Marketing Strategies

GA4 and Affiliate Marketing: How to Navigate Changing Attribution Models

Uncover the seismic shift in analytics as GA4 takes the stage, altering the game for the affiliate marketing industry. Our latest blog post explores the repercussions of GA4's move from a last-click to a data-driven attribution model. Discover how Rakuten Advertising navigates these changes, offering reliable methodologies, additional tools, and collaborative solutions.

Female millennial marketer with laptop using GA4 and affiliate marketing

The release of Google Analytics 4 (GA4) has brought about unexpected challenges for advertisers and publishers using affiliate marketing, particularly in tracking and attribution. Changing from the default last-click attribution model to a data-driven model has revealed significant reporting discrepancies and their impact on conversion measurement accuracy. However, it’s not all negative. Our tracking experts have been undergoing thorough testing of GA4 to help us better understand and overcome the changes.

It’s important to remember that the data provided by GA4 is only as good as the setup and foundation. For advertisers, this means ensuring:

  • tracking tags are present on all pages
  • all external campaign links are correctly tagged
  • there is no stripping of URL and tracking parameters
  • an awareness of the different order ID types used and how they’re used by different systems
  • an understanding of the different attribution models that are used

The best piece of advice we can give is to continue collaborating and to be transparent with your publishers. When navigating the complexities of attribution models, there is no one-size-fits-all approach. Work with your account team and publisher partners to collaboratively overcome the challenges GA4 presents.

Read on to understand the discrepancies of GA4’s new model and how to use your data.

GA4 Changes and Data Discrepancies

Google Analytics has traditionally defaulted to a last-click attribution model, a model that was out of sync with our affiliate last-click tracking. This is primarily because Rakuten Advertising attributes conversions only in-channel within a set cookie window, while Google considers various marketing channels we don’t track. The release of GA4 marked a shift in default attribution models from “last-click” to a “data-driven” attribution model (DDA). This DDA model analyses data to create conversion rate models, introducing a more complex algorithm that attributes conversions across different channels.

The switch from traditional attribution models to DDA has magnified tracking discrepancies, particularly for non-Google channels. Google’s intention to replace various attribution models with DDA affects Rakuten Advertising and the entire affiliate industry. The default switch raises concerns about accuracy and consistency in reporting between GA4 and internal affiliate systems.

GA4’s Impact on Affiliate Advertisers

Ongoing discrepancies between GA4 and affiliate reporting systems are likely to persist as more advertisers transition to GA4. We encourage clients to use the last-click attribution method, considered the industry standard, to help mitigate these discrepancies and ensure a more accurate representation of conversion data. Building the right program and using the right attribution model is critical for the success of affiliate programs.

Validating Sales and GA4

When validating sales, we recommend advertisers use their own data warehouse (where they fulfil their orders) instead of relying solely on GA4. In fact, your data warehouse should be used to validate sales against GA4 and your affiliate network (including Rakuten!).

Now that Google data has changed, it doesn’t mean that your affiliate tracking is wrong. It means it’s different. Let’s look at a real-test case the Rakuten Advertising tracking experts recently ran:

Our team looked at validating Rakuten Affiliate tracking against GA4 across all transactions – commissioned or not – across all Google channels – affiliate, and more. We found that we tracked 99.4% of orders that GA4 recorded, proving no tracking issues. Transactions are attributed differently by the two systems due to differing models, with affiliate transactions commissioned at times being attributed to other channels within Google Analytics. This testing shows two things:

  1. Before any attribution decisions, affiliate tracking is just as good and reliable as Google’s.
  2. Even on a last-click wins model, there will be some sales that Google thinks belong elsewhere.

Exploring how advertisers can get their tracking as accurate as possible, our recommendations are:

  1. Use server-side tracking. This avoids all browser-based ‘messiness’ that can occur, such as ad blockers or ITP, which affect affiliate tracking and GA4 alike.
  2. Use affiliate reporting tools and dashboards to cross reference and dedupe sales. This allows you to align your transactions better.

The Attribution Model – Takeaways and Recommendations

  • Discrepancies Always Existed: Given the fundamental differences in how Rakuten Advertising and Google observe site traffic, reporting misalignments have been inherent.
  • Last Click is Closer Reporting: Switching to the last-click attribution model in GA4 brings reporting closer to alignment but won’t achieve a 100% match due to differing methodologies.
  • Where We Attribute When Google May Not: Rakuten Advertising doesn’t have cross-channel attribution, leading to conversions where Rakuten was not the last click but still occurred within the contractual lookback window.
  • No Right Way to Attribute: Attribution methodologies vary across the industry, and Google’s evolving data science models, based on business priorities, may not be the best way to measure affiliate conversions, as evidenced by discrepancies with all players in the affiliate space.
  • Reducing Measurement Inaccuracy: Switching from GA4’s data-driven model to the last-click model can reduce discrepancies, enhancing the accuracy of conversion measurement within the affiliate channel.
  • Adopt Advanced Reporting Tools: Rakuten Advertising provides a suite of tools, including Consumer Journey reporting and on-demand Benchmarking, offering clients deeper insights into campaign performance, including the publishers and strategies driving engagement and conversions.

As the digital marketing landscape evolves, understanding and adapting to changes in analytics and attribution models become imperative. Following the release of GA4, we’re collaborating closely with advertisers to address discrepancies and support the industry in navigating these changes. We’re committed to ensuring the success and strength of the affiliate channel and that it continues to thrive in the dynamic digital ecosystem.

For more information about how Rakuten Advertising can help you with GA4 tracking, reach out to your account contact or visit

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