What are UTM parameters?
Most landing page URLs look like they were written by a guy who fell asleep on his keyboard before the job was done:
But these seemingly jumbled combinations of letters, numbers, and symbols actually help top marketers optimize their campaigns and prove ROI. If you understand them, UTM parameters at the end of a URL can actually tell a valuable story about the people visiting a particular page.
What are UTM parameters?
UTM parameters, also called UTM tags or codes, are customizable pieces of text that allow analytics software (like Google Analytics and Autopilot) to track campaign traffic. Attaching them to the end of a URL can help you figure out answers to questions as broad as “Which email campaign brought in the most web traffic?” to ones as specific as “Which call-to-action in that email generated more revenue?”
Puru Choudhary calls UTM tags one of the two “Pillars of Tracking,” and if you’re serious about optimization, you should be using them in your campaigns.
Why are UTM tags important?
If you’re like most marketers, you’re promoting content everywhere: social, paid search, and email, just to name a few. Among your brand’s countless tweets, blog posts, and PPC ads, there are top performers adding loads to your bottom line, and just as many draining your budget.
The trouble is, according to Autopilot 2016 State of Customer Journey Marketing report, only 63% of marketers feel they have the data analytics needed to track results:
According to Aberdeen, though, top marketers do something different than all others to overcome that hurdle. They invest in analytics platforms at a rate nearly 20% higher than their peers.
Compared to all other technologies — CRM solutions, optimization platforms, email marketing software, and more — there’s no greater disparity in adoption between top marketers and all others.
What it comes down to is this: The best marketers are the best because they use tools like UTM parameters to determine what’s working and what’s not. Others empathize with John Wanamaker, who once said, “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”
Though, discovering your highest-performing channels isn’t as easy as slapping a UTM parameter on the end of URL. It takes knowledge of naming conventions and combination techniques. If you want to get the most from UTM tags, you need a strategy.
How do UTM parameters work?
While measuring campaign metrics with UTM tags isn’t as easy as tacking them onto the end of a URL haphazardly, it’s also not that difficult either (we promise). Here’s what you’ll need to know:
The five types of UTM parameters
There are five types of UTM parameters you can add to your content to help track traffic. Each one has its own job to do, and the more you use, the more your analytics platform will be able to show you.
This tag identifies the source of your traffic (Facebook, search engine, newsletter, Linkedin, etc.). In this SproutSocial URL, we can ascertain the the user arrived here by clicking through a Google search engine result:
This UTM code specifies the medium, like cpc or newsletter, for example. If your source is Facebook, you might use the label “social” to indicate the traffic came from social media. Here’s an example from an Entrepreneur URL:
This parameter indicates the campaign that the URL is a part of. This might be an identifier like a tagline — maybe “launch02015” or “website-redesign.” On this Textline landing page, the campaign name is “customerservice.”
This is where things get really granular. If you have, for example, two different calls-to-action in one piece of content, you can use this tag to tell your analytics tool which one is more effective. Here’s an example from a singular Glassdoor email with several CTAs.
Click the first green button and you’ll be directed to a page with this URL:
Click the second green button and you’ll be directed to a page with this URL:
Both these URLs are part of the same campaign, and come from the same source and medium, but the content that directs people to them is different. And the “utm_content” parameter is what indicates that.
This UTM parameter is important for identifying the keywords that drive clicks via a paid search campaign. Here’s an example from a HootSuite URL:
The “utm_term” tag here indicates the term “facebook analytics” was responsible for generating this click.
Adding UTM tags to your URLs
Now you know what they do — but how do you create UTM parameters? You’ll have a few different options.
Before we dive into them, though, there are some things you should know about tagging your URLs.
UTM parameter guidelines and naming conventions
Physically tagging your URLs is actually the easy part. The hard stuff is knowing what to do before and after you tag them.
Inconsistent parameters will, at best, confuse whoever’s trying to interpret your analytics reports. At worst, they’ll actually send you the wrong data. That’s why naming and monitoring them is so important. Here are a few guidelines to help you do it right:
1. Be descriptive with your tags
Remember, the point of UTM parameters is to track your data and sort it into an easily digestible report. If you tag your URLs with ambiguous terms, you’ll have to interpret those terms later on.
If it’s a short campaign, that might not be a problem. But if it spans longer, or if you want to analyze older data in the future, tagging your URL the way Medium does in this campaign is a bad idea:
Click through the links in this email and you’ll notice that, while all these destination pages have different URLs, they share they same parameters. One of those parameters, “utm_campaign,” is labeled ambiguously with “28A.”
The person who tagged the URL may know what 28A is, but what happens when someone else has to figure out the difference between 28A and 28B or C? What about the difference between 28A and 27 or 29A?
Always think long-term, and make your tags as descriptive as possible so that anyone, anytime, can read them.
2. Don’t repeat yourself
Again — remember, you’re going to have to read these in analytics reports. To get maximum information about your traffic with minimum confusion, you should make sure you don’t repeat yourself.
Every UTM parameter should tell you something different about your visitors. Jared Polivka of Rafflecopter suggests not only being clear and specific, but naming UTM parameters so that they read like a sentence together. Here’s a URL to illustrate:
Each parameter answers a question:
“When you combine the answers to the above questions,” Jared says, “the UTM tagged URL reads like a sentence: ‘This Facebook post links to a blog post about the new admin dashboard launched in April 2014.’”
3. Use dashes for spaces (just to be safe)
Should you use dashes or underscores to separate words in your UTM tags?
“[I]f you have a url like word1_word2, Google will only return that page if the user searches for word1_word2 (which almost never happens). If you have a url like word1-word2, that page can be returned for the searches word1, word2, and even ‘word1 word’.”
But, according to several sources, search engine spiders don’t crawl UTM parameters. In most cases, Choudhury says, they ignore them:
Google automatically ignores any UTM tracking information when crawling the web. Other search engines, like Bing, also do the same.
So, you shouldn’t have to worry about choosing between a dash or an underscore to optimize search engine visibility, because the spiders are ignoring your UTM tag anyway.
So, it’s probably best to stick with dashes, just to be on the safe side.
4. Keep an eye out for duplicate content
Now that we’ve said all that, it’s important to keep in mind that there are exceptions to the “no indexing” rule. In fact, there are tens of millions of them. A search for “inurl:utm_source” returns over 33,000,000 results (URLs with “utm_source” in them).
That means there are definitely cases in which Google indexes UTM parameters. And if that happens to your URLs, there’s a chance you’ll be penalized for creating duplicate content.
Google may treat the two links below as completely different but identical pieces of content:
To avoid that penalty, consider following this advice from Dr. Peter J Meyers, Marketing Scientist at Moz:
It may be wise to, on occasion, search Google for:
site:(your site) inurl:utm_(source, campaign, term, content, medium)
That way, you’ll know if any of your UTM tags are being indexed by Google. They shouldn’t be; but if they are, you’ll know what to do. (Thanks, Dr. Peter)
5. Don’t always use every parameter
You don’t have to use a parameter just because it’s available to you. If you’re going to tag your URLs, you’re required to include is “utm_source.” All the others are optional.
Here’s an example of when you wouldn’t want to use them all:
Among the parameters used in this email are:
Unless you’re running a paid search ad, it’s best not to use the “utm_term” tag. In this case, it doesn’t tell us anything else about the traffic coming through this email that the “utm_campaign” parameter doesn’t.
6. Never use UTM parameters on internal links
Once you start using UTM parameters, you’ll be tempted to use them everywhere — even in internal links. Here’s a brief example of why that’s a horrible idea:
“Let’s say you published a new blog post, An Awesome Way to do Something Awesome. You shared it on Twitter. One of your followers clicks on the link and arrives at www.yoursite.com/blog/awesome-post. When they are done reading, they want to go to your home page. They click on a link that takes them to http://www.yoursite.com/?utm_source=blog. You just lost the information that the user came from Twitter. Your analytics report will say that the visitor came from blog and not from Twitter.”
Only use UTM parameters with outbound content — the social posts, emails, and paid search ads you push out to the masses. Otherwise, the tracker in your analytics software will completely reset when a visitor clicks on a tagged internal link. And you’ll get a completely false report of where your traffic is actually coming from.
7. Always use lowercase UTM parameters
The reason for this one is simple. Here’s an example of what not to do, courtesy of Unbounce:
The utm_source for this email is “Webinar.” The problem is, the parameters “utm_source=webinar” and “utm_source=Webinar” are registered as unique tags in Google Analytics.
That means, if you’re tagging every other link using a capital “W,” you’ll notice in your reports that half your traffic is coming from the source “Webinar,” and the other half is coming from “webinar.”
It’s best not to add any confusion to the mix. Stick to using lowercase letters in all tags if you want to ensure accuracy and minimize confusion.
Tools for UTM parameter generation
When it comes to generating UTM parameters, there are lots of solutions out there. Here are just a couple you can use to create your own:
Google Campaign URL Builder
The Campaign URL Builder from Google is a nifty tool you can simply plug in all the details of your campaign without worrying about stringing a coherent UTM parameter:
Once you’re through, the builder will spit out your full URL, complete with UTM codes:
From there you can simply click the “Copy URL” button (and even “Convert URL to Short Link” before that to shorten your long URL), and plug it into whatever tool you’re using to promote your URL.
Google’s auto-tagging feature
Tagging all your URLs manually is a tiresome task. If you’re attempting to track AdWords traffic, Google’s auto-tagging feature makes the whole process more efficient, and it even offers a few additional benefits:
- Eliminate errors that may come with manual tagging.
- Import analytics goals and transactions into AdWords conversion tracking.
- Get more detailed data, like placement or hour of day.
Auto-tagging is turned off by default, so to turn it on, you’ll need to navigate to the tracking tab of your Google Analytics account.
Keep in mind that the feature doesn’t work with a small percentage of websites. If you’re having trouble using it, this could be why.
Effin Amazing’s UTM Builder
This might be the most convenient tool for manually creating UTM parameters. Simply download the Chrome extension, then click it whenever you reach a page you want to create UTM tags for.
A window will pop up, and in it you’ll be able to input all the details of your parameters, then copy and paste into your tool:
Dan McGaw from Effin’ Amazing explains it here:
A spreadsheet UTM code generator
Clicking here will download one from Buffer — the one we used for the example below.
These are really easy to use, too. Simply type in your utm details and then drag down the cells in row “E” to generate your URL complete with tags.
Finding your UTM parameter data in Google Analytics
Most analytics tools nearly organize all the data from your UTM tags have to offer. In Google Analytics you’ll find it quickly and easily with the directions below:
1. Log in to your Google Analytics account.
2. Navigate to your view.
3. Open Reports.
4. Select Acquisition > Campaigns.
5. Select All Campaigns
6. Click to view feedback from any UTM tag
And to get even more insight from your tags, consider setting conversion goals that tell you key metrics central to your business success (like revenue, customer acquisition, engagement, etc). Here’s a short video on how to do it:
Do more with UTM tags using Autopilot
With Autopilot, you can not only track UTM data, but create highly personalized customer journeys with them.
That means you can send emails to people who:
- Arrived on your page as a result of searching specific keywords
- Responded to a specific campaign
- Landed on your page via a certain source, like Facebook
- Were directed to your content via a particular channel like email
With the “utm_content” tag, you can even get as granular as sending someone an email based on the specific call-to-action they clicked on a page. UTM tags open up countless possibilities for personalization.
How do you use them?
Let us know in the comments, then start creating better customer journeys with more targeted emails by signing up for a free trial of Autopilot.