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Mysterious Funnel Exits

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.

Jonathan Weber

About Jonathan Weber

Jonathan Weber is the Data Evangelist at LunaMetrics. He spreads the principles of analytics through our training seminars all over the East coast. The next seminar he'll be leading will be a Google Analytics training in Boston. Before he caught the analytics bug, he worked in information architecture. He holds a Master’s degree from the University of Pittsburgh School of Information Sciences. Jonathan’s breadth of knowledge – from statistics to analysis to library science – is somewhat overwhelming.

http://www.lunametrics.com/blog/2010/08/18/mysterious-funnel-exits/

9 Responses to “Mysterious Funnel Exits”

Thank you for this post. It’s great to have something like this to point people to as a reference.

Funnel reports can be extremely confusing. I think it may be a case that the clear visual representation can be deceptive. It can lead to people thinking the funnel is showing something which it is not.

Your point about the abandon route being listed against the furthest page into the funnel that the visit reached, NOT necessarily the page from which the visitor actually abandoned is a great example. I’ve never seen it explained so clearly.

Do you have an equally clear explanation for how the actual page configured as a stage in the funnel sometimes shows up as an abandon route? Sometimes even as an abandon route from itself? That’s something which really puzzles people. It seems a contradiction.

It would be great to have some thoughts on this which I could cite, please.

Jonathan Weber Jonathan says:

Hi Tim — unfortunately, I *don’t* know for sure what the “funnel page as its own exit” means. One theory I have seen is that, if the funnel page is refreshed, then no other pages on the site are viewed, this may result in seeing one of the funnel steps as an exit. I’m not sure I’m sold on that theory, but I may try some testing to see if I can cause this behavior in a controlled environment and whether there’s anything to it.

Hi Jonathan,
I’ve got some very circumstantial evidence which might support that theory. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say it doesn’t contradict the theory…

We used to experience this a lot with a basket page which was frequently refreshed when people edited the basket. We used virtual pageviews for the editing function and so reduced the reloads. The problem was reduced, but not eliminated.
It still doesn’t seem right. If the visitor refreshes the site and then leaves the site entirely, then it would make more sense for that to be listed as an ‘exit’. But I suspect that your theory is correct and this is what is happening.

Lynne says:

Please help!
The more I read the more confused I get… if a user views page A > B > C > B > C > D in my funnel, how many times will they be counted for stages B & C? 1 or 2?

Jonathan Weber Jonathan says:

Lynne — the counts are always *visits* in the funnel report. So just 1, no matter how many times they view the page.

Adrian says:

Not sure if you’ve come across this, but I’m having a problem in that a Funnel Exit URL is the same as a Next Step URL.

For example, the URL for Step 2 of my funnel is set to /search but in the Funnel Visualization it shows a number of exits from Step 1 to the same /search URL. How can it be that some of the hits to /search are being treated as funnel exits (some to /search, some to URLs like /search?countries=118), while the majority proceed to step 2 successfully? I’ve got Head Match selected.

Erin says:

Please answer Adrian’s question above. I’ve got the same question. The URL shown as an exit is the same as the URL for the step. Ours is on a little quiz where each page actually has the same URL, but we’re having trouble figuring out how many people enter and exit the quiz.

Liina says:

I have a similar problem to Adrian and Erin,
my funnel step is /homepage and exit from this step also shows /homepage… Is is because people reload the homepage before exiting the site ? Would it be possible to join those two pages, so if people really reload the page and exit after this, I’d have larger number for people exiting the site, instead of having the same step and exit page.

If anyone knows the answer, please help.

Jonathan Weber Jonathan Weber says:

Erin/Liina — the “funnel step as its own exit” is discussed in the top few comments to this post, but one theory is exactly what Liina said: the page is refreshed, then the person exits. Unfortunately it’s hard to recreate the data weirdness in a controlled test to be sure what exactly is happening here.

In the big picture, however, in the two years since this post was written, we now have a way better funnel report: the Goal Flow report. (See http://www.lunametrics.com/blog/2012/08/06/goal-flow-how-visitors-really-move-through-funnel/) The Goal Flow answers questions about how people move through your funnel way better than the Funnel Visualization report ever did.