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UTM Parameters Explained (Including for GA4) (2023)



With the prevalence of tracking tools like Google Analytics, you can track your digital marketing campaigns in real time to see what’s working and what’s not. In order to track and categorize your campaigns effectively, Google Analytics relies on UTM parameters.

What are UTM parameters?

UTM parameters, also called UTM tags, are a specific set of five URL parameters used to track online marketing campaigns. When marketers include links to their website in their campaigns, they can use UTM parameters to clarify the details about their campaign to analytics tools. UTM parameters are added to the end of a URL website address, and they always start with a question mark (?).

UTM parameters get their name from the company that created them, Urchin. UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module. Google acquired Urchin in 2005 and rebranded and integrated the Urchin web analytics software into Google Analytics. UTM parameters are one of the foundational frameworks of Google Analytics, and they’re still used to provide information for Google Analytics’ dimensions (ways of segmenting metrics, such as by traffic channel or country of origin).

Types of UTM parameters

If a marketer wants to add UTM parameters to a URL—for example, https://www.shopify.com/—it could look like this (everything after the question mark is the UTM parameters): 

https://www.shopify.com/?utm_source=instagram&utm_medium=paid&utm_campaign=customer_edu&utm_term=lookalike&utm_content=merchant_showcase_video

If you look closely, you’ll see there are five separate UTM parameters, or key-value pairings. These are the only five parameters Google Analytics recognizes as part of its UTM system, and each serves a distinct purpose:

utm_source

The purpose of this parameter is to tell Google Analytics where the website traffic came from. This shows up in the “Source” dimension in Google Analytics. In the example above, the source is Instagram. Other examples of UTM-based sources could be email or Google. If you’re going to use parameters at all, Google Analytics requires use of the utm_source parameter.

utm_medium

This parameter tells Google Analytics what type of traffic it is. The most important distinction for marketers is distinguishing between paid and organic traffic. Google Analytics will, by default, assume all traffic is organic. So marketers can indicate that the traffic is from an advertisement by setting medium to one of the following: “cpc” (cost per click), “cpm” (cost per mille, or cost per thousand impressions), “ppc” (pay per click), “retargeting,” or “paid.” Like the source parameter, utm_medium is also required.

utm_campaign

This parameter refers to the campaign name. This indicates what you, as a marketer, see as the relevant campaign connected to this link. This definition is completely up to you. Some marketers run highly specific campaigns, with UTMs to reflect it—like “winter_2023_electronics_promotion_usa.”

Other marketers prefer to categorize their campaigns by broad categories, such as by sales funnel stage (for example, “prospecting”), theme (“customer_edu,” as in the example in the Shopify link above), or goal (such as “purchases_bfcm” for a Black Friday Cyber Monday promotion). The right campaign naming structure for you is the one that gives you the right information for your decisions. 

Although the utm_campaign parameter is not strictly necessary, using it is highly encouraged. 

utm_term

This UTM was originally used to automatically define the keywords and search term targeted in Google Search Ads campaigns. In other words, it broadly answered the question, “What did someone type into Google when they clicked our ad?” Today, Google Ads has automated the reporting of keywords and search terms, making this UTM less necessary. Marketers sometimes also use it to define the audience they’re targeting, such as in the example above, “lookalike” (a type of Meta audience that has traits similar to your existing customer base).

The parameter utm_term is generally considered optional, and with the rise of auto-tagging in Google Ads (tracking without UTM parameters), it’s not as essential as in the past.

utm_content

The utm_content parameter refers to an ad’s thematic content, especially when there are multiple ads in a single campaign. This can help you understand which ads perform best. For example, Shopify could compare traffic data from the example above (“merchant_showcase_video”) to another hypothetical ad (“new_feature_showcase_video”) and see what leads to a better conversion rate. Like the utm_term parameter, utm_content is optional.

Benefits of using UTM parameters

Google Analytics will naturally infer the context of some traffic without UTMs. However, there are several reasons for using them in your marketing campaigns, particularly for advertising and email:

Improved tracking certainty

Google Analytics will naturally understand if someone arrives at your site from a Google Search. And with Google Ads’ auto-tagging, it can determine whether that person clicked on an ad or on a non-ad link on the search engine results page (SERP). But Google Analytics has a hard time with other channels: when someone clicks on a link in your marketing email newsletter, Google Analytics won’t always know if they arrived from an email or if they just typed your URL into their browser. UTM parameters solve this problem.

Email isn’t the only channel that relies on UTMs for greater certainty. As an example, when Instagram accounts leverage popular link-in-bio tools to share multiple links on their Instagram profile, Google Analytics doesn’t understand that that traffic should be considered social traffic. UTMs help to make this clear.

Attribution clarity

Without UTMs, Google Analytics won’t know what traffic is the result of advertising and what traffic is from an organic link, such as when someone shares in a personal Facebook post. This is important for social websites like Facebook or Pinterest, in which a link could easily be from an ad (paid) or from someone deciding to share it on their own (organic). 

Control over testing

UTMs give marketers the power to decide what they want to test and analyze. By using UTMs to organize their traffic into specific categories, they can ensure that they have the data they need. For example, if you want to compare the traffic performance of image ads and video ads, you can include “image” and “video” in their respective utm_content parameters to gather this information.

How to create UTM parameters

Since UTM parameters are basically characters at the end of a URL, marketers can add them by simply creating the URL. As long as you use the five core UTMs defined above, there is no need to create any settings in Google Analytics or configure anything on your website.

Creating UTMs can be done in three steps:

1. Define the parameters you want to track

You should always include utm_source and utm_medium, and most marketers will choose to include utm_campaign as well. Utm_term and utm_content are optional.

2. Create the URL

You can choose to manually type out the URL parameters and the URL, or you can use a tool like Google’s URL builder. Advertising platforms like Meta also often have configurations to build UTM-based URLs directly in the ad platform.

3. Use the link in your campaign

Insert the URL, including the UTMs, as the link in your advertisement, social media post, or email.

Best practices for using UTM parameters

There are several keys to success in creating UTM parameters:

Consistent naming conventions

When you start using UTMs, you’ll want to ensure that you and your team use consistent naming conventions for the source (“facebook” or “facebook.com”), medium (“paidor “ppc”), and campaign (“prospecting_usa” or “awareness_us”). If you don’t use consistent conventions, the data in Google Analytics will be much harder to analyze. As a marketer, you can set your own UTM code conventions, or follow commonly accepted examples.

Lowercase letters

UTMs are case sensitive, if one UTM says “pinterest” and the other Pinterest,” this will confuse Google Analytics into treating them as two separate traffic sources. To avoid splintering your data, the best practice is to use lowercase for all UTMs.

Only use when useful

When marketers first learn about UTMs, it can be tempting to want to add UTMs to every link to your site on the internet, using every possible UTM. But UTMs are only useful if you use them for analytical purposes. For example, if your Meta campaign has just a single ad, you don’t really need to add a utm_content parameter, because you will know what ad it is based on from the utm_campaign tag.

How to analyze UTM parameter data

Ultimately, the purpose of UTM parameters is to give you better data about your traffic in Google Analytics. You can track traffic data to understand where your conversions are coming from, how engaged your visitors are, and what campaigns are working best.

In GA4, the latest version of Google Analytics, you’ll find the output of your UTM parameters in two places:

  • Directly via their dimensions. Each UTM parameter has a directly correlated dimension in GA4. They are as follows:

    • utm_source = Source
    • utm_medium = Medium
    • utm_campaign = Campaign
    • utm_term = Session manual term
    • utm_content = Session manual ad content
  • Indirectly via channel groups. Google Analytics uses channel groupings to summarize different types of traffic based on rules about their source, medium, and campaign. There are a default set of channel groups in every GA4 account, and you have the option to create custom channel groups specific to your business.

UTM parameters FAQ

How are UTM parameters added to a URL?

UTM parameters are appended to the end of a URL web address as a query string, meaning they are added to the end of a URL starting with a “?” character. They can be added manually, i.e., typed out, via a URL builder such as Google’s, or programmatically within a digital ad platform.

Are UTM parameters case-sensitive?

Yes, UTM parameters are case-sensitive. For this reason, it is considered best practice to keep all UTM parameters lowercase.

Can I use UTM parameters on any platform?

UTM parameters are designed to work with Google Analytics, so they are only guaranteed to work there. However, many other analytics platforms have adopted them, moving the process closer to a universal standard. For example, Mixpanel uses them, and Shopify uses them in merchant marketing reports.



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