Why Use URL Tracking?
Learn what URL tracking is—and why it is so important for proving the effectiveness of marketing.
Looking to ease the pain of URL tracking? Simply fill out this form to get access to your own template. This Google Sheet is a tool that helps you:
Chapter 1: Why Use URL Tracking?
Chapter 2: UTM Parameters
Chapter 3: URL Tracking Best Practices
Chapter 4: Building Your Own UTM Codes
Digital marketing has opened incredible opportunities for businesses of all sizes, but its relatively rapid rise can lull you into thinking that all manner of rich data is easily attainable. In many cases, that data is available through the advanced tools and software you use—including Marketo—but gaps still remain.
URL tracking fills one of those gaps and delivers more intricate marketing and campaign intelligence. This strategy identifies which marketing efforts are driving the most qualified traffic by pinpointing which delivery system (e.g., email, social media, paid ads) is bringing visitors in.
URL tracking works by adding one or more UTM codes to the end of a web address. UTM is short for “Urchin tracking module,” developed in the 2000s by the Urchin Software Corporation. Urchin was bought out by Google years ago, and its web analytics tools were rolled into other products, including Google Analytics. The acronym stuck, and UTM codes have enabled URL tracking ever since.
Essentially, a UTM code is a tag placed on the end of a standard web address. Without a UTM code, Google Analytics and other marketing tools can provide some base information on where web traffic is coming from, but the data is often too broad. Of course, you can track page views and visits, but those metrics won’t tell you what inspired viewers and visitors to visit a webpage or exactly where they came from.
UTM codes solve this challenge by creating a new web address, based on as many as five parameters, that specifies exactly what someone clicked on to get to the page. For example, UTM codes can be added to indicate that a visitor came from a link in a paid ad on Facebook that was part of your latest marketing campaign. The longer web address is rarely, if ever, seen by users—they are simply clicking on anchor text and going to your page. When they click, precise data is generated in Google Analytics, and your marketing intelligence grows.
URL tracking delivers stronger data—but is all that data worth the work involved? Aside from the fact that UTM codes are more painless than you think, the advanced numbers are beneficial, if not crucial, to your marketing efforts. Some of the advantages of URL tracking include:
Many marketers give up or don’t try certain channels because they’re never quite sure if something will work or if it’s indeed working. A blog article you’ve written may receive 500 page views, but not all page views are equal. How do you know if a reader came from an email you sent, a text message, a Twitter post, or an internet search?
UTM codes provide evidence that a channel is effective or underperforming, thus giving you the confidence to try something new, adjust strategy, or stay the course. For example, you can determine if the guest blog article you wrote for a strategic partner company’s website is driving qualified traffic to your site—and if writing another is a smart move or a waste of time.
Marketers are continually challenged to determine which messages and visual presentations deliver the most impact. In the same campaign, the words “tennis shoes” might catch a person’s eye more often than “sneakers” or “gym shoes”—even though just one pair of shoes is being marketed. There’s some trial and error, for sure, but URL tracking breaks down the generated data so you can see which language and images are working better than others for specific content and offers.
A core component of inbound marketing is the Buyer’s Journey: the path taken by someone through your content and your website from visitor to qualified lead to customer. Rarely does someone come to your website and immediately make a purchase—they typically must be nurtured to a sale via content, emails, social media, and other channels.
Some sales tactics are more effective than others, but determining which are most effective is difficult if all you can track are sales and direct conversions (e.g., someone filling out a form on a landing page). URL tracking shows how leads are getting from Point A to Point B—and then to Point C, Point D, and so on. This is critical not only for the immediate data, but also for attribution reporting, which measures in detail the ways leads become customers and brand advocates.
Social media has evolved into a necessary staple of any brand’s marketing presence. It also can be one of the hardest to predict—similar posts can resonate differently depending on the social media platform, images used in the post, the time of day, what else is going on in the world, and so on.
UTM codes won’t tame this Wild, Wild West reality, but they can give you greater insight into which social media channels work better for your organization, as well as which characteristics of your posts lead to more clicks that bring leads into your website.
After devoting money and resources to a marketing campaign, guessing whether you’re getting an adequate return simply isn’t a good approach. The data that UTM codes track goes a long way toward proving ROI (or a lack thereof). This offers a great way to prove to stakeholders that, for example, your content strategy is worthwhile—you can show how many leads are reading your blog articles and how many of those leads are becoming profit-generating customers.
The extra coding involved with UTM codes may make URL tracking look like an advanced marketing strategy, but the process can be simple if you use a good tool to generate and manage web addresses. Consider this hypothetical example:
Acme Anvils is launching a new line of light anvils that are easier to throw off cliffs. The company’s main persona is intellectual coyotes who struggle with catching roadrunners and also are active on social media.
Acme previously wasn’t tracking its URLs, and isn’t sure how many of its past Facebook posts have brought leads to its product pages. Acme improved its marketing strategy and is now adding UTM codes to the link for its next round of posts announcing the new anvils. It follows these UTM parameters:
These three parameters are added to the web address of the new anvil product page. Facebook users who click on the link from an Acme Anvils post are still directed to the product page—but the UTM codes allow the clicks from this link to register in Google Analytics. From there, Acme can see if prospects are engaging with the Facebook post or if the company should consider focusing on other channels.
Obviously, this is a fun example (because roadrunner-chasing coyotes probably respond better to paid search) that offers a basic look at what URL tracking can do. The potential for deeper marketing intelligence—without ramping up difficulty—is far more intriguing.
A typical web address with UTM codes may look something like this:
The UTM parameters are what drive the data in URL tracking. How you set the parameters makes all the difference, which is why understanding each is important for maximizing their use.
Here is a snapshot of the parameters we'll explore below:
A UTM source code (utm_source) specifically identifies where the link externally resides, whether it’s a social media channel, a newsletter, a lead nurturing email, a Medium post, or any other place where you are trying to reach potential leads and customers. The source should be as specific as possible—name the social media channel or the type of email you are sending.
Medium codes (utm_medium) are not required but are strongly recommended to describe the basic type of marketing activity that contains the link. The text used for the medium doesn’t need to be specific—labels such as email, social, ppc, cpc, or bannerad suffice and actually help gather broader data on general marketing strategies.
A term code (utm_term) might be better remembered as a keyword code. It allows you to track which marketing assets are found in searches. Although a term code is most often used for PPC campaigns, it can help with any channel where people are looking for specific keywords.
A UTM campaign code (utm_campaign) drills into your strategy more than the medium being used. Use this code to identify and describe the campaign or promotion that appealed to the lead and inspired them to click on the link, thus bringing them to your website. A campaign code is also helpful for keyword analysis, showing what within your link, ad, or other asset contributed to the click.
A content code (utm_content) tracks where and/or how the link appeared before it was clicked on. Was it at the top of the email or below the signature? Was it the linked image or the linked text? This data helps show what’s drawing the lead’s attention—or what’s being overlooked.
Content codes are especially helpful when you have more than one link in the same email going to the same landing page. If, for example, one link is text and another is graphical, UTM codes can show which is gathering more clicks. You can then use this data to create a more effective email in your next campaign.
Resources for a Successful Paid Campaign
URL tracking allows marketers to accumulate granular data, develop a clear picture of website traffic, and prove ROI. A key to enjoying these benefits is diligently ensuring that you’re implementing UTM codes correctly. The following best practices can help:
UTM codes are case-sensitive, so if you’re alternating between uppercase and lowercase letters in your codes, you may throw off the data. To avoid forgetting if a previous tag was capitalized or not, stick with lowercase letters for all your characters—even for acronyms that are normally uppercased, so CPC becomes cpc—and don’t use spaces; opt for hyphens or underscores instead. If you want Google Analytics to show spaces in its results, insert %20 between words, which looks funny but will be recognized as a space.
Consistency must also extend to the terms being used, especially for source and medium parameters. For example, if you are casually switching between facebook and fb for a source or ppc and cpc for paid search, the data will be all over the place—at best, causing more work, and at worst, creating misleading numbers. Maintaining a “key” of all your UTM codes keeps track of which terms your team should consistently use—our template can help with this.
The idea behind UTM codes for tracking inbound traffic might seem just as appealing for internal traffic—visitors navigating your website via links, menus, and CTAs. Although this sounds great in theory, it doesn’t actually work because Google Analytics will think every click to a new page is a new visitor session. In other words, your numbers will be inflated, and the data will be inaccurate.
Internal UTM codes also return bad numbers for bounce rate and session length. Plus, if you’re compiling attribution reports, certain touchpoints will be overrepresented while others won’t show up as much as they should. Therefore, you should avoid UTM codes for internal links and rely on Google Analytics or Marketo’s tools to generate the data you seek.
Just because URL tracking offers five UTM parameters doesn’t mean you need to use every one. If you aren’t concerned about keywords, you can safely skip the term parameter, and the content parameter should be applied only when you are using more than one link in the same piece of content (e.g., an elaborate paid ad).
Rather than loading up a web address with unnecessary codes, focus on source, medium, and campaign. Reserve term and content for when you want to—and logically can—drill down into even more specific data.
A common UTM mistake that marketers make is confusing the source and medium parameters—for example, using Facebook for the medium instead of the source, and using social for the source instead of the medium. This not only jumbles your management of UTM codes, but also befuddles Google Analytics, thus resulting in bad data.
Remember, the source parameter identifies where a user came from to get to your website, and the medium parameter shows how they made that journey. The difference may seem semantic, and mixing up the two parameters is an honest mistake, but understanding the distinction is important for getting the most out of your URL tracking efforts.
Most people who click on a link won’t care if the address that delivers them to your website is a few dozen characters longer than normal. Yet, there are internet users who are suspicious of extended addresses and might click away when they see the longer address—or not click at all when their hovering cursors show a monster URL.
To solve this problem, use a tool such as Wistia’s Fresh URL, which hides UTM codes once a user arrives on your webpage, or Bitly or TinyURL, which create temporary web addresses but retain all the codes in the background.
When your URL tracking takes off, the data produced via Google Analytics will be immense. Unfortunately, the number of unique web addresses with UTM codes can also become immense, and merely generating new ones—not to mention ensuring you aren’t duplicating established ones—becomes a task in itself.
Recording your UTM codes in a spreadsheet can help sort out your URL tracking, but a better approach is using a resource like the UTM Code Creation and Tracking Template offered by SmartBug Media® specifically for Marketo users. With this tool, you can streamline the creation of your campaign URLs by standardizing your UTM codes with preset UTM parameters. The template also enables you to store all the codes and URLs you’ve created.
URL tracking shouldn’t be daunting for Marketo users. In fact, with our UTM Code Creation and Tracking Template, building URLs, standardizing your UTM codes, and elevating your marketing strategy is a cinch.
What's inside SmartBug's UTM Creation and Tracking Template? Watch this 90-second sneak peek, or continue on to the walkthrough below.
Our template aims to collect and manage all of your URL tracking information, UTM codes, and goals in a single, convenient document. Getting started is simple.
After accessing the Google Sheets-based template, make a copy, name it, and choose a folder for it to reside. We suggest changing the sharing settings to grant access to anyone in your organization who might use the resource, as well as bookmarking it so you can easily get to it as needed. You can delete the first tab once the copy is made.
Click on the Background Info tab and fill in the blanks: key contacts, reasons for using URL tracking, and any other general notes.
In the Website Domain Information tab, add the requested information if your organization uses more than one web domain. If you use only one domain, you can simply delete this tab.
The UTM Key tab stores your choices for each parameter. Keeping track of this information is vital not only to manage your UTM strategy, but also to make the UTM generator functional. We’ve built the spreadsheet with several options and placeholders for four of the parameters—feel free to keep these or delete as needed.
Note: Once you’ve filled out the key and have used parameters from it, do not edit what you’ve typed in or kept from the original template. You can add parameters as you go along, but you don’t want to tinker with existing text in individual cells because doing so will throw off your data in the long run. The goal here is to standardize your UTM codes, which can happen only if a UTM code isn’t changed after it’s been set and used. Arranging your codes in alphabetical order will keep this organized and easy to use.
Now, you’re ready to create your first URL with UTM codes. Click to the UTM Builder and Tracker tab to proceed. On that tab:
This isn’t the campaign text you’ll add to the parameter—it’s simply whatever you are internally calling your campaign. Similarly, landing page isn’t necessarily a true landing page, but whatever the destination page is (e.g., blog post, product page, and so on) that the link will take the user to.
The template is designed so that each cell in the parameter columns offers a drop-down menu with the text you placed in the UTM Key. Pick something for each parameter you’re using (remember, you must include a source and should have a medium).
As you populate the parameter fields, the coded URL will start building in the Coded URL column. This is not the URL you will copy and eventually paste—it will show up in HTML and spreadsheet-ese and basically be unusable. Instead, follow these steps to get a functional link:
You’ll now have a link you can copy and paste into Marketo’s URL function without all the extra spreadsheet detritus.
You’re just about done! The Notes column lets you jot down any additional information about your tracking URL.
The Goal Tracking tab is not a mandatory step in the process—you’ve technically already created the tracked URL and are good to go—but we highly recommend you go the extra mile in recording and analyzing your efforts. The spreadsheet includes columns for:
As you build out your URL strategy, the information on the goals page provides valuable insight into what you’ve accomplished and what future campaigns should include, and where and how you should promote them.
We at SmartBug® are experts in bringing strategy, data, and vision to marketing campaigns. If you want to take URL tracking—and your entire marketing strategy—to another level, contact us today, and we’ll talk about your present and your future.