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Google Analytics UTM Tracking: Measuring Unknown Direct Traffic

In this article: What are UTM tracking parameters and why should you use them? How can you use UTM tracking parameters to better understand the sources driving traffic to your website?

Why Should You Use UTM Tracking Parameters?

Lots of types of marketing can be challenging to track. In Google Analytics, by default, you can track visits from organic search and referred traffic pretty easily. With a little bit of work, you can link Google Ads and Analytics to track this traffic too.

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 to your site might have typed in your website’s URL after receiving a postcard in the mail. Visitors might have typed in your website’s URL after hearing an interview with your company’s founder on a radio program or a podcast. Visitors might have heard an amazing presentation you delivered and then typed in a URL to your website contained on the presentation to access more information.

For these types of traffic, Google Analytics, by default, will report that visitors arrived from a Direct source. Direct is often defined as people who directly typed your URL into their browser to reach your website. However, that isn’t always the case. Direct is better understood as the catch-all for traffic that can’t be attributed to another source. For example, people who click on links in an email newsletter you send out might be sourced as Direct instead of Email. Even if Direct traffic correctly represents people who directly typed in your URL, we want to know is what led people to type in your URL in the first place as best we can.

To better understand what this direct traffic really is, we can use UTM tracking parameters. 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.

How Does UTM Tracking Work?

UTM tracking parameters or UTM tags are extra bits of information added to the end of the URL you are linking to. 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=march

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.

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.

UTM Tracking: Offline Marketing

To wrap up, let’s talk through an example of how you can use UTM tracking to track offline marketing. Let’s say you want to track how many people came to your website after receiving a postcard in the mail. If you don’t use UTM tracking, this will end up as Direct Traffic in Google Analytics and you won’t know how much of that direct traffic came from the postcard or from somewhere else. So that we can track this, we can use UTM tracking with domain redirects.

To start, we’ll tag our landing page link as we would normally. However, it isn’t reasonable to think you would put this URL on an advertisement. As well, you can’t expect people to type in the following URL that contains the tracking parameters.

https://www.site.com/?utm_source=postcard&utm_medium=print&utm_campaign=february_promo&utm_content=1A

Google does offer a shortcode option, but, even still, do you think people are going to type in this? Even if people would type this in, do you want to put this on your advertising? Of course not.

https://goo.gl/jcMXWg

Instead, you can create domain redirects where a unique domain redirects to a trackable page. The general idea is you purchase a new domain and forward that domain to the trackable link. You then use the new domain you’ve purchased in your advertising. Here is a video walking through how to do this.

Need Help?

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