Link Tagging and Why It’s Essential to Google Analytics

Is your company utilizing Google Analytics as effectively as it should be? If you're not tagging your links for external marketing, the answer to that question is a resounding no.

The reason is, if Google Analytics doesn't have some way to track where a traffic source comes from, it has to assume the traffic is direct, meaning someone went directly to your site, not via a search engine, paid search ad, e-newsletter, or social media.

Despite what you may have heard, Google isn't a magical data wizard. It's only as smart as the data it collects and the information you submit to it. If it isn't collecting tracking data, it's basically waving the white flag and throwing the traffic into the "direct" folder because it doesn't know what else to do with it.

This isn’t good, because if it came from an email campaign or a banner ad or another promotion you are running, you’d have no way of knowing it.

It will skew your Analytics data and make you feel like you are getting far more direct traffic than you may be getting in reality. It also makes it virtually impossible to check the effectiveness of many of your marketing strategies, which can lead to a great deal of wasted spend.

While link tagging isn’t overly complicated, it's important to understand the structure and where you should be utilizing it the most.

First and foremost, you need to make sure that you are tracking all of your external promotions, including email marketing, display marketing, affiliate programs, partnerships, and social media campaigns. A good rule of thumb is that if it's promoting something on your website from an external source and it contains a link back to your site, you should be tracking it.

You might already know how to tag your links, but if you don't, here's a quick rundown on the basics. There are five parameters involved in campaign tracking, three of which are absolutely necessary, and two which are optional. The following chart offers a breakdown of each of these parameters and what they do:





Name of where the link comes from (name of company who sends it).



Type of content being created, such as an email or  banner ad.



What the content is about, such as the name of a white paper/webinar.



Additional info, such as date, or which link in campaign it refers to.



Used for paid search to note specific keywords in an ad.

If you put it all together, your URL ends up looking something like this:

You'll notice that you have to convert special characters, including spaces, colons, ampersand, etc., that you want to utilize in your naming convention (i.e. White Paper becomes White%20Paper) into html language that Google understands. This process is known as an escape sequence, or more simply, URL coding. This is a requirement due to the way browsers handle URLs via their programming.

Here is a good chart if you're stuck trying to convert specific characters, or just unsure if a character needs to be changed.

This might seem like a difficult process if you're just starting out. Thankfully, it’s Google to the rescue with an incredibly easy-to-use URL builder that will do the heavy lifting for you. Just fill in the appropriate fields and Google does the rest.

Now that you understand the basics, there are a few more important pieces of information you need to know. First off, while tagging your links is great, you also need to be sure that your company is consistent in its efforts. You need to set up guidelines for how to properly implement your tracking codes.

For instance, if you are sending out a lot of different promotions for one single piece of content, you need to make sure they are all using the same campaign tracking data but unique source data.

If one person labels it campaign=Promo1, another calls it campaign=PromoA, and a third uses the label campaign=PromotionA, you're going to get three different sets of data for those URLs and it's going to water down your Analytics information. Even though only a single letter might be changing, they will be recorded as separate instances.

promo chart

Conversely, if all three are labeled as the same source when they are really coming from three different outlets, you are going to make it much more difficult to track your data effectively, as you’ll lose the ability to sort by source effectively.

While it's still possible to analyze the data in either of these cases, it's far more time-consuming and easier to make mistakes or overlook something. It’s much simpler to make sure everyone is using the same naming guidelines when creating tracking codes.

Another important concept to keep in mind is that not every link needs all five parameters. While source, medium, and campaign are always required, it's not always necessary to use content and term.

Term is only useful for paid search ads utilizing keywords, so in most cases (such as the example link given above for a newsletter) you won't even be using it.

For content, while it’s often useful, if you are running only a small handful of promotions, or your promos only have a single link in them, you don’t need to include it. However, it can be very beneficial to include something specific in this field such as the date of the promotion to have a more thorough set of information to analyze.

So now that you've got the basics, it's time to get to work! Make the most of every marketing campaign you’re running by tagging your links and you'll see much stronger results from your efforts. You'll have more detailed reporting and be able to better analyze what's working for you and what isn't

Bio: David Stone is the Senior Content Marketing Manager for ROI Revolution, Inc, an industry-leading paid search management agency in Raleigh, NC. To read more, visit the ROI Revolution blog or contact [email protected].

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