6 Mistakes Publishers Make with UTM Tracking (and how to fix them)

Since you’re driving traffic to your website with the purpose of generating affiliate sales, there’s no doubt you’ve at least heard of UTMs. But while UTMs are everywhere, there’s often more than a little confusion surrounding them and how to apply them correctly.


#1 Mistake : not using UTMs!


So let’s start at the beginning…understanding UTMs and why they’re so important.


What are UTMs?


UTMs (short for Urchin Tracking Modules) are simply bits of text – called parameters or tags – that are added to the end of a URL. They are able to tell Google Analytics (and other analytics solutions) more about where your website traffic is coming from. The structure is always the same: the URL itself followed by a question mark, followed by multiple UTM parameters. URLs with UTM tags generally look like this:

Website URL appended with UTM parameters and values

Why are UTMs so useful?


With the help of UTMs you can pin down where your website traffic is coming from, even down to the specific ad or keyword that generated it. While Google Ads and Bing Ads automatically add UTM tags to your links, other crucial traffic sources do not. So if, for your example, you’re spending thousands of dollars on Facebook ads to send traffic to your site, the only way you can assess how well those ads are working is by tagging them with UTMs. With the help of UTMs, Google Analytics (and other tracking solutions you might have in place) will know that the traffic came from a paid Facebook ad. And with the right tagging conventions in place, they’ll also be able to know the targeting you used and even the type of content used in the ad itself.


UTMs for Email Marketing


Email marketing is another great illustration of the importance of good UTM tagging. Creating good email campaigns takes a lot of time and effort – but without UTMs the most you can really know about their effectiveness is open rates and click rates. Unless you tag the links in your emails with UTM parameters, the traffic will most likely be classified by Google Analytics as ‘direct traffic’ – the tragic black hole of lost traffic acquisition data. With the right UTM tagging you can know exactly which links in the email brought in visitors (and ultimately sales).


An email containing internal links, each tagged with their own UTM values.


UTMs for Referrals from Other Websites


Similarly you can also add UTMs to any links you’ve manually provided to other websites to anchor in their content and link back to your website. This allows you to measure the effectiveness of your digital partnerships and evaluate the performance of specific syndication campaigns you’re running.


UTMs and Your Affiliate Sales Data


In order to know your true ROI, it’s crucial that you’re able to merge your traffic source and campaign metrics with your affiliate sales data. UTMs are the basic building blocks for achieving this. However, you’ll also need a way of ensuring that the UTM values are associated with the purchase that subsequently takes place on the retailer’s website via the affiliate network. While this can be a little challenging to set up on your own, it can be easily achieved with the help of an affiliate data management solution like Trackonomics.


To Sum Up…


If you want to understand the quality of the traffic you’re bringing to your site in the context of actual affiliate revenue (and we’re sure you do), UTMs are an absolute must.


To get started you can easily generate your first tagged link with the help of Google’s URL Builder.


#2 Mistake: mixing up source and medium


Even some of the most experienced marketers sometimes make this mistake, so don’t worry if you sometimes find this confusing. Let’s try to clear this one up once and for all.


The 5 UTM Tags You Can Use


There are 5 possible UTM parameters you can add to your URLs – 3 of which are mandatory .

utm_source (required)
utm_medium (required)
utm_campaign (required)
utm_content (optional)
utm_term (optional)


Source vs Medium


Think of UTM source as the where and UTM medium as the how.

  • So, if a visitor comes to your site from bing.com after clicking on an organic search result the source would be Bing (where the visitor came from) and the medium would be Organic (how the visitor reached you).
  • If a visitor comes from clicking on a paid Bing Ad, the source would still be Bing, but in this instance the medium would be Paid.
  • In the case of a visitor coming from a social Facebook post on facebook.com, the source would be Facebook and the medium would be Social. Whereas if they were coming from a paid Facebook ad the source would remain Facebook but the correct medium would be Paid.
  • For referrals, let’s say a visitor came in from a link on quora.com, the source would be Quora and the medium would be Referral.
  • When it comes to emails, the source is less obvious. The medium (again, how the visitor reached you) is Email, but the source could be the name of the email platform you’re using (e.g. Mailchimp) or something like ‘marketing-emails’ or even ‘newsletter’. It doesn’t matter too much how you choose to name your source here as long as you’re consistent in how you apply it (more on that soon).


Understanding Campaign, Content and Medium


Table showing the definitions and use cases for each UTM Tag


#3 Mistake:  inconsistent naming conventions, spelling and capitalisation


Consistent naming conventions, spelling and capitalisation are absolutely critical! If you get this wrong then all the hard work of tagging your URLs goes largely to waste. Here are some tips:


Try to use lower case.


UTMs are case sensitive so Facebook and facebook will come up in your reports as two entirely different sources. Using only lower case for all your values should help you avoid running into trouble with inconsistent capitalisation.


Use medium (and source) consistently.


It doesn’t matter too much how you name your medium, as long as the meaning is clear to you, and you apply it consistently across all your marketing activity. So, for example, your medium for pay per click ads could be ‘cpc’ or ‘paid’. But just don’t use both (unless you’re deliberately using them to indicate something substantively different e.g. PPC vs Sponsored Content). 

You’ll be able to create much richer aggregated reports and much more easily compare the performance of different paid channels when you name your medium and source clearly and consistently.


Watch out for spelling and plurals.


If one person in your organisation uses utm_medium=referral to indicate non-paid links from other websites and another uses utm_medium=referrals, these will show up as two distinct mediums in your Google Analytics reports. And if another person is misspelling it as utm_medium=refferal, that will give you a grand total of three different mediums for what should have been one!


Create a consistent naming convention for your campaigns. 


Again, consistency is king here. Think of the attributes that are important for you when it comes to distinguishing one campaign from another and make sure they make it into your campaign name (ideally in an abbreviated but standardised and decipherable form). So if you’re very granular you might want to include whether your campaign is targeted to desktop or mobile as well as the geographic location and the campaign theme or product e.g. UK-Mobile-Summer-Sale. Whatever you decide to include, just make sure you and everyone else are following the same guidelines and applying them in the same way.


To avoid any discrepancies and ambiguity, the best course of action is to create an internal document outlining all of your UTM parameter naming conventions. This way everyone in your organisation who tags content with UTMs can refer to it whenever they need. 


#4 Mistake: not standardising campaign names across channels 


The primary purpose of tagging our traffic with UTMs is to make it possible for us to measure and compare how our different marketing activities are performing. 


The more we streamline and standardise the way we name our campaigns (as well as source, medium, term and content), the more easily we can compare like for like across other dimensions. 


Unfortunately, a common mistake is giving campaigns different names for different channels. However if you’re ultimately running the same campaign in both Twitter and Facebook, for example,  wouldn’t it make more sense to have the same campaign name so that you can then directly compare this campaign’s performance between the two channels? 


The same applies for all our other UTM parameters too. The more standardised they are across channels, the more easily we can compare apples and apples when we aggregate our data. 


#5 Mistake: using UTMs for internal links


This one is easy to fix – just don’t do it! You don’t need to add UTMs to links on your site that lead to other internal pages. In fact, if you do this, you end the current session and create a new one. And any subsequent conversion will be attributed to the internal source rather than the original traffic source.



#6 Mistake: not merging with affiliate network data


After all the effort of creating your naming conventions and tagging all of your links, you’re still missing a key piece of the puzzle – how much money your pages actually made in revenue. If you can’t connect the data in your UTMs with actual affiliate sales, much of your campaign optimisation will ultimately be guesswork. 


However, if you carry over this data and connect it to affiliate purchases and commissions, you’ll be able to calculate your true ROI. And you’ll be able to analyse each UTM dimension in the context of actual affiliate performance. 


Since this can be technically a little challenging, you might find it easier to use a revenue attribution tool like Trackonomics to ensure all of your UTM values (as well as other pieces of data you might want to track) can be associated directly with the sales data captured by affiliate networks.


You can also use Trackonomics to visualise and analyse all this data. Our flexible and customisable dashboard lets you slice and dice by different UTM dimensions and other important dimensions too (like author, page, category, subsection and more). 


What happens to the original UTM values if users visit multiple pages before making a purchase?


Another challenge with UTMs in the context of affiliate sales is the complexity of the user journey. We all know that readers frequently visit multiple pages on our website in the same session before ultimately making a purchase via an external affiliate link. 


Unfortunately, when this happens, the UTM values from the original landing page get lost along the way, together with all of our precious insights about the source of our affiliate revenue. 


Ensuring that you are able to store the original UTM values while a user navigates your website means that you will still be able to attribute a sale to the original traffic source that first brought the user into your site. 


While this may be difficult to achieve on your own, Trackonomics’ revenue attribution technology, Funnel Relay, holds on to your original UTM values, making it possible to link affiliate sales back to the original traffic source the user came from.


So there you have it.

UTMs are super valuable once you get the hang of them and you start using them consistently. 

If you need any help merging the valuable data in your UTMs with your affiliates sales data, feel free to get in touch or to drop us an email to team@trackonomics.net