Best practices for Google Analytics UTM parameters

When using web analytics service such as Google Analytics, you surely came across the need for more thorough system of categorizing the traffic sources. Google analytics meets this need with a number of UTM parameters that can be added to the URL. Even though there are several “How to use…” tutorials already, most of them are just reproducing Google’s official approach that might not always be suitable. This article should raise a suggestion to develop your own scheme for categorizing traffic sources using UTM variables, so to understand it corrently, it requires a certain level of knowledge about using such as well as knowledge about working with Google Analytics. In case you need a little brush up, I recommend reading  this article.

The scheme I will be presenting in following paragraphs, is suitable mainly for larger websites (I originaly developed it for a group of websites with together more than 60 milions visits per month). Therefore, if your site is rather small, do not waste your time with reading it and use the general approach recommended by Google. Moreover, it is important to state that there is no universal approach that could be suitable for all cases. The purpose of this article is to give you an inspiration how to design your own scheme exactly meeting your requirements. And last, but not least, some of the remedies described below require modifing your Google Analytics set up (especially filters), please make sure having at least one view (formely profile) with no filters applied, to keep your data unbiased.

Where to start?

Let’s get started from the single most important element – visitor. The whole scheme of working with UTM’s is based capturing the motivation that visitor has before visiting your site. The make it even clearer, let’s sum up all the options to acquire a new visitor:

  • By search. In this case a user has, or will have in the near future, some need (i.e. buying a new laptop). To fulfill the need, he/she will be performing search to get the best offer. It is up to your SEO-staff to convert him/her to visitor.
  • By recommendation. You site is being recommended on other site that user is already familar with. Unlike the following, this is purely reactive, therefore it could be considered as a indicator of your success. The better you are at what you are doing, the more recommendations (referrals) you get.
  • By your activity. You as a owner perform some activity (i.e. banner campaign) to get user’s attention and convert him/her to visitor.
  • By direct visit. Direct visit can be considered as a “reward” for well-executed preceeding options.

Transforming the content of previous lines into the system of UTM parameters is quite simple. In its essence, the values of basic UTM parameters should give the answer to two questions –  What was the motivation of a user to visit your site (utm_medium) and where was the motivation obtained (utm_source).

utm_source

Using this parameter is trivial – use the domain from which user is coming from (i.e. google.com or yahoo.com). My preference is to use the version with TLD (google.com) rather than without (google). The purpose is to distinguish the different language versions of a traffic source (i.e. google.co.uk, google.de or google.com). Moreover, you can always “group” the sources together using search and replace filter.

utm_medium

This parameter is usually rather neglected. Common values mentioned in almost every tutorial are “referral”, “organic” or “cpc”.  In my approach, I am trying to preserve the original definition of medium explained in prevoius paragraphs, therefore I prefer to use utm_medium to express user’s motivation before visiting the site. Based of this approach, I developed a list of possible values meeting this philosophy :

  • Search. Used for any traffic coming from search engines, even paid (i.e. Google AdWords). Organic search traffic is distinguished from the paid one using utm_campaign param (empty value for organic, non-empty for paid).
  • Referral. Respects the original meaning of referral as “someone or something being recommended”, therefore it account for all the traffic coming from “earned” links.
  • Campaign. Used for traffic that is a result of any marketing activity.

As you can see from the list above, common values such as “organic” or “cpc” are not being used.  You might consider grouping traffic from organic search together with traffic from paid one as rather stupid, but I believe there are some strong arguments to do so. Image a user that wants to buy a new laptop. He/she would type appropriate keywords to the search engine. Besides organic results the paid ones will come up as well. Does clicking on either organic or paid result change his/her motivation to buy a laptop? I believe not. You might argue that traffic from paid search has generally higher bounce rate and lower average time spent on site, but according to my experiences, it is usually due the fact that ads does not reflect what user can get on the target site. Google Analytics will by default tag all the traffic coming from search engines as organic, so it is necessary to apply “search & replace” filter. Similar approach is necessary for traffic from Google AdWords.

utm_campaign

This param is optional and used to identify campaign. Using this param is important to distinguish between organic search traffic and paid search traffic. There are no further restrictions, apart from the fact that all special characters must be encoded.

utm_content

This param is purely used for further segmentation of marketing activities (utm_medium=campaign). As stated in the opening paragraphs, the overarching idea of porposed scheme is to clearly identify user’s motivation to visit your site. With the respect to various marketing campaigns, it is obvious that using different formats has significantly different impact on the user. Therefore, further description using these values for utm_content is highly desirable :

  • Banner. Standard banner advertisement.
  • Button. Button-like graphical element with strong CTA.
  • Text. Used for advertisement or CTA in plain text format.
  • Richtext. Used for a text enriched with some graphical elements.
  • Video. Used for advertisement in video format.

 Examples

Traffic source UTM params
Organic search #utm_source=google.com&utm_medium=search
Paid search (PPC) #utm_source=google.com&utm_medium=search&utm_campaign=campaign_id
Banner on example.com #utm_source=example.com&utm_medium=campaign&utm_campaign=campaign_id&utm_content=banner
Post on Facebook #utm_source=facebook.com&utm_medium=campaign&utm_content=text
Video ad on YouTube.com #utm_source=youtube.com&utm_medium=campaign&utm_content=video&utm_campaign=campaign_id