Google Analytics

GA4 UTM Tracking Refresher

One of the topics that I’m always careful to spend a good amount of time ensuring my delegates understand fully when I’m delivering my Google Analytics Fundamentals training courses is the correct use of UTM parameters in links.

Most marketers these days are at least aware that you can add utm parameters to links in order to better track clicks back to your website in Google Analytics, however in my experience many marketers also lack confidence that they are using them correctly so this article will give you a few quick tips & refreshers to ensure that you get the most out of them.

What are UTM parameters?

When you publish a link back to your website, for example on an off-site blog or your social media channels you want to know whether these clicks are sending traffic back to your website, how much traffic, and whether it is of any value to you. This means that you need a way of telling Google Analytics where the click came from.

This is where utm parameters come in. Say for example I want to share a link back to in the Linktree on my social media profiles, then it would make sense for any clicks from those links to be tracked as “Organic Social”, because people have organically clicked on part of my social media portfolio.

I could just hope that Google Analytics will be smart enough to realise that it was an organic social click and stick that session in the correct channel group, this will sometimes work but is unreliable, or I could explicitly tell Google Analytics how I want it to be categorised. I do this by appending url parameters to the link before I publish it.


Landing Page =

Landing Page with utm parameters =

Both of these links would behave identically but Google Analytics would read the values we set for utm_source and utm_medium and classify the click accordingly

What does UTM stand for? Urchin Tracking Module. Do we need to know this? Not really, Urchin was the name of the software that became Google Analytics prior to Google acquiring it in 2005.

Which UTM parameters do I need to set for GA4?

In GA4 you only have 2 mandatory utm parameters if you choose to set them. These are

  • utm_source which is the name of the website or app you are posting the link to e.g. facebook, instagram, an affiliate website name, email
  • utm_medium which is the type of link or ad e.g. cpc, display, social-media, affiliate, newsletter

Although no longer mandatory I also strongly encourage you to also include

  • utm_campaign which is the overall campaign name for example “Black Friday 2023”

There are a couple of others utm_term & utm_content but these are less widely used. If a campaign has several pieces of creative then I’ll quite often use utm_content to differentiate between them e.g. “Gifting Video”, “Handmade Video”, “Denim Video” etc. but only if the use case makes sense.

How do I find the parameters to use?

It’s important to remember why you are adding utm parameters to your links. Fundamentally it’s because you want Google Analytics to organise, or attribute, your traffic correctly. So the best advice is to follow Google’s rules.

What are Google’s rules? Well helpfully they publish them in the Google Analytics Help documentation. Bookmark that link now. It’s quite a long article but there are really only 2 sections you need.

Firstly there is the list of all the default channels that Google Analytics supports, refer to this to find the best match for your current use case (note this screenshot is only a partial list. Please use the Google article as a single source of truth to ensure that you are using the most up to date info)

Partial screenshot of the GA4 Default Channel Grouping descriptions from Google's documentation

Once you’ve decided how you want your click categorised in Google Analytic you need to see which Source/Medium combination will ensure that this happens. To do this scroll way down the same article and find the section entitled “Channels for Manual Traffic”

Screenshot of the Google default channel grouping documentation

This table gives you all the rules.

For example if we want to ensure that a click ends up in the Affiliate channel group we scroll down to the Affiliate rule and see the following

Screenshot of the Google documentation showing the utm_medium rule for affiliate traffic

This tells us that in order for traffic to be treated as Affiliate traffic we need to set the medium to affiliate, which we do by setting the utm_medium parameter on our url like so:

I can’t remember the parameter names

You’re in luck, you don’t need to. Google have created a handy url builder for utm tracking and it will even shorten the urls for you if you think those long strongs of parameters are ugly (or if your destination source has a character limit)

Partial screenshot of the campaign url builder

Any other tips for UTM parameters?

Sure, here are the main things to remember

  • If you are in control of a link that is being published off site then as a rule you should include utm parameters
  • If you are seeing a lot of traffic in Direct then chances are you need to be doing more utm tracking
  • Check the source/medium against your Unassigned channel in GA4, compare anything you see in there to the rules linked above. Do you need to ask your marketing agencies to change some of their tracking parameters?
  • Don’t assume that your Paid Social or Affiliate partners are getting this right. You as the website owner are responsible for ensuring they tag the links in the way you need.
  • If you have links back to your website in your corporate email footer consider adding utms to them
  • Untagged social and email links are the biggest drivers of Direct traffic, don’t do this to yourself!
  • Nominate a gatekeeper or two internally to ensure consistency in use of source/medium/campaign naming conventions, consider building a spreadsheet with basic error checking
  • NEVER NEVER NEVER track internal links e.g. on the blog on your own website. This will remove the original source for that session and would treat the traffic as a self referral
  • If in doubt you can check your links with the GA4 debugger

It’s my view that everyone working in any digital marketing role should understand utm parameters, Google Analytics is near universally deployed AND there are even other analytics packages that understand utm parameters. They give us the best chance of ensuring that our traffic is attributed correctly and really should be considered essential. Remarkably I STILL come across digital marketing providers today who are selling their services to clients for a large fee and are getting this wrong, so it’s still not as universally adopted or included in training/onboarding of junior staff as I’d like. If you really want to get a handle on this and other measurement topics contact me, I’d love to help

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