Source Tracking Part II: Using UTM parameters for online source attribution

Google Analytics’ source tracking is primarily URL based, and unfortunately, some of your important traffic sources may not be correctly identifiable based on their default referring and destination URLs. But there is a solution! Read on to learn how you can leverage native Google URL parameters to deliberately label your traffic sources in a way that aligns with your objectives.

Typically, when determining the source of a visit, Analytics looks at the referring URL domain, page and any additional parameters (such as search parameters) that may be included in the URL. Read Source Tracking part I to learn more about how Analytics interprets source information from referring URLs. However, Analytics can also recognize source information contained in the destination URL in the form of UTM parameters. These parameters are native to Google and are already used to communicate campaign attributes from Adwords to Analytics. You can leverage these UTM parameters to communicate custom tracking information for your advertising campaigns to Analytics – read on to see how.

Historical note: UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module and references a web traffic tracking and logging system developed by Urchin Software Company and eventually acquired by Google to become Google Analytics. Although Google no longer uses the Urchin program, the acronym is still used to refer to URL parameters that are interpreted by Analytics for source information.

When UTM parameters are added to a destination URL, they have the affect of causing Analytics overwrite whatever source information Analytics might otherwise have populated by default. This means that to use UTM parameters to improve ad tracking, you can simply add parameters designating source information about, say, a display ad, to the destination URL (this works for online ads – I’ll explain how it works with offline ads later).

Important: Do NOT use UTM parameters in destination URLs in AdWords or AdSense, as Analytics already receives all of the available source information, so long as the accounts are linked. If you try to manually add UTM parameters, they will most likely not show up in Analytics.

Available parameter slots

There are five UTM parameter slots that you can leverage to label your traffic sources, described in the table below.

Parameter Name UTM Code Description
Medium utm_medium How—via what channel—the visitor found your site. E.g., paid search, online display or email
Source utm_source Who—what domain or publisher brought the visitor to your site. E.g., Google, Amazon or Buzzfeed.
Campaign utm_campaign What campaign brought the visitor to your site. May be a campaign targeted at a specific audience or keyword group or may represent a promotion. For Adwords traffic, this is the name of the Ad Campaign.
Ad Content utm_content What ad content brought the visitor to your site. In Adwords, this is the copy in the displayed search ad, but you can use it to indicate anything you want about the content of an ad.
Term (Keyword) utm_term What search term prompted the ad—most relevant for Adwords.

So what does use of the parameters look like in practice? First, you identify the destination landing page. Then, you follow the landing page URL with a question mark. The question mark indicates that any following characters are parameters, and are not part of the base page URL. After the question mark, add your parameters in the form utm_source=your-source-name. All individual UTM parameter phrases must be separated from one another with an ampersand (&) sign.

Here’s an example:


Important: Not all parameters are created equal. The first two parameters—source and medium—are required parameters and both MUST be used in order for any customized UTM source data to register in Analytics.

Not just for online display!

This method is not limited to online display advertising. It can also be used for Yahoo/Bing Search advertising (since that account won’t natively sync with Google Analytics in the way that Adwords will). It can also be used for any other type of electronic traffic-generation campaign where visitors click on a URL to get to your site, such as email, press releases, guest blog posts and social media.

Devising and organizing your labeling strategy

For your source tracking to be really useful for marketing analytics, it has to be logical and consistent.

Think about what sources of traffic you have and how you would ideally like to organize them for reporting purposes. You may want to be able to identify traffic generated by via the medium of email. You may also want to be able to segment what portion of email traffic came from invites, nurture campaigns or auto-responses—this type of information could be considered the “source” of the traffic. Or, maybe you’re running cross-promotional email campaigns with another vendor. In that case, maybe the “source” shouldn’t be the type of email (you could call that campaign, instead), but rather the vendor or partner that generated the email. There’s no right answer, but maintaining a consistent, labeling scheme that is compatible with your reporting needs will save you a lot of headache.

You’ll also want to make sure that your labeling system not only makes sense, but that it’s applied consistently, down to the exact spelling of the terms used. You’ll end up with sloppy data if you, say, call paid search “cpc” in one place and “sem” in another. In order to keep track of what tracking you’re running and to maintain consistency of terminology, I recommend using a spreadsheet to catalogue all of the destination URLs (complete with tracking URLs) and parameter values you use. This spreadsheet can also build the URLs for you, and can maintain consistent parameter values by getting all parameter values from a look-up table.

Save source info to your CRM or marketing automation platform

An additional benefit of using URL parameters to improve your source tracking is that it may make it easier to save that source information to your CRM or marketing automation platform. Your marketing automation platform may save a visitor’s landing page URL by default, and that landing page URL now contains useful traffic source information. You can simply parse out the parameter values from those landing page URLs to gain insights into unknown traffic. If some of your common landing pages also include forms that submit to your CRM, you can edit your form to save the page URL as well. You can then write workflows to parse out the source and medium of a converting visit for a known individual in your database.

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