Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? What about Waldo? If they’ve been visiting your website, you may be curious to know! For a variety of reasons, it can be helpful (and just plain interesting) to learn where your website’s visitors are located. But while Google Analytics provides geographical data, you may be wary of trusting it. Is it really true that many of the eyes fixed on your website are located in Coffeyville, Kansas, of all places? Hmm. How accurate is location data in Google Analytics?
How Accurate Is Location Data in Google Analytics?
The short answer? Not very.
To understand why this is, we need to look at the tool Google Analytics uses to approximate users’ locations: the IP address.
IP Addresses 101
IP address stands for internet protocol address. It is a number used for identification that is associated with a specific computer or computer network. When a computer (or laptop, tablet, smartphone, router, etc.) is connected to the internet, an IP address allows it to send and receive information. Basically, IP addresses are how computers recognize one another on the internet. Whether you were previously aware of it or not, your computer has a unique IP address. You can find your IP address very quickly by searching “what is my IP” on Google.
Because IP addresses are based on your internet connection, your IP address will change every time you connect to a different Wi-Fi network or router. Your IP address doesn’t reveal your exact physical location, but it does reveal your geolocation. This may include the city, zip code, or area code of your internet service provider.
If IP addresses don’t provide users’ physical locations, why does Google Analytics rely on them at all? To protect individual user data. Google Analytics only estimates users’ physical locations based on their geolocations, and it must use a third-party IP database to obtain this IP data.
The Accuracy of IP Address Location Data
As Google explains it, “Analytics provides a number of geographical dimensions, such as City, Country, Continent, etc. The values for these dimensions are automatically derived from the IP address of the hit, which is convenient but also has a few drawbacks.” So let’s talk about those drawbacks . . .
Not only are IP-based locations approximate, but they’re not static and they’re “routinely re-assigned,” which can affect geographic reporting numbers. In addition, sometimes IP address data isn’t completely accurate due to issues like misentered data and recently moved Wi-Fi routers. Plus, in our mobile world, people are constantly on the go. Devices like phones, tablets, and laptops often travel with their users, which can make their IP location data unreliable.
It’s also important to note that the way some third parties handle IP data can negatively impact the accuracy of location data in Google Analytics. For example, sometimes the third party will know the country of an IP address but not the region or city. In these cases, it may use a default region and city – often a central location within the country. This is why you may notice an odd number of viewers located in Coffeyville, Kansas. No, Coffeyville is not a hotspot for passionate fans of your site. It’s just the default city for many American IP addresses.
And we’ve gotta talk about Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) and data-obscuring browser tools. Designed to enhance the data privacy of users, VPNs and some browser tools can conceal users’ IP addresses. Instead, they show the IP of the VPN or server, which are housed in data centers at different locations around the world. This is yet another factor that can muddle the accuracy of location data in Google Analytics.
So how accurate is IP address location data? According to IPLocation.net, geolocation accuracy is approximately 95 to 99 percent accurate by country, 55 to 80 percent accurate by state, and only 50 to 75 accurate by city. While Google offers location data in Google Analytics, the company also openly admits that it has drawbacks and limitations. However, because they only admit this on a few support pages, many business owners likely aren’t aware of the inaccuracy of the data.
What Can We Conclude?
For a variety of reasons, the location data in Google Analytics is not entirely accurate. Instead, consider it a guide that gives you a glimpse into your users’ locations. Look for trends instead of focusing on the details. And if a specific location pops up and puzzles you, recognize that it’s an anomaly and may very well be incorrect.
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