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Why Steam struggles to get attribution and traffic reporting right

Recently Valve announced changes to their traffic reporting and conversion tracking. These improvements are highly anticipated because of how important these aspects are when trying to be successful on Steam. And because what Valve offers today simply does not live up to industry standards and needs.

For the last 10 years It’s been the norm for every website, shop and app to track where new users come from, and how they are using the product. How come Valve is only starting to tackle these issues now? And why have they been having issues doing it right? At Steam Data Suite we’ve been on top of the developments in the last seven years, bridging the gap between what Valve provides and what game publishers need with advanced reporting and attribution.

So let’s take a look.

Not a regular e-commerce platform

There isn’t just one Steam. There’s the desktop app, web app, mobile app, big picture mode, SteamDeck, etc. User flows that are simple and linear in e-commerce, like going from an ad to a product page, to checkout, to converting, are on Steam often taking place in different environments, on different devices and at different times.

This makes tracking players much harder. This is also exactly why the current UTM tagging mechanic is working so poorly, with our clients reporting less than 5% accuracy. We believe the coming update will show advancement in this area, but the problem is so structural, that a tweak of the current approach is not going to cut it. There’s always going to be cases where users stray off the beaten tracking path to, for example, look up a game themselves instead of following the browser link to open the app. Our attribution tracking is inherently unaffected by these things, leading to a much greater accuracy.

Importance of privacy

Privacy is important to many PC gamers, and (therefore?) to Valve. And PC gamers are a picky bunch, we know because we too are PC gamers. In line with that, Valve has a duty to protect the consumer, which they take very seriously. This seems to go goes deeper than simply legal obedience. And that’s admirable.

But also limiting. Trusting a third party like Google to identify if a visitor is the same person as last time, is obviously providing Google with data. But then again, they are really good at doing those things. 19% of all games on Steam have Google Analytics connected right now. Will Valve be able to provide them with similar data, with similar accuracy? We think not, based on comparing Valve’s traffic reporting with Google Analytics (even before GDPR). Numbers vary wildly, to say the least. We believe that it is possible to get the type of reporting Google Analytics provides with only in-house tech, but we’re not sure if we can expect Valve to deliver that.

The “Google vs. Steamworks traffic stats” dashboard for a random game illustrates the difference.

Priorities and interests

As many of you will recognize, Valve is great at many things, and of course we love them, but the reports they provide their developers has always felt like an afterthought. The Steamworks reporting portal, admittedly built to report their own sales, has not changed too much over the years. This may have to do with the limited team size, and the fact that Valve is doing a lot more stuff than providing a retail platform. 


In terms of interest Valve considered for a long time that campaign attribution works against their interest. They shared this insight during a developer meetup in 2017. They felt that giving publishers an incentive to advertise en masse for their games would lead to large amounts of new Steam users that may have a less than perfect first experience with the platform, turning them off. Good to see they came back on this, because the business potential remains as huge as then. Getting content providers to essentially advertise your platform? No brainer!

Late to the party

Tracking traffic and conversions has been the standard for e-commerce and for the mobile app stores for 12 years. All this time game companies outside of Steam have learned what they need to make their page and ads perform better. Service providers in the space are providing advanced functionality and integrations with ad systems to serve their clients needs. So you can imagine that a mobile publisher coming to Steam is shocked to find they miss tools they feel they need to succeed.

Steam’s UTM tracking has been in beta for a little over two years now. It’s a very rudimentary mechanic that has very basic reporting options. Even though it simply never worked, in these two years, as far as we can tell, the upcoming change would be its first iteration.

Baby steps

We really hope that in the next update we all get the reports we need to understand what we can do to optimize our presence and ad budget. We’re excited that Valve is starting to take this part of the business, that is vital for so many of you, seriously. However, looking at the slow history, and limiting solutions we’ve got delivered in the past, we’re not holding our breath.

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