Back in the days of the digital analytics Wild West, it was difficult to know exactly where a website visitor came from. You could determine what pages were performing well in terms of traffic, but you didn’t know who that traffic was. Eventually, many analytics programs gained the ability to separate visitors in various channels, but even nowadays, there’s still many instances where you see the dreaded direct/none. Surely there can’t be that many people typing in your website URL manually or accessing the site via bookmarks, right? Right!
Google Analytics is able to determine source/medium information a few different ways, but the main method used is analyzing referrer information. For example, someone visiting your site via Google Search would have the referrer set as google.com, which is then labeled as Google/organic in reports. However, there are many instances where this referrer information is lost or not set, which leads to it being labeled as direct/none. The biggest culprits of this issue are links in emails. Emails do not pass referrer information, so anyone accessing your site via email links will show up as direct/none unless you use the magical creation known as Urchin Tracking Module (UTM) parameters.
Specifically, UTM parameters are tags in the query string of a URL that manually set source, medium, and campaign fields. For example, source is utm_source=Example and medium is utm_medium=Example. These would be separated by ampersands and placed after a “?” at the end of the URL. So as a full URL, this would be https://www.example.com/page?utm_source=Example&utm_medium=Example. Luckily for everyone, Google provides a URL Builder that automatically creates tracking URLs for you; all you have to do is fill in the necessary fields. Additionally, if you have a DealerFire site (and why wouldn’t you?), we provide this tool in Ignite; it is named “Tracking URL Builder,” and it can be accessed under the Website Data section. By using UTM parameters, you ensure properly attributed traffic metrics to actual campaigns rather than a Bermuda Triangle of direct/none.
Do’s and Don’ts
- Do use UTM parameters on links in email campaigns.
Do use UTM parameters for links in paid search campaigns when not using auto tagging features.
- Google AdWords has a setting known as auto tagging, which automatically tags links and eliminates the need for UTM parameters.
- Do try to use mediums that match existing mediums. Even though you can set the medium as anything you want, it is best to use similar terminology to what already exists to avoid confusion.
- Do try to use consistent capitalization and spelling for source. Using different capitalization results in multiple source/mediums with the same name and their own data.
- Do fill out source, medium, and campaign at minimum in the URL builder.
- Do not tag links on your site with UTM parameters. It leads to inflated session counts as well as strange behavior metrics.
- Do not capitalize mediums. Doing so can prevent data from showing in the appropriate channel.
- Do not use spaces in the URL builder fields. Instead use hyphens or plus signs as detailed in the FAQ “Why does my URL and analytics data look ugly?”
There are two ways to track the success of your campaigns. The first way is to go to Acquisition > All Traffic > Source/Medium. Look for the source/medium that you set in your UTM parameters. Then, look at the corresponding data for that source/medium. This will give you an aggregate view of how it is performing.
The second way to track success is to look at campaign-level data. You can do this by going to Acquisition > Campaigns > All Campaigns. Find the campaign of interest, and look at the corresponding data for that campaign.
Compatible UTM parameters do not show up in page URLs in Google Analytics. When a pageview is sent for a page with parameters, Google Analytics will strip the data from parameters and display it in the appropriate field, such as source, medium, and campaign. For example, if a pageview were sent for https://www.example.com/new-toyota-oshkosh-wi?utm_source=DealerSocket&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=New_Toyota, then you would see this as a pageview for /new-toyota-oshkosh-wi with source/medium set as “DealerSocket / Email” and campaign set as “New_Toyota.”
If you want to clean up the formatting of your tracking URL as well as the formatting of the data in Google Analytics, you can use a hyphen (“-”) in place of an underscore (“_”). Or, if you would rather it show as separate words in Google Analytics, you could use a “+”. Do not use spaces in the tracking URLs themselves as they can cause issues with formatting.
Channels in Google Analytics have a specific definition that can be found here. As seen in the help document, the email channel has the definition of “email” with capitalization being significant. If the utm_medium parameter is set as “Email,” then it will not show up under the email channel unless you modify the channel definitions in your Google Analytics settings. Instead, this traffic will be displayed in the channel: (other). In order for these sessions to show up in the email channel in Google Analytics, utm_medium needs to be set as lowercase “email”.
Ex) utm_medium=Email → utm_medium=email
Channels in Google Analytics have a specific definition that can be found here. As seen in the help document, the paid search channel has the definition of “Medium matches regex (cpc|ppc|paidsearch)$ AND Ad Distribution Network does not exactly match Content” with the capitalization being significant. If the utm_medium parameter is set as “CPC” or “PPC,” then it will not show up under the paid search channel unless you modify the channel definitions in your Google Analytics settings. Instead, this traffic will be displayed in the channel: (other). In order for these sessions to show up in the paid search channel in Google Analytics, utm_medium needs to be set as lowercase “cpc,” “ppc,” or “paid search.”
Ex) utm_medium=PPC → utm_medium=ppc
Occasionally, but especially when creating tracking URLs in bulk, the tracking parameters will be misformatted, which prevents Google Analytics from obtaining the correct data. The two most common issues that we have seen have to do with the query string of the URL: either there will be more than one “?” in the query string, it will be missing completely, or there will be missing ampersands (“&”) between UTM parameters.
Ex 1) https://www.example.com/page?utm_source=DealerSocket?utm_medium=email
In example 1, there are two question marks separating the UTM parameters in the query string. This results in the source field populating correctly, while the medium field is ignored. The second question mark should be replaced with an ampersand (“&”).
Ex 2) https://www.example.com/page&utm_source=Dealersocket&utm_medium=email
Example 2 shows a common issue with creating bulk tracking URLs using concatenation. Instead of starting the query string with a question mark (“?”) as is necessary, it is started with an ampersand (“&”). In addition to the UTM parameters not working, this type of URL will often result in a 404 page since it would be requesting the page with the URL of /page&utm_source=Dealersocket&utm_medium=email. The first ampersand should be replaced with a question mark.
Ex 3) https://www.example.com/page?utm_source=Dealersocketutm_medium=email
In example 3, utm_medium immediately follows the value of utm_source with nothing separating the parameters. Google Analytics is unable to parse the parameters correctly, which results in no source or medium being set. In most cases, this traffic will become source/medium: direct/none. An ampersand should be added between “Dealersocket” and “utm_medium” in order to function properly.