Google Analytics UTM parameters explained

A survival guide for those who need to use UTMs in Google Analytics.
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UPDATED ON
May 10, 2024

This is a quick guide to survival taken from my beginner Google Analytics course.

How do you explain UTM tracking?

Let's start by a quick definition: UTM stands for “Urchin Tracking Module”. Urchin was the old name of Google Analytics. Marketers use these UTM parameters as a way to track your incoming site traffic.

A UTM is used to measure the impact of your marketing efforts on different web platforms. UTMs can answer several questions marketers ask themselves: what is the best ad? What are the best geographic markets? Does the influencer marketing campaign work? The parameters in the UTM help you fill in some gaps in your analysis. They make attributing conversions to marketing efforts more precise. They also allow you to use default channels grouping (or your own) more efficiently.

When do you use a UTM?

Use UTMs only for marketing efforts that:

  • Are not well categorized by default by Google Analytics with its default channels (primarily all paid efforts and newsletter)
  • When they are from paid platforms / collaborations because having more precise data is especially important for this type of efforts
  • When you want to make sure to have dedicated data for a campaign / marketing efforts - for instance, if you pay for sponsored content and you want data for traffic coming from this content specifically.

Even though it has less negative consequences in Google Analytics 4 compared to Universal Analytics, UTMs shouldn’t be used to track interactions on your website. Events are meant for that.

You could, in some cases, use them to track traffic from your different websites / apps however.

UTM FAQ

‍What are the 5 UTM parameters?

There are 5 standard UTM values: campaign, source, medium, term, and content.

You also have campaign ID which is optional and rarely used.

‍Which UTM parameters are required?

Out of the 5 standard UTM values, the first three parameters – source, medium, and campaign are strongly recommended. Term and content parameters are way more optional.

The source parameter is required.

‍How to use UTM parameters?

UTM are URL parameters, meaning that they need to be added to the URL you want to send traffic to.

For instance, If your landing page’s URL is https://www.example.com, you will need to add at least the three key parameters we mentioned above to it: https://www.example.com?utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=paid&utm_campaign=black-friday. In this example, we tell GA4 that the visit/user arrived from a Facebook Ads campaign called “black-firday”.

You notice that all parameters start with “utm_” and that the first one is declared with a “?” and the following ones are separated by a “&”. After each parameter, you return a value with the “=” operator.

Note: UTM parameters can be used with other URL parameters. Just be careful, because, in an URL, the first parameter is always declared with a “?”, so if you add UTMs after other parameters, only use “&”. UTM builders normally should help you with that!

Here is the full list of parameters:

  • utm_source - for the source
  • utm_medium - for the medium
  • utm_campaign - for the campaign name
  • utm_content - for the content parameter
  • utm_term - for the term parameter.

‍How do I find UTM parameters in Google Analytics 4?

It depends on the information you are looking for as there are three keys dimensions available in Google Analytics 4 (GA4) in regards with campaigns:

  • Campaign which gathers all your campaigns (including Google Ads) which generated conversions. It uses the data attribution model setup at the property level. You can find this dimension in the reports of the Advertising section, and it will only include data for campaigns with conversions (it is therefore event scoped)
  • Session campaign, which follows the same principal but that is focused on all the sessions (session scope) with a last interaction attribution model. By default, this dimension is available in the Traffic acquisition report, in the Acquisition theme.
  • First user campaign, which shows through which campaign new users arrived on your platform(s) (user scope). By default, you can use it in the User acquisition report, also in the Acquisition theme.

One particularity that you will notice with campaigns in GA4 is the fact that, when you use one of these dimensions, the tool is going to list all types of traffic, even the ones which didn’t come from campaigns. For instance, GA4 is going to list (direct) as a campaign name for direct traffic.

Jonathan Moore, a senior Analytics consultant based in the UK, has this advice for you:

At the moment GA4 doesn’t have filters so it’s worth making sure any utm parameters you use are lower case. You can normalize parameters to lowercase in GTM, you need to be careful with case sensitive parameters like gclid.

What can I track with a UTM?

You can track a campaign source, any marketing effort or just specific traffic source, for example: emailing flows, contests, promotions, links from influencers, banners on sites, white papers, links in employee signatures, QR codes and more.

Be careful, sometimes, UTMs fail when there is a redirect. Check for redirects stripping out parameters! Jonathan Moore has this other piece of advice for you: “I normally test this with dummy values. E.g. utm_campaign=test”

Do I need to use UTMs for Google Ads?

The answer is no if you connected your Google Ads account(s) to your Google Analytics 4 property(ies). You can connect up to 20 accounts and if you keep the default “auto tagging” feature, Google Ads will automatically feed data to Google Analytics (the campaign, ad group… that drove traffic and possibly conversions).

How to keep track of your custom campaign parameters

A good practice is to keep track of your UTMs so that you are able to find all the details you need over time, but also for consistency purposes.

After a few years, it is difficult to remember all the details of our web marketing campaigns. You can use a custom Excel file as a URL builder and to document my UTMs when I need a solution that's fast, free, and usable by the majority of people.

You also have tools such as UTM.io which allows you to document everything neatly, add users and create UTM templates so that your colleagues can make their links well without having to stress. Not everyone is comfortable generating a UTM and this is where a tool can simplify the task for some.

We use both approaches with our clients, depending on their needs.

Google even offers a UTM builder to help you create your first UTMs. You can also use the template provided by Measure school. Mike Ginley, Senior SEO at Humana swears by it!

Here are the standards for all the parameters

  • We do not put capital letters, emojis, accents or spaces in a UTM. There are always small risks of technical issues or inconsistencies (one person capitalizes the name of the campaign and the other does not - which causes two separate campaigns to appear in your reports). 
  • Use lowercase whenever possible - "Email", "email" and "eMail" "are considered three values ​​in Google Analytics. (The exception is if you need to attach data from Google Analytics to another tool for analysis). The caveat does not apply to utm_source and utm_medium, which must always be lowercase).
  • Use dashes instead of white space for any campaign parameter.
  • Don't use punctuation or special characters (I'll pick up my first tip because it's the most important).

Can you make your own UTM parameters?

You can't do whatever you want with UTM parameters. You must respect some conventions (kind of like UTM codes). Indeed, you need to stick to the ones we listed before.

Why don’t my tracking URLs show up in the GA4 reports?

It can be the result of different issues. The most common one is when you use a source / support combination that GA4 can’t categorize in its default channel groups (check this neat documentation for tall the details, go to directly to “Channels for manual traffic”, Google explains how a session / user is categorized in a channel). Analyze the traffic in the “Unassigned'' channel to see if your campaign traffic is in there. With that said, let’s note that you should see your campaign with the campaign dimensions we mentioned earlier.

The other main cause for that issue is that your UTM was just badly structured or built (maybe you made an error in the parameters, with “utm-source” instead of “utm_source”, for instance). That’s why keeping track of your UTMs is very useful.

Unfortunately, there are also other possible scenarios which could explain why you don’t see your campaign. One is thresholding if you activated the Google signals. However, starting from February 2024, it shouldn’t be too much of an issue anymore. Another could be data sampling.

Also, make sure to use the right dates!

Examples of what to put in the utm_source parameter

The parameter is meant to track your sources of traffic. The traffic source, or utm_source, is the only mandatory element of a UTM.

The source is the most precise information of where the session/user came from. Here are some examples:

  • For Facebook ads, the traffic coming from Facebook, should have facebook.com or facebook as the source
  • For the traffic coming from remedes.ca, we put remedes.ca. For regular websites, we prefer to clearly indicate the TLD (top level domain). Remedes.ca is not the same as remedes.com.
  • For the traffic coming from a newsletter, we have more freedom. “email” needs to be used either for the source or the medium. We usually recommend to add this information at the medium level (as it is a traffic type) and add whatever makes sense at the source level (if you want to distinguish different types of newsletters, that could be where you could do it). It's up to you! Some marketers prefer to insert the name of the mailing list or newsletter as utm_source rather than the name of the email service provider. It's even recommended in Google's documentation

What to put in utm_medium 

Here is what you must put in the campaign medium of any link you track:

  • Direct: never use it because direct is tracked from the base.
  • Organic: do not use it, it is reserved for organic referencing (SEO). You could maybe use it in very rare occasions, to track a link from a Google My Business listing, for instance
  • Social: use the word social in your UTM for social networking sites, and specifically for organic traffic. The most common sources of social traffic are: facebook.com, twitter.com, linkedin.com, pinterest.com, etc.
  • Email: use the word email in your UTM if the traffic comes from a link in a newsletter or any other email communication.
  • Referral: use the word referral when the link is placed on a partner site, blog, etc. Anything that is done for free and that is not a banner must be with an utm medium referral.
  • Paid Search: use the word ppc, retargeting cpc or paid for all paid ads. Google Ads automatically uses this in their tracking if you connect your account to your GA4 property.
  • Other paid efforts: the logic we just stated for paid search and the medium also works for other paid traffic types: Paid Social, Paid Video, Paid Shopping and Paid Other. Google Analytics 4 is going to choose one of these channels depending on the source - it uses an internal list of sources. So, for instance, facebook + paid is going to be categorized as Paid Social. 
  • Display: the display channel is used for banners. If you are doing banner ads with LaPress + or any website that sells banners, you must use the word display or the word banner in the UTM. It's up to you.
  • There are other default channels now available with GA4 (like “SMS” or “Organic Shopping”), refer to the documentation for more details.

Anything that is not tracked with the correct terminology in UTM medium will fall into the “Unassigned” channel. It happens when GA4 doesn’t recognize the source / medium combination based the default channel groups.

One way to check this in reports (although this can be done in Explorations too) is to click on Traffic Acquisition, use the Default channel grouping dimension, then add as a secondary dimension Session Source / Medium. You might see some traffic as Unassigned when really it should be Organic Social for example. You will also find some (not set) values which can be linked to several issues.

Taking a look at the rules can help to change the UTMs you use that mean they go into the right spot. Of course, that doesn't always work - what about tracking QR codes for example? Offline marketing to online - well you can create custom channel groups to help with that. You could create a channel called 'Offline' and then any QR codes you are using (with the correct UTMs set up) for example will go in that Offline channel.

Kyle Rushton McGregor, a GA4 expert, has concrete advice when it comes to QR codes:

“I've done this with an e-commerce client that has stores too - their QR codes linked to videos and information about the product. Initially that traffic was going into Unassigned but now we can see the role those QR codes are playing online as we've placed them into a Channel Group called Offline.”

What else?

Before we go any further, I would recommend you to follow Azeem’s advice and bookmark Claire Carlile’s UTM guide: “Anything UTM related, I'd do whatever Claire Carlile tells me to do. Her guide has saved me so many times in the past.”

How does Google read a website?

Although the value of utm_campaign is optional, it is strongly recommended. If omitted, the value is reported as "(no set)" in Google Analytics. If you don't put your campaign name in the UTM, your marketing campaign won't be listed for the campaign dimensions... or anywhere else. Don't forget to specify your campaign.

If the campaign is recurring from year to year, a clear nomenclature should be provided: campaign name + year. There are a few schools of thought on values ​​for the utm_campaign. I'll cover two approaches.

Approach 1: The Tactical Approach

Most marketers follow this approach. It consists of using the name of the marketing campaign used internally as the value for utm_campaign:

Advantages of the tactical approach

  • It is easy to see the results of each campaign in Google Analytics.
  • If there is a cost associated with running a campaign (i.e. ad campaigns), it's easy to see the revenue of each campaign.
  • It is easy to communicate with the different teams.
  • As the values ​​of utm_campaign come from marketing tools and advertising platforms, it is easy to relate the campaign of the tool / platform to data from Google Analytics.

Disadvantages of the Tactical Approach

  • In some cases there is no internal campaign name clearly indicating the channel where the link is shared (e.g. organic post on Facebook, tweet, video on a brand's YouTube channel , affiliate link). Therefore, much of the traffic will be of no value to the campaign.
  • Inconsistent naming of campaigns can cause a mess, rendering the Google Analytics campaign report virtually useless.
  • This can cause chaos when looking at campaign reports that are not filtered for a single source / medium
  • It can be hard to read in the reports depending on the internal practices.

Approach 2: The Strategic Approach

The second approach is to use a high level strategic value for the universal marketing campaign that identifies the product / category / event being promoted or the higher level marketing or promotion objective. This idea is closer to the classic concept of a traditional marketing campaign. The campaign is the same but broadcast on several marketing channels. This is what we use when we have recurring campaigns like Black Friday, Valentine's Day, etc.

Benefits of the strategic approach for campaign tracking

  • A clean campaign report with clear and strategic values
  • A clear overview of the campaign performance by traffic sources
  • The ability to visualize and compare the results of different marketing campaigns.

Disadvantages of the strategic approach when tracking online campaigns

  • Campaigns shown in Google Analytics reports do not match the campaign title in every marketing tool / platform, making it more difficult to compare Analytics data with the costs shown in the 'tool.
  • Only the costs (if imported for extra Google Ads traffic) and revenues of the entire marketing campaign from all sources can be directly compared, and the breakdown of the report requires further analysis.
  • Clear communication and centralized documentation are needed. If a team or person does not follow this approach, all campaign data in Google Analytics will become virtually useless.

utm_content

The utm_content field is meant to be used to give details about the content of the page / platform that is bringing you the traffic. But then again, you can use it however you like to segment your data based on certain parameters, like language, geo-targeting, or more.

Rather than just identifying paid keywords like the utm_term field, utm_content is intended to provide more context around the actual content being promoted or shared.

Some common uses of utm_content include:

  • Language - If you are targeting traffic from different language audiences, you can use utm_content to specify the language. For example: utm_content=english or utm_content=spanish.  
  • Geo-targeting - If you are targeting different regions, you can specify the region in utm_content. For example: utm_content=us or utm_content=europe.
  • Special angles - If you are promoting a specific angle or unique selling proposition, you can specify that in utm_content. For example: utm_content=price or utm_content=emotion.
  • Email position - If links are appearing in different parts of an email, you can track that using utm_content. For example: utm_content=footer or utm_content=header.

The utm_content field gives you flexibility to segment your traffic sources based on the actual content being promoted or shared, beyond just keywords. Used strategically, it can provide valuable insights into how different content angles and targeting are performing for your website.

A good tip to know: when I need to track a special ad, an angle, a specific sharing group or the position of a link in an email, I use UTM content. I specify if the link is in the footer, the header, the body of the content via this portion of the UTM. If it's a special angle, I put the angle in one word: price, emotion, moms.

utm_term: an option in Google Analytics

According to Google’s documentation, utm_term is used to "identify paid keywords", and therefore these values ​​appear in the "Manual term" field in Google Analytics. However, you can use this field to convey useful information from other sources.

utm_term is an optional parameter in a URL that can be used to identify the specific keyword, product name, topic, or campaign that drove a user to your site. Marketers can use utm_term to gain more insight into which specific campaigns, promotions, or topics are driving the most traffic and conversions. The value of utm_term depends on the marketing source and channel. Depending on the medium, utm_term can identify a specific email, ad in an ad group, social post, blog post title, search keyword or video title for example.

For example, a marketer running an email campaign about new shoes may include links with a utm_term value of "summer shoes." When people click that link and land on the store, Google Analytics will attribute that traffic to the "summer shoes" campaign. 

The utm_term parameter provides more granular insights that can help marketers optimize their campaigns. They can determine which specific topics, products, or keywords resonate most with their audience and allocate more budget and resources toward amplifying those high-performing elements. 

Need training to better understand all this?

How to use UTMs in your Facebook campaigns? Here's an example

You can track your Facebook communications and their impact on your web traffic directly in Google Analytics by putting UTMs at the end of your campaign URLs. If you are running advertising campaigns, we strongly advise you to take the time to specify the following elements for each of the landing pages:

  • UTM Source: facebook
  • UTM Medium: paid
  • UTM campaign: the name of your campaign
  • UTM content: the content of your advertisement to see which version works best

UTMs are especially important for paid campaigns. They can also be useful for organic posts in order to get data specifically for those (that is not something you get out of the box).

How do I add UTM parameters to Facebook ads?

Prepare the URL for your landing page including the UTMs.

Go at the ad level to set your URL Parameters. Click Build a URL Parameter under Website URL.

Google My Business Tracker Tip

For local SEO, using UTM tracking on a Google My Business listing is absolutely essential to better understand how your local SEO strategy contributes to your overall SEO goals. Before adding a UTM, you will see the visits of your GMB listing in the "direct" channel. Just add: ?utm_source = google&utm_medium = organic&utm_campaign=gmb at the end of your link to the Google My Business site and you're done. This will make sure that the sessions coming from your listing are categorized in the “Organic Search” channel but it allows you to find it with the campaign name.

Get smarter when it comes to local UTMs

We can use UTMs to track links to the site, to appointments or even links in posts shared via Google My Business.

  • ?utm_source = google&utm_medium = organic&utm_campaign=gmb-website
  • ?utm_source = google&utm_medium = organic&utm_campaign=gmb-post
  • ?utm_source = google&utm_medium = organic&utm_campaign=gmb-meeting
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