What are UTMs and why should they be used?

March 14, 2022 ∙ 6 minute read

Urchin Tracking Modules, or UTMs, are a set of five parameters which are used to track the clicks on banner ads and links. They’re commonly used to better understand the performance of ad campaigns, and they play a role when it comes to detecting click fraud.

UTMs are easy to set up and use, and they’re supported by every ad network.

What exactly are UTMs?

UTMs are parameters that are attached to the end of the URLs you use in your ad campaigns. They’re used to measure marketing-related metrics such as the source of a click, the keyword which displayed your ad, which campaign the ad belongs to, and more.

For example, the UTM “source” parameter is used to track the source of an ad click. It is written as utm_source=some-source, where utm_source is the name of the parameter and some-source is a source which has been defined by you. The URL polygraph.net?utm_source=google-ads tells us an ad click meant for polygraph.net came from Google Ads. We happened to choose google-ads when referring to Google Ads, but we could have used google or googleads or whatever word makes the most sense to us.

You can combine the UTMs to get more granular data on a click. For example, the UTM “term” parameter is used to track which keyword caused an ad to be displayed. Unlike utm_source where we choose what to call the source, utm_term is managed by the ad network. You simply add the parameter utm_term={keyword} to your URL and the ad network will automatically replace {keyword} with the actual keyword which caused the ad to be displayed. Going back to the polygraph.net example, we can now track where the click came from and which keyword caused the ad to be displayed by changing the URL to polygraph.net?utm_source=google-ads&utm_term={keyword}.

What are the five UTM parameters?

The five UTM parameters are utm_source, utm_term, utm_campaign, utm_medium, and utm_content. You’ll usually only use the first three, but it depends on your needs. It’s up to you!

  1. utm_source

    This UTM identifies the source of the traffic. For example, utm_source=facebook tells us the source of a click was from Facebook.
  2. utm_term

    This UTM identifies the keywords which caused the ad to be displayed. For example, utm_term=brown+hats lets us know the user searched for “brown hats” before clicking on our advertisement.
  3. utm_campaign

    This UTM tells us which marketing campaign or promotion generated the click. For example, utm_campaign=summer-sale means the click was generated as part of a “summer sale” ad campaign.
  4. utm_medium

    This UTM classifies the medium used to generate the click. For example, utm_medium=email tells us the click originated from a marketing e-mail, whereas utm_medium=banner lets us know the click came from a banner advert.
  5. utm_content

    This UTM helps us clarify where the click happened on the page. For example, utm_content=bottom-logo could be used to tell us the click came from the logo at the bottom of the website, whereas utm_content=top-logo could refer to the logo at the top of the website.

Why should I use UTMs?

UTMs are simple to set up and use, and they make traffic analysis more efficient, so there’s no real reason to exclude them from your ad campaigns. They’re also considered a best practice, so it makes sense to add them to your workflow.

UTMs are used to improve digital marketing campaigns since they provide you with valuable statistics on the performance of individual ads. These statistics can be used to determine whether a marketing campaign has been successful as well as what aspects of the campaign are working well or need some tweaking.

To help visualise this benefit, let’s imagine you set up the same ad campaign across a number of ad networks. You use the utm_source and utm_term parameters, so you’ll be able to track where the ad clicks are coming from and which keywords are being targeted. Perhaps one of the ad networks has a troublesome UI and setting up your ad campaigns takes up a lot of your time. The utm_source parameter may reveal this ad network is a poor performer (a low amount of clicks compared to the other ad networks you use), so it might make sense to drop this ad network so you can focus on the networks which are easy to use and perform well.

The utm_term parameter may also reveal certain keywords are being repeatedly targeted yet never lead to any sales. This is a great indicator you’re an ongoing victim of click fraud.

Click fraud is a problem, and its detection is not straightforward. If you don’t know which of your clicks are fraudulent, and you don’t have a process in place to minimise fraud, you’re throwing away a chunk of your ad budget. Typically you’d want to use a service like Polygraph to handle click fraud detection for you, but there are a few things you can do yourself to lower your risk.

The keywords targeted by criminals are not random: they target high value keywords to maximise the return on each click. Therefore it’s in your interest to identify which keywords are being targeted so you can take appropriate action such as removing the keywords from your ad campaigns and contacting the ad networks to get refunds. (Polygraph makes it easy to get refunds as we explain which clicks are fraudulent and why they’re fraudulent).

If you use the utm_term parameter, you can track which keywords led to each click, and from there you can work out which clicks led to sales. If you notice certain high-value keywords are causing a lot of clicks yet rarely or never result in a sale, it’s possible you’re the victim of click fraud.

Criminals also target certain ad networks. Typically this is because these ad networks have relaxed policies on which websites are allowed display ads, and they may not be using advanced click fraud detection techniques. In other words, criminals are able to join these ad networks and remain undetected, at least for a while. By using utm_term with utm_source, you can see which ad network is sending you the most fraudulent clicks.

If you’re worried about click fraud, you can try Polygraph for free to see how it can benefit your business.

How do I use UTMs?

Using UTMs is straightforward, and they can be added to URLs by anyone, no specialist technical skills required. The ad networks provide a simple UI for including them in your ad campaigns.

Let’s use Google Ads as an example. We’re going to track the campaign the ad belongs to, which ad network displayed the ad, and which keywords caused the ad to be displayed. Setting this up will take about 30 seconds.

  1. From within your Google Ads account, choose a campaign and click on Settings and expand the menu by clicking on Additional settings.
  2. Click on Campaign URL options.
  3. In the Final URL suffix section, add the following:

    utm_source=google-ads&utm_term={keyword}&utm_campaign=summer-sale
  4. Click Test to see what the URL looks like. In Polygraph’s case, it looks as follows:

    https://polygraph.net?utm_source=google-ads&utm_term=&utm_campaign=summer-sale

    Since this is just testing the UTM parameters and isn’t the result of an actual click on an ad, the utm_term parameter is blank. When the campaign goes live the correct keyword will be automatically added to the utm_term parameter. For example, if the user did a Google search for “click fraud” and clicked on one of Polygraph’s ads, the URL would be as follows:

    https://polygraph.net?utm_source=google-ads&utm_term=click+fraud&utm_campaign=summer-sale
  5. Click Save.

Congratulations! You’re now tracking your ad clicks by source, keyword, and campaign. It’s as simple as that and your analytics are now great!

For other ad networks, ask their support or read their help documentation to learn where you define UTMs for your campaigns. It’ll typically be a simple process similar to the five steps we followed when adding UTMs using Google Ads. For example, if you use Microsoft Ads, from within your Microsoft Ads account simply go to Tools, Preferences and set Auto-tagging to "on". The UTMs described in this article will be automatically added to your URLs!

Conclusion

UTMs are a great way to get granular data about your ad clicks. You can use this information to make better decisions on your ad spend, see how your campaigns are performing, and start detecting click fraud. UTMs are simple to set up, so start using them today!