It is important to know how to use UTM tracking for many reasons. In this post, Chrystal Lenardson, Ignite Visibility Director of Strategy, gives an overview of UTM tracking and how it works.
If you can’t explain to your clients or your boss how your web marketing efforts are impacting traffic, then you’re going to have trouble justifying your work. More importantly, the folks who are paying you might not see any evidence that they’re getting a positive return on their investment.
That could cost you an income stream.
What Is UTM Tracking?
UTM tracking is a URL-encoded means of informing Google Analytics about the path that visitors followed to get to your site.
UTM stands for “Urchin Traffic Monitor.” The name comes from Urchin Tracker, a web analytics tool that Google acquired back in 2005.
That tool eventually became Google Analytics. Thirteen years later, the same software framework is still being used to track web traffic.
Why Use UTM Tags?
If you’re sold on the idea of using UTM tracking to find your best traffic patterns, then you’ll need to add UTM tags to your URLs. Otherwise, Google Analytics won’t give you an accurate report on your traffic sources.
Here’s how the whole process works:
- People click on a link to get your web page
- That link will include one or more UTM tags
- Google Analytics will evaluate that link for those tags
- If GA finds UTM tags, it will update traffic source metrics accordingly
So if you fail to use UTM tags, Google has limited info to work with when it comes to determining how people arrived at your site. That will restrict your ability to make informed decisions about online marketing.
Where Should a UTM Tracking Code Be Used?
The good news is that it’s easy to add a UTM tracking code to a URL. It’s a simple request parameter.
If you’re not familiar with URL request parameters, they’re name/value pairs that you can add to any URL. They follow a question mark that separates them from the address of the page itself.
Let’s take a look at an example:
That URL will take people to a blog post on mysite.com. As you can see, there are also some request parameters at the end.
Let’s break that URL down into manageable chunks.
First, “http://mysite.com/my-blog-post” is the important part of the URL. It’s the address of the blog post.
After that part, there’s a question mark. That question mark separates the address of the page from the request parameters.
There are two request parameters included in the URL: name1 and name2. They’re separated by an ampersand (“&”). That’s how request parameters are always separated in a URL.
Each parameter is assigned a value. That part is easy to read because an equals sign is used to assign the value. So name1 equals value1 and name2 equals value2.
What would happen if you removed the request parameters from the URL? From the perspective of the person who clicks the link, absolutely nothing. That link would still take the person to the same page.
Request parameters are processed by software on the server side.
There are five UTM tracking codes. You’ll need to identify them by their names in the URLs you use.
However, the values can be anything you want.
Again, let’s look at an example.
In this case, the request parameter is called “utm_source”. It’s the name of a UTM tracking code that Google Analytics will recognize.
As you can see, the value of that parameter is “twitter”. That means the source of the traffic is Twitter.
Here are the different UTM tracking codes:
- utm_source – The source of the traffic. Usually, it’s the name of the app or website that sent the traffic to your site. For example: “google”, “twitter”, or “facebook”.
- utm_medium – The online channel that brought the visitor to your site. For example: “social” (for social media) and “search” (for search).
- utm_campaign – The campaign that brought the visitor to your site. If your marketing effort is part of a larger campaign to get more traffic, assign the name of that campaign to the utm_campaign parameter.
- utm_content – The link within a page that brought the visitor to your site. If you have multiple calls to action (CTAs) on one page, assign a different utm_content value to the URL associated with each CTA. That way, you’ll know which CTA brought you the most traffic.
- utm_term – The keyword that brought the visitor to your site. Usually, this UTM tag is reserved for PPC campaigns.
Here’s an example of a URL that uses a few of the UTM tracking codes mentioned above:
As you can see, the source of the traffic is Twitter (“twitter”), the medium is social media (“social”) and the campaign is named “brand” (for brand awareness).
You’ll include that link in your tweets so that when people click on it, Google Analytics can parse the UTM tags and update your metrics.
Obviously, you would not include that link in your Facebook posts. If you did, it would register Twitter as the source of the traffic instead of Facebook.
If you wanted to include a link to the same page on Facebook, you’d update the URL to this:
As you can see, the utm_source parameter has been updated so that it’s set to “facebook” instead of “twitter.” Now it’s a link you can put on Facebook.
The safest way to create a URL with UTM tracking codes is to use the Google URL builder. That way, you won’t have to worry about typos in the parameter names.
In that tool, the only required parameter is the source (utm_source). However, if you want to track goals, you need to include the source, medium, and campaign.
Let’s look in more detail at tracking goals with UTM tags.
Setting up Analytics Goals Based off Your UTM Campaigns
Google Analytics gives you the ability to track conversions on your website. One of the ways you can do that is with goals.
Goals are URL targets or actions that people take on your site. An example of a goal is somebody making a purchase or visiting a specific page.
Although it’s great to know the overall number of people who visited your site and completed a goal, it’s even better to know where those people came from when they completed that goal.
Enter UTM tags.
The UTM tags you plug into your URLs will tell Google Analytics where people came from. Remember: you must include utm_source, utm_medium, and utm_campaign to track goals with UTM tags!
You’ll also need to set up goals in Google Analytics. Fortunately, that’s easy to do.
Once you’ve created at least one goal and let it run for awhile, head back into Google Analytics. Click on ACQUISITION on the left-hand sidebar. Then, select Campaigns from the menu that appears below. Finally, click All Campaigns in the context menu.
The table in the middle of the screen shows your traffic by campaign. You’ll see important data such as the number of sessions, the percentage of new sessions, and the number of new users that campaign brought to your site.
More importantly, though, you’ll see how that campaign contributed to your goals. On the right-hand side of the table, you’ll see three columns:
- Goal Conversion Rate – the sum of all your goal conversion rates for that campaign
- Goal Completions – the total number of conversions
- Goal Value – the monetary value of the completions
Those columns, by default, will aggregate data from all your goals. If you want to see stats for just one goal, you can do that.
Take a look at the dropdown labeled “Conversions” that appears just above those last three columns. Click on it.
You’ll see a list of all the goals you created. Choose the one you want to view and the table will update to reflect your selection.
Using UTM Tracking Codes for Conversion Rate Optimization (CRO)
Once you’ve set up your goals and let them run for awhile, you should use the reports from Google Analytics to improve your conversion rate.
Let’s take a look at an example. Suppose you’re running two campaigns to get people to buy your hot new product. One campaign is focused on social media and the other is using PPC.
So here are the steps you take:
- You create a goal in Google Analytics to track the purchase of the hot new product
- You create a URL for your social media campaign that sets the utm_medium parameter to “social” and the utm_campaign parameter to “campaign1”.
- You create a second URL for your PPC campaign that sets the utm_medium parameter to “ppc” and the utm_campaign parameter to “campaign2”.
- You launch the social media and the PPC campaigns, making sure to use the correct URL for each one
After you’ve let both campaigns run for a while, you head back into GA and check your metrics. Surprisingly, you find that the social media campaign (“campaign1”) is getting twice the conversion rate as the PPC campaign!
So you do the sensible thing. You cut back on resources for the PPC campaign and scale up the social media campaign.
Of course, you have plenty of other information that you can work with as well. You can use Analytics reporting to show you which social media channels were giving you the best conversion rates. Armed with that info, you can optimize your campaign even further.
Using UTM Codes for Off-Site Campaigns
For whatever reason, some people are under the impression that they can only use UTM tags when creating URLs on their own websites. Nothing could be further from the truth.
You can use UTM tags in any URL. Even one that isn’t on your site.
For example, if you’re posting a link to your website on Twitter, you can encode it with UTM tags. If you’re guest-blogging, you can point a link to your site that also includes UTM tags.
However, it’s a great idea to shorten your URL so that it’s a little more user-friendly. Really long URLs tend to annoy people.
Fortunately, Google has a URL shortener that you can use. Just head over there and plug in your UTM-stuffed URL and Google will return a much shorter version.
Don’t worry. That shortened URL will have all the request parameters that you loaded into it. You’ll still be able to track traffic sources, even with a shortened hyperlink.
UTM Tracking and Apps
You aren’t just limited to adding UTM tags to URLs that you put on websites. You can add them to URLs you include in mobile apps as well.
That can come in handy if you want to measure the amount of traffic you receive from apps. It’s especially helpful if you’re running ads on multiple apps and want to know which one is giving you the best return.
All you have to do is update the utm_source parameter to the name of the app. Also, set the utm_medium parameter to something like “apps” or the name of the ad network that you’re using to run app ads.
Wrapping Up UTM Tracking
Now that you understand UTM tracking, it’s time to get busy. Think about the backlink strategy and ad campaign that you’re planning on launching in the near future. Update your hyperlinks with valid UTM tags.
After awhile, check Google Analytics to see which sources are giving you the most traffic. Also, find out which channels are giving you the best conversion rates.