Mysterious Funnel Exits

August 18, 2010
By Jonathan Weber,
Director of Data Platforms

We’ve written before about a variety of odd funnel behaviors (see the posts “Funnel Problems” and “Odd Funnel Steps“), but there are still things that confound folks looking at their funnels.

Your goal funnel in Google Analytics shows where people enter and exit. A lot of people ask me, “Why do I see pages here that you can’t possibly get to from this step? There’s no link on the page for that step to get there!”

Funnel, funnel, funnel, it’s a funny word

The funnel exits show pages that were viewed after a visit abandoned the funnel. Often, this means someone left your funnel in the middle by clicking on a navigation element or some other link on the page to go to another page on your site. But sometimes, it’s a headscratcher how a visitor could have gotten from a particular page in the funnel to that particular page on your site.

The thing to recognize about your funnel is, you have given it an ordering by setting up the steps in Google Analytics. You said, this is step 1, this is step 2, this is step 3, etc. However, your site doesn’t necessarily force visitors to navigate in exactly that order. If it’s a shopping cart, for example, visitors could go back to the previous step to change something. However, in the funnel report in Google Analytics, it’s showing us the number of total visits at each step, not the number of pageviews. A step could easily have been viewed more than once during a visit, or in a different order than we’ve specified, but as far as Google Analytics cares, the furthest step down the funnel a visitor reaches is where they abandoned the funnel.

The upshot of this is, a visitor could be on Step 3, go back to Step 2, and exit. In the Funnel Visualization report, however, their exit appears in Step 3, the furthest point down the funnel they reached. So maybe there’s a link to that page from Step 2? Or step 1? Or maybe they backed all the way out of the funnel entirely?

More of Users Doing What We Don’t Expect

The other thing to recognize about Google Analytics is, it’s not following our visitors around the site and seeing how they navigate from Page A to Page B to Page C. (It’s not like ClickTale, for example, which is actually recording their mouse movements on a page.)

All Google Analytics sees is a string of successive pageviews. Normally we expect that someone is browsing around in a single stream of pages: here’s where they land, then they went here and here, then they hit the back button, then they searched, then they left, whatever.

But if you’re anything like me, you have multiple tabs open in your browser (boy, do I!). And suppose someone has multiple tabs open of your site. Well, they might browse around in one and start the checkout process, then decide they’re not ready. But they go back to that other tab they had open with the product page and browse around a little more before they leave.

Suddenly, the page right after they abandoned the funnel is one that’s not linked to from anywhere in the funnel, they just followed a link from another page they already had open!

The Moral: This is a lesson that comes into sharp focus with funnels, because we are trying to impose an expectation of how visitors browse our site. But the takeaway here is, visitors rarely browse in exactly the ways you expect them to. We have this nice, neat vision of how someone will use our site, and it rarely actually works out that way. Use analytics to focus on the really important things (why are they abandoning the funnel? how can I bring them back?) but don’t get bogged down in creating the golden path from landing page to thank-you page – because there isn’t one.