How Does Search Attribution and Brand Incrementality Work?

May 3, 2018

This is a guest post from Ashley Aptt, Account Director at 3Q Digital.

While attribution is simply the act of assigning conversion credit to certain keywords or ads, many advertisers are beginning to realize the importance of understanding how it works. Attribution plays a large role in how advertisers perceive their campaign performance.

Without a solid grasp of knowing how your attribution model works, you might be misinterpreting your data. Certain campaigns can easily be over or under estimated based on the attribution model being used.

Here are a few points to demystify the nuts and bolts of attribution for search campaigns.

The Standard Model: Last-Click Attribution

Google AdWords defaults to a last-click attribution model, which assigns conversion credit to the last keyword that received a click. This means that if someone clicks an ad from a non-brand keyword search then later converts after clicking a brand ad, Google assigns conversion credit to the brand campaign.

Meanwhile, Google doesn’t assign any conversion credit to the non-brand campaign. A major flaw with the last-click attribution model is that it doesn’t account for the fact that the user may have only heard about the brand because of the non-brand search they performed earlier. So brand campaigns get the conversion credit and performance looks strong, while non-brand played a large role in driving the user to the site but performance metrics looks bleak.

This is just one example, but scenarios like this play out numerous times every day, week, and month. And over time, the performance metrics add up and can lead advertisers to believe that non-brand is not driving enough value to justify the expense (often resulting in budget cuts for non-brand). On the other hand, the brand campaign could be getting more credit (and investment) than it deserves.

Brand and Non-Brand Working Together

It’s important to understand how attribution plays a role here, and how it easy it can be to jump to conclusions in terms of brand versus non-brand performance. It’s also important to understand the role that non-brand plays in the user’s conversion journey.

Non-brand can be a great acquisition strategy to bring new, qualified people to your site. Without a good acquisition strategy, growth can become stagnant—and over time, those high-performing brand campaigns could begin to see a decline in performance as brand awareness begins to decline.

In thinking about the example above, if that person never searched on the non-brand term as they were beginning their journey, would they still have purchased from your site? Maybe. Or perhaps they never would have even heard of your company.

Non-brand performance may not look strong on the surface when using a last-click attribution model, but there’s value in non-brand! And it’s important to think about the true value of brand campaigns, and if they’re worthy of all the conversion credit they’re being given.

Understanding Brand Incrementality

At this point, you may be wondering if bidding on your brand keywords is as valuable or important as you’ve thought. Would these users have clicked an organic listing and converted regardless of the presence of a paid search brand ad? It’s certainly a possibility.

Without brand ads, some people would have still navigated to your site and completed their purchase. But even though Google’s last-click attribution model is likely over-reporting the value of brand campaigns, this doesn’t mean that investing in brand terms isn’t valuable—it absolutely is!

Bidding on brand keywords is still an important strategy to ensure high visibility when users are most likely to convert. And maintaining ownership of your brand terms is especially important if you also have lots of competitors bidding on your brand terms.

However, there’s a chance that you’re over-investing in brand campaigns, and spending money on these terms when the funds could be re-allocated (where they would have a larger impact on performance or account growth). To know if this is true for your account, it’s important to test brand incrementality. Running a brand incrementality test will allow you to quantify the true value of brand search spend, conversions, and ROI.

Advantages of a Multi-Touch Attribution Platform

There are various ways you can measure brand incrementality. One approach I recommend is to use a multi-touch attribution platform, which will allow you to understand the true value of brand campaigns and non-brand campaigns (along with other marketing initiatives).

Multi-touch attribution platforms can assess marketing performance and go beyond a last-click attribution model to apply conversion credit to various touchpoints throughout the customer’s conversion journey. This gives advertisers a more insightful look at how each of their marketing initiatives perform. And ultimately it can help ensure that marketing budgets are being allocated towards the right strategies to drive optimal performance.


Brand campaigns may be getting more conversion credit than they deserve, but this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bid on brand. Reconsider how you evaluate non-brand performance and consider if having a larger non-brand investment could help your brand grow. Use a multi-touch attribution platform to test brand incrementality and properly assess campaign performance in order to properly allocate marketing funds.

Ashley Aptt

3Q Digital
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