Data TutorialsMarketing Analytics

How to Track First-Touch Attribution in Google Analytics

Posted by Mel Restori

Marketing attribution is a very useful tool for understanding how your users interact with different channels before coming to your website. This is very useful for valuing your marketing channels and understanding your customers’ behaviors. This tutorial will explain how to track marketing attribution in Google Analytics, specifically looking at first-touch attribution.

You can also click through to learn about tracking last-touch attribution and multi-touch attribution in Google Analytics.

What is Attribution?

Each time a user visits your site, they come from somewhere - by clicking on a search result link or clicking through an ad or even directly typing the URL to your site. These are known as marketing channels. Knowing where your traffic comes from, and where the valuable traffic comes from, is key to valuing your marketing strategy and to understanding your users. You can learn more about marketing attribution.

What is First-Touch Attribution?

First-touch refers to the first channel that a user interacted with before converting on your site. It is also known as first-click and first-interaction.

For example let’s say Laila searches for sweaters on Google and clicks through a search result for She browses for a while but doesn’t immediately purchase. She continues searching and browsing online. On a lifestyle blog about choosing the best sweater, they also mention and she clicks through. She’s still not ready to purchase, but she signs up for the newsletter. The next day sends her an email that she clicks through - and this time she makes a purchase.

This example involves three channels before making a purchase: organic search (Google search), referral (the lifestyle blog) and email. The first touch is organic search.

Why is First-Touch Attribution Important?

First-touch attribution is critically important because it tells you how customers first heard about your site. This first encounter is key, since it raised awareness of your brand. In the example above, Laila may not have clicked through the blog to if it hadn’t been the second time she came across the name. And she certainly wouldn’t have ever signed up for the newsletter if she hadn’t reached the site.

Yet most attribution platforms, including Google Analytics, default to giving credit of the sale to the last-touch, the closing channel (more details on last-touch attribution here). Luckily, you can easily look at both, and many other attribution models, to get the best picture of your marketing strategy performance and your users.

Lookback Window

In the example, it’s logical to make the argument (as we did) that Laila wouldn’t have clicked through the blog if she hadn’t already seen the name right before when executing the Google search. Seeing the brand twice in such a short time frame could be a strong reinforcement. But what if that Google search had happened weeks before she saw the blog? Or months before? We wouldn’t feel as confident that Leila even remembered that first visit to our site.

This is where the concept of a lookback window comes into play. So how far back should we go when looking at the conversion path? Unfortunately, there is no globally correct answer. Google Analytics uses 30 days as a default and allows configuration between one and 90 days. If your product is one with a short purchasing cycle (like a sweater) you’ll want a shorter window. But if your product is one where people take a long time to decide (say, real estate or an expensive SaaS product), you’ll want a longer window.

How to Track First-Touch Attribution in Google Analytics?

Before you can track any type of conversions in Google Analytics, you have to have goals defined. Google Support has more information regarding setting goals. In our example, we’re using the purchase as a goal. But we could have set many goals - signing up for the newsletter could be a goal, viewing multiple sweaters could be another, and so on. Conversion channels for each goal can be tracked independently.

Note that in the example videos we are using the Google demo account which is of a Google property. If you want to follow along and have the data look the same, sign up for the demo account and in the date range in the reports select 1/1/2018 - 2/10/2018.

To track first-touch attribution in Google Analytics, follow these steps:

  1. In Google Analytics, navigate to Conversions - Attribution - Model Comparison Tool.
  2. In the conversion dropdown, select the goal that you’re interested in measuring, in this example we’ll look at Goal 1: Purchase Completed and we’ll leave the lookback window at 30 days.
  3. Right below you’ll notice that Last Interaction (last-touch) model is selected by default. In this model, looking at the channel breakout below, we see that Direct accounts for over half of all conversions (1,660 conversions) with Referral accounting for roughly one third (973 conversions). Select a second model to compare against.
  4. Now you see that while Referral was the last-touch in 973 conversions, it was the first touch in over half of them. You can also click in to Referral to get the detailed breakout of the channel.

In this way you can easily compare the different models or select just the model you want to use. You can click into the individual channels to see the channel breakouts with the model you’ve selected.


Marketing attribution allows you to understand user behavior and the value of your marketing channels, but you have to understand the different attribution models to get the most out of your tracking.