics can report traffic from email as Newsletter/email, owox.com/referral, and freemail.co.uk/referral.
    2. Your Facebook/CPC campaigns fall into the Paid channel group by default, but you must separate them into a Paid Social group.
    3. You want Google Analytics reports to be understandable to all employees and partners, even those who are not very familiar with the analytics system/

    How to build custom channel grouping in Google Analytics 4

    You can build a report on Google Analytics 4 data with your own channel grouping in Four ways:

    1. Create a Custom Channel group in GA4

    2. Use special Exploration Reports in Google Analytics 4.

    3. Connect Google Analytics 4 data to Looker Studio (formerly Google Data Studio) and set grouping conditions there.

    4. Upload data from Google Analytics 4 to Google BigQuery and group channels there.

    Let’s take a closer look at each of the methods:

    Setting up Custom channel grouping in GA4.

    To set up a custom channel group, you begin by duplicating an existing group and making the necessary adjustments. If you haven't already established any groups, you can initiate the process by replicating the default group. If you've previously created other groups, you can commence by copying either one of those or the default group, depending on your requirements. Current dimensions available to Create Custom Channel Groups on GA4:

    • Default Channel Groups

    • Medium

    • Source

    • Source Platform

    • Campaign ID

    • Campaign Name

    Let us walk you through an example of the process of creating a custom channel group for ‘Sunny Apparel’s summer beachwear campaign, focusing on social media activities, particularly in the Malibu and Bali regions.

    Step 1: Navigate to the GA4 admin section and select Channel Groups.

    Step 2: Click on “Create new channel group” to start.

    We recommend duplicating the existing group and making edits as it's much easier unless you want something that requires detailed customization.

    custom channel grouping ga4

    Step 3: Enter the group name - eg ”Beachwear Promo Social Media”. This name should reflect the group's purpose, which in your case is tracking a specific promotional campaign.

    channel grouping ga4

    Add a Description (Optional but Recommended):

    Include a brief description, such as "This channel group is designed to track and analyze the performance of Sunny Apparel's summer beachwear campaign on social media, with a focus on the Malibu and Bali regions." This helps in providing context for the group, especially when multiple custom groups are used.

    Given below are some of the default channel descriptions already available:

    Channel

    Description

    Affiliates

    Affiliates is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via links on affiliate sites.

    Audio

    Audio is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via ads on audio platforms (e.g., podcast platforms).

    Cross-network

    Cross-network is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via ads that appear on various networks (e.g., Search and Display).

    Direct

    Direct is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via a saved link or by entering your URL.

    Display

    Display is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via display ads, including ads on the Google Display Network.

    Email

    Email is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via links in email.

    Mobile Push Notifications

    Mobile Push Notifications is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via links in mobile-device messages when they're not actively using the app.

    Organic Search

    Organic Search is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via non-ad links in organic search results.

    Organic Shopping

    Organic Shopping is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via non-ad links on shopping sites like Amazon or eBay.

    Organic Social

    Organic Social is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via non-ad links on social sites like Facebook or Twitter.

    Organic Video

    Organic Video is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via non-ad links on video sites like YouTube, TikTok, or Vimeo.

    Paid Other

    Paid Other is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via ads, but not through an ad identified as Search, Social, Shopping, or Video.

    Paid Search

    Paid Search is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via ads on search-engine sites like Bing, Baidu, or Google.

    Paid Shopping

    Paid Shopping is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via paid ads on shopping sites like Amazon or ebay or on individual retailer sites.

    Paid Social

    Paid Social is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via ads on social sites like Facebook and Twitter.

    Paid Video

    Paid Video is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via ads on video sites like TikTok, Vimeo, and YouTube.

    Referral

    Referral is the channel by which users arrive at your site via non-ad links on other sites/apps (e.g., blogs, news sites).

    SMS

    SMS is the channel by which users arrive at your site/app via links from text messages.

    Since we are focusing on social media activities, so we will keep the “paid social” channel. We have the liberty to remove the other channels from this group as these arent necessary to track for this scenario.

    Step 4: Create New Channel

    To create a new channel, you need to click on “Add new Channel”. 

    new channel grouping ga4

    Then you will need to add the channel name and additional details like source, and medium.

    Here's how you could rewrite the configuration for new regional channels focusing on Bali and Malibu for your Facebook Market Pages:

    For Bali:

    Channel name: Bali

    Campaign name exactly matches (=) Summer Swim

    Source exactly matches (=) facebook.com/Bali

    For Malibu:

    Channel name: Malibu

    Campaign name exactly matches (=) Summer Swim

    Source exactly matches (=) facebook.com/Malibu

    This setup ensures that your GA4 tracking is specifically tailored to the Bali and Malibu regions, corresponding to your localized content on the respective Facebook Market Pages.

    After adding these details, you can save the channel and proceed.

    Step 5: Click Reorder and drag to reorder the list if you need to change the order of channels. Click Apply.Step 6: When you have all the channel definitions you need, and they're in the order you want, click Save group.

    Viewing Data Report for the Custom Channel Group

    To analyze the performance of your "Beachwear Promo Social Media" campaign, particularly for the Malibu and Bali regions, you can use the following reports:

    Acquisition > User Acquisition Report

    • Select the "Beachwear Promo Social Media" channel group as the primary dimension.

    • This report will show user acquisition metrics for the entire channel group.

    Acquisition > Traffic Acquisition Report

    • Similar to the User Acquisition Report, choose the "Beachwear Promo Social Media" channel group as the primary dimension.

    • This report provides insights into traffic sources and user behavior within the group.

    How to build an Exploration Report with custom channel grouping in Google Analytics 4

    In Google Analytics 4, you can use Exploration Reports to group channels according to your conditions and view statistics. For example, you can group Facebook sources:

    group Facebook sources

    To do this, open the Explore section.

    Explore section

    Select Free form:

    Specify the settings for the report:

    settings for the report

    Where:

    • 1 is the name of the report.

    • 2 is the period for which you want to view statistics.

    • 3 and 5 are parameters in the context of which you will view statistics. To group channels, use the Session source/medium parameter.

    • 4 and 6 are metrics of interest.

    • 7 is the filter by sources to be grouped. On the screen is an example for Facebook. Using the filter and its conditions, you can group any sources.

    After completing these settings, you will get a table with statistics on grouped channels:

    How to set up custom channel grouping in Looker Studio (formerly Google Data Studio)

    Another way to customize channel grouping is to connect Google Analytics 4 data to Looker Studio (formerly Google Data Studio) with a built-in connector and set grouping conditions there. It won’t be as reliable as Google BigQuery, but if you need a quick solution, you can use this implementation.

    To connect data to a report, open Looker Studio and select Blank Report:

    Blank Report

    In the opened window, select the data source. In our case, it’s Google Analytics 4:

    Select a Google Analytics 4 account and resource to connect it to Looker Studio, and click the Add button:

    Google Analytics 4 connect to Looker Studio

    Set grouping conditions:

    Method 1: Use source field settings:

    source field settings

    Method 2: Open the list of report sources:

    Click Edit for the Google Analytics 4 source:

    Edit for the Google Analytics 4 source

    Add a new field:

    Add a new field

    Fill in the settings for the new channel grouping field. To do this, use the CASE WHEN formula (example for grouping Facebook sources):

    CASE WHEN formula

    1 – specify the field name

    2 – fill in the grouping conditions

    3 – click the Save button to save the new field

    Example for grouping different channels:

    Example for grouping different channels

    Click Done and go to the report visualization settings using the new field:

    Custom channel grouping in Google BigQuery

    It’s not possible to edit historical data in Google Analytics. Therefore, if your UTM tags were configured incorrectly and you sent traffic data to the wrong channel group in Google Analytics 4, you cannot fix this in the system interface. 

    Luckily, you can upload the required data to Google BigQuery and use SQL to correctly group channels even for past traffic.

    Challenges and Constraints Associated with Channel Grouping in Google Analytics 4

    • Complex Setup: Customizing channels requires a deep understanding of GA4's rule-based system, which can be daunting.

    • Data Discrepancies: Mismatches can occur between expected and reported traffic due to misconfigured or overlapping rules.

    • Maintenance: Channels must be regularly updated to reflect changes in marketing strategies, which can be resource-intensive.

    • Historical Data: Custom groupings only affect data moving forward, not retroactively, complicating historical comparisons.

    • Integration Issues: Difficulties may arise when trying to align GA4 channel groupings with data from other analytics platforms.

    • Limitations in Segmentation: There might be constraints in how finely traffic can be segmented, affecting detailed analysis.

    How to automate GA4 channel grouping with OWOX BI

    Another advantage of grouping channels in Google BigQuery is the ability to automate the process and significantly save analysts’ time on preparing reports. OWOX BI will help you with this.

    What is the problem about?

    To build reports, data from different sources must be correctly processed and combined. Data preparation is a process. It’s not enough to prepare a report (or even many). Data must be updated regularly, and changes to reports must be made permanently. All this is now done by the hands of analysts, which takes a long time and requires the help of SQL queries and scripts.

    If you build reports on raw, non-business-ready data, you may encounter many recurring problems: finding errors and causes of discrepancies will take a lot of time, and the channel grouping logic must be constantly duplicated in all SQL queries. If you decide to change the logic — for example, move one channel to another group — then all requests will need to be redone. With data transformation and modeling, this task is solved before a report is built.

    How OWOX solves these issues:

    OWOX BI collects raw data and automatically converts it to the format you need according to your company’s data model. Due to seamless data collection and preparation, you don’t have the risk of human errors and poor execution quality. Moreover, you have full control over the whole data flow and can see any errors as they appear. 

    Automated no-code SQL-based transformation templates and UI scheduling empower your teams to transform data. No engineering skills or complex tools are required.

    Try low-code transformation templates by industry experts

    If you need to change the grouping of channels, for example, it’s enough to change the grouping once at the model level, and it will be applied to all reports. You don’t need to change everything and then look for discrepancies manually.In addition, OWOX BI accurately collects traffic sources for each user visit and not just for the first visit, as Google Analytics 4 does. This will give you the flexibility to define conversion sources and channel scoring.

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    Key Takeaways

    You can build a report on Google Analytics 4 data with your own channel grouping in several ways:

    • Build a custom channel group in Google Analytics 4

    • Use special Exploration Reports in Google Analytics 4.

    • Connect Google Analytics 4 data to Looker Studio (formerly Google Data Studio) and set grouping conditions there.

    • Upload data from Google Analytics 4 to Google BigQuery and group channels using SQL.

    • Use OWOX BI Transformation.

    The first few methods involve the manual work of analysts, which must be repeated every time a new report is needed. To automate the process and save time, you can create a data model using OWOX BI Transformation. Use prebuilt SQL transformations (or create your own) to make raw data business-ready and get insights faster.

    FAQ

    Expand all Close all
    • What is channel grouping in Google Analytics 4 (GA4)?

      Channel grouping in GA4 categorizes traffic sources into predefined groups to help users understand the origin of traffic and the performance of different marketing channels.
    • How does channel grouping in GA4 differ from Universal Analytics?

      GA4 offers new predefined channel groups and is more restrictive in custom channel creation than Universal Analytics. It also introduces case insensitivity for UTM tags, among other differences.
    • Why is custom channel grouping important in GA4?

      Custom channel grouping allows for a more tailored analysis of traffic sources and can help understand the effectiveness of different marketing strategies by grouping channels according to your own rules.
    • How can I view the Default Channel Grouping Report in GA4?

      To view the Default Channel Grouping Report, navigate to the Reports section in GA4, go to the Acquisition section, and select the Traffic Acquisition Report. From there, choose 'Session default channel group' from the drop-down list.
    • What are the benefits of using custom channel grouping in analytics?

      Custom channel grouping offers transparency, fewer issues with UTM tagging errors, and the ability to apply changes to historical data, providing a clearer picture of channel performance.
    • How can I automate the channel grouping process in GA4?

      You can automate channel grouping in GA4 by using OWOX BI, which allows for automated SQL-based transformations and scheduling to streamline the data preparation process for reporting.
    • Is it possible to import non-Google ad cost data into GA4?

      Yes, it is possible to import non-Google ad cost data into GA4 manually, or you can automate the process using solutions like OWOX BI, which can save time and improve data accuracy.
    • How do the changes in channel grouping affect UTM tagging in GA4?

      With GA4's case insensitivity and predefined channel groups, it's more crucial to have accurate UTM tagging. Marketers must adjust their UTM structures to align with GA4's channel definitions to ensure proper traffic categorization.