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Measuring Unknown Traffic with UTM Parameters

Last Updated: November 11, 2022

UTM tracking parameters can help you better understand the sources driving traffic to your website, as well as better understand the value of redirects. In this article, we’ll review:

Why Should You Use UTM Tracking Parameters?

It can be difficult to track certain types of marketing. By default, analytics tools will report on specific channels, like referrals or organic search traffic. 

But what about other sources? Visitors clicked on an online ad—but which ad? Visitors clicked on a link in an email—but which email and which link? Visitors clicked on a link in a social share—but which social share? Visitors may have followed a redirect—but which redirect? Alternatively, visitors may have heard about your business and website via offline marketing.

For these types of traffic sources, analytics tools like Google Analytics will, by default, report that visitors arrived via a Direct traffic source or, in GA4, Unassigned. Direct or unassigned traffic sources represent any traffic that can’t be attributed to another source. For example, people who click on links in an email newsletter will show as a Direct traffic source by default instead of correctly showing Email as the traffic source. As a result, Direct traffic really ought to be labeled “Unknown” by default instead.

UTM tracking parameters remove the mystery and help you better understand what sources led people to your website instead of lumping everybody under a Direct (or Unassigned) traffic source. The more clarity you have around the sources leading people to your website, the better. This data tells you which marketing investments make sense. Maybe some social shares lead to deeper engagement on your website than others. Maybe some ads aren’t driving conversions. Maybe direct mailers have an incredible ROI. You won’t know any of this without tracking.

Configure UTM Tracking Parameters in Google Analytics (& GA4)

UTM tracking parameters or UTM tags add extra information to the end of the URL you are linking to within a query string. This extra information tells Google Analytics the actual source that led people to your website. For example, instead of linking to:

https://www.elementive.com

in a link from a newsletter, we would add UTM tags and link to:

https://www.elementive.com/?utm_source=newsletter&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=dec

This creates a tagged link. With that tagged link, Google Analytics will now report that visitors who clicked on links arrived from the email newsletter instead of reporting that those visitors arrived directly on the website.

These tags are pretty easy to add to the end of your links. Here is a basic primer on how UTM tags work. In GA4, the new traffic sources defined can be viewed under Acquisition->Traffic Acquisition, then change the primary dimension in the table to “Session source/medium”.

UTM Parameter Components

You can access the UTM tracking builder shown in the video above at https://ga-dev-tools.appspot.com/campaign-url-builder/. For reference, here are the different components you can use when creating trackable links:

  • Website URL: The regular URL on your website that you want to link to, such as https://www.elementive.com/. This field is required.
  • Campaign Source: The specific place sending traffic. For example, the name of a particular ad network or the name of your email list, such as “newsletter”. This field is required.
  • Campaign Medium: The category of that source. There are several sources within one medium. For example, “email” is a medium. This is required.
  • Campaign Name: Specify the name of the campaign that you’re working on. For example, in our email example, the campaign name might be the subject line of the email. This field is required.
  • Campaign Term: Adding a term is helpful if you’re bidding on keywords in pay-per-click advertising. Though for other types of tracking, it generally isn’t used. This is optional.
  • Campaign Content: You can use Campaign Content to help you know which ad, or which specific link is getting clicked on. This is helpful if you need more levels of detail than the campaign name. This field is optional.

Domain Redirects with UTM Tracking

To help measure SEO performance, UTM tracking can be used to track the usage of redirects. Let’s walk through an example of how you can use UTM tracking to track domain redirects. This same basic idea applies, however, to all types of redirects.

Many companies own multiple domain names. This might be to protect close alternatives to the company’s brand name (for example, at Elementive, we own elementive.net as well as elementive.com). As another example, companies might change their domain name but will continue to own that old domain because some visitors may still use that old domain to access the website or there may be backlinks to that older domain.

It is important to redirect these domain variations to the company’s primary domain. As mentioned, at Elementive we own the variant domain elementive.net and some of our clients do use this domain variant to access our primary website.

By default, any traffic using the .net domain will track as Direct Traffic in Google Analytics. We want to know how many people use this domain to know if it is worth continuing to own and pay for the domain variant. To do this, we can use UTM tracking within the redirect.

For domain redirects, the UTM parameters should be added to the redirect destination. In the case of elementive.net, the redirect destination is our primary domain, elementive.com. To keep the medium clearer, we’ll use the utm_medium of “redirects”. The source should be the domain redirected from, which in this case is elementive.net. That means the redirect destination will be:

https://www.elementive.com/?utm_source=elementive.net&utm_medium=redirect&utm_campaign=brand_domains&utm_content=home

You then set this tracked link as the redirect destination. Once defined, we can confirm the redirect is routing to the URL with UTM tracking parameters added.

Testing the redirect in WhereGoes

Here is a video walking through how to do this.

SEO Problems Caused by UTM Parameters

While UTM parameters can be helpful, there are specific cases where using UTM parameters can cause SEO-related problems. One of those primary cases where UTM parameters should not be used is within internal links. Robots rely heavily on internal links to decide what pages to rank in search results. As a result, internal links should only use the indexable version of a URL to help clearly signal to robots which links ought to rank. If non-indexable URLs are used in internal links, that can confuse robots causing the wrong URLs to rank.

If a URL with a UTM parameter ranks in search results, this can skew reporting. For example, if a URL with a UTM tracking parameter for an email newsletter ranked in search results, then any traffic coming to the website from that URL would track with “email” as the source instead of organic search as the source.

For similar reasons, UTM parameters should not be used in any links contained in the XML sitemaps or links used in canonical tags.

Along with the SEO-related problems, using UTM tracking parameters on internal links also creates analytics problems. Let’s say a visitor has arrived at the website from an ad but that visitor clicks an internal link with a traffic source attributed to social media. In that example, the visitor’s session would be reset and that visitor would track as two different sources.

Need Help?

If you have other questions about UTM tracking or other aspects of measuring your website’s SEO performance, please contact me.

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