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October 16, 2015

To UTM Tag or Not UTM Tag, That is The Question

By Special Guest
Josh Hill, Senior SEO Marketing Specialist, SmartSearch Marketing

UTM tagging is a popular – but nevertheless mysterious – method of tagging URLs to edit or augment visitor data in Google (News - Alert) Analytics. Even in the analytics industry, there is very little discussion or understanding around why or how UTM tagged links influence data in Analytics, which is unfortunate because UTM tags have a significant influence on the two most essential variables for every pageview: source and medium.

UTM tags are frequently understood as a means to conveniently create easily customizable segments in Analytics. They’re often used as a tool that allows users to add a layer of superficial customization on top of Analytics. The problem with this method is that it causes UTM tags to overwrite important data provided by the Analytics script. If you fill out UTM tags on a link, the Analytics script will not find and pass this data on its own; it will simply pass the values you’ve defined in the URL.

Here is an example of how using UTM tags as a data segmentation tool can result in inaccurate data:

Let’s say your company is working with five different industry bloggers to promote a new product or service. In order to easily segment this data in Analytics (to see if the bloggers are generating traffic and leads), you’ve shared the following link with these websites and instructed them to use it when linking to your website:

            example.com/newproduct/?utm_medium=referral&utm_source=bloggers

Because UTM tags override data from the Analytics script, doing this means that you won’t be able to separate traffic from those five bloggers in Analytics. The utm_source is filled in, and that’s the variable that is used by the Analytics script to store the domain name of each referral source. The Analytics script will simply pass the defined utm_source (“bloggers”) to Analytics. All visits from the five bloggers will be lumped together with absolutely no differentiation.

When to Use UTM Tags

Due to the nature of how UTM tags work, they’re only useful when you need to intentionally override Analytics data. There are two situations where this happens frequently: advertising and email.

Display advertising is a great example of when to use UTM tags. If you run display ads with untagged URLs through any ad network, including Google’s DoubleClick (News - Alert), this traffic will show up in Analytics with a medium of ‘referral,’ and the source will be the website where your display ad was clicked (or a domain associated with the ad network). This is why UTM tagging is so popular in advertising – in order to get (non-AdWords) ads to show up correctly in Analytics, it’s necessary to overwrite the utm_source and utm_medium variables.

The situation is similar with email marketing. If your company publishes an email newsletter or runs marketing automation drip campaigns, you want to track how many visitors these email communications are generating. If a UTM tag (News - Alert) is not utilized, visitors who click on untagged links in email show up in a variety of ways in Analytics. If they use a browser to access their email they’ll typically show up as referral traffic. If they use an application such as Outlook to access their email they’ll show up as direct traffic. Consequently, using tagged links in email communications is the only way to reliably segment email traffic in Analytics.

That said, there are a few things to keep in mind even when using UTM tags for advertising and email links:

  • If a visitor shares the link, anyone who visits using that link will show up as ad or email traffic.
  • Your UTM tags should follow standard Analytics values as much as possible.

UTM Tagging Best Practices

  • UTM tags should not be used unless you explicitly need to overwrite source and medium data in Analytics to make it more accurate, as outlined in the section above. This happens most commonly, and almost exclusively, with advertising and email traffic.
  • If you need to use UTM tags but don’t have the time to understand how they work, the most important thing you can do is use utm_source and utm_medium values that already show up in your Analytics.
  • Keep UTM tags in mind when planning your advertising landing pages. If there’s a chance that someone will share the link, provide an easy, compelling method of doing so, such as social sharing widgets.
  • Make up your own tags using alternative tagging conventions for social posts, referral links and any content that you intend to be shared. Query variables show up in Analytics, allowing you to create custom segments or reports for these types of tags. Doing this allows Analytics to do its job and correctly determine the source and medium for each pageview.

UTM tagging is a necessary practice for email and online advertising. However, using UTM tagging for other methods of outreach will display inaccurate Google Analytics results, misrepresenting results. 

Josh Hill

Josh Hill is senior SEO specialist at SmartSearch Marketing, a search engine marketing agency that specializes in helping business to business

companies improve their brand positioning and generate leads. He can be reached at Josh@SmartSearchMarketing.com. For more information about SmartSearch Marketing visit us at: http://smartsearchmarketing.com/utm-tagging-dangers-best-practices.




Edited by Kyle Piscioniere
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