There is a lot of misinformation on the use of Urchin Tracking Module (UTM) tracking codes, and so, confusion abounds. Truth is, UTMs have good purposes and if you’re not using them, you probably should be. Let’s clarify what they are, how to use them effectively and one massive pitfall that you should be aware of.
First, what is a UTM code? It’s simply a snippet of code that is appended to any link with the purpose of sending additional tracking information to analytics tracking software whenever that link is clicked.
In the example below, everything after .com is considered the UTM code.
When a user clicks on this link, it provides your analytics software with valuable tracking data. Specifically, it indicates that the user clicked on the top link in your spring email newsletter. Utilizing UTM codes in this context is essential because without them, you’d only know the user came from an email link, but you wouldn’t be able to distinguish whether it was initiated by a salesperson or part of your email marketing campaign.
Even though you have GA4 tracking set up, without a UTM code, you’d have no way to verify if your email newsletter is driving actual shoppers to your site. The good! UTMs are great for getting clarity on email campaigns, PPC ads and social media marketing. Use them to A/B test your ideas and you’ll be able to watch the results of your experiment right in your analytics.
Here’s the bad. UTMs are nuanced and can get complicated. They are case-sensitive, which makes them quite prone to human error. Overuse and over-reliance on UTMs can be a problem as well. It’s important to use consistent naming conventions and keep track of them, preferably in a spreadsheet. Privacy must be considered as well. Be sure none of your UTM codes include personally identifiable information because it will be visible in plain text everywhere. Even with best practices, there is always a chance that errors will occur. It’s important to regularly review your tracking practices and clean your data. Periodic reviews will identify anomalies and ensure that you are compliant with data protection regulations.
Now for the ugly. You probably have no idea that you can actually torpedo your search rankings with one misplaced UTM code. This bad practice is incredibly common, so you should check for yourself. When you search Google for your company by name, you’ll see the knowledge panel on the right. Click the link that says Website. Now you’ll be on your site’s home page. Look at the URL bar up top, it should have your domain name only, without a UTM tracking code. If you are doing this on a mobile device, you may need to click on the URL as if you were going to copy it to see the full address.
If local SEO is important, you should not see a UTM tracking code on your Google My Business (GMB) website link. Here’s why. Your NAP (name, address, phone number) should be consistent throughout the web and your GMB website link is the one everything should match up to. This match is impossible if there is a UTM code on that link. Your Google Business Profile (GMB) is the most official way that you tell Google your NAP. The work of a local SEO includes making sure that social media sites, video sites, directories and review sites all match up perfectly. Even if you theoretically updated everyone on the web with your domain + UTM code, it would render your tracking pointless because it would make your data unusable.
But, if I don’t use a UTM, how will I know which of my traffic is coming from GMB?
Google has detailed tracking within GMB, under Performance, and it’s also reported in Search Console. In analytics, it will show up as organic search traffic, which will be mixed with the rest of your traffic from organic search. This is unavoidable. Think it through, it’s not worth disrupting your organic search placements, which is happening. Well-placed UTMs are great for A/B testing, but are you really considering cancelling your GMB listing? It’s free, and you wouldn’t even be on the map if you did remove it. There are no legitimate business decisions that require including a UTM on your GMB listing, but there is a lot of damage to be done. Save yourself, it’s a simple solution. Check it, if it’s there, just remove it. Keep all the rest and keep good track of them. Cheers.
Christian Jorn is the CEO of Remora Inc. For more information, visit Remora.com.