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Choosing Between UTM Tagging and Auto-Tagging

Wilson Lau

Sr. SEO Marketing Manager @ AdRoll

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In today's highly competitive ecommerce world, digital marketers need every available advantage to create relevant and effective campaigns. No marketing strategy can hope to succeed without data that reveals how users interact with a brand's content and digital presence across social media and the rest of the web. Tagging is one of the most common ways for brands to understand where their traffic comes from, who visits their website, and what kind of content drives clicks and conversions.

UTM source tracking and Auto-tagging are the two kinds of tagging you're likely to encounter. They share some functions but also have some unique features that digital marketers need to know about. Let's dive into both kinds of tagging and explore how they can benefit your campaigns.

What Is UTM Source Tagging?

UTM stands for Urchin tracking module, named after the software company that initially developed the technology. Google acquired the company in 2005 while the search giant was building its industry-standard marketing tool, Google Analytics. However, the technology is still in wide use across the web. In fact, UTM tagging remains the most common kind of URL tagging. So, what is it?

UTM tags are bits of code appended to the ends of URLs that convey information to your marketing platform. You might also hear them referred to as UTM parameters. You'll find UTM tags most commonly in links from social media that direct traffic to external websites when browsing the web. UTM tags are capable of tracking five primary data types. If you see any of the following in a URL, you know that it's using UTM source tagging to collect traffic data:

  • Traffic source: utm_source
    • This could include Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or any other third-party site where your ads run.
  • Medium: utm_medium
    • The type of marketing channel the visitor used to reach your content; paid search, social media, banner ads, email, etc.
  • Campaign: utm_campaign
    • This tag allows you to name campaigns and create parameters so that you can evaluate how effectively a campaign gets users to your site.
  • Content: utm_content
    • This is a more specific indicator than the medium tag. It enables marketing teams to differentiate between the various kinds of ad content users can click to reach the site, including an image, headline link, etc.
  • Term: utm_term
    • The term identifies the search keywords in a pay-per-click (PPC) ad.

The UTM parameters are used by Google Analytics and other analytics tools, such as AdRoll’s cross-channel performance dashboard. UTM allows you to create sources, content types, campaigns, and other elements to provide more information on how a user arrived at your website.

The easiest way to integrate UTM source parameters into the URLs you share is to use a link builder. Link builder tools create links with UTM tags and help avoid the potential errors and hassles that come with manual entry. Accuracy is crucial to ensuring that you get the results you need and do not compromise your data. Google's link builder is a popular solution, and AdRoll’s UTM link builder supports macros that would automatically populate relevant information, such as campaign name, into the UTM links so that you only need to generate one link per channel instead of per individual ad campaign. With these tools, you can set and name your UTM parameters and create a shortened link that enables easy sharing on social media.

What Is Auto-Tagging?

While UTM tagging is useful, you’re restricted to its structure and the five parameters it offers. To use UTM effectively requires some planning and consistency in applying the parameters. 

In order to make tracking easier for marketers, Google Ads supports a feature called auto-tagging. Instead of appending five UTM parameters in the URL, Google uses only one parameter called GCLID, which stands for Google Click Identifier.  GCLID is automatically generated for each ad impression or click and hence there is no effort to marketers. 

Auto-tagging isn't just easier and faster than UTM tagging — it also provides richer data with more detailed insight into how users navigate your content and brand experience. Instead of being limited to the five dimensions listed above, auto-tagging can also add the following (per Google):

  • Query Match Type (How your keyword was matched to the search query)
  • Ad Group (The ad group associated with the keyword/creative and click)
  • Final URL (Google Ads Final URL)
  • Ad Format (text, display, video)
  • Ad Distribution Network (Google Search)
  • Placement Domain (the domain on the content network where your ads were displayed)
  • Google Ads Customer ID (the unique three-part number that's assigned to your Google Ads account)

While marketers would appreciate the efficiency of auto-tagging, it may not necessarily be the silver bullet. The biggest downside of auto-tagging is being a closed system. While UTM works on any channel and any analytics system, Google’s GCLID only works between Google Ads and Google Analytics. Since auto-tagging is implemented by a particular advertising channel, it makes cross-channel tracking and attribution very difficult, if not impossible. 

Which Should You Use: UTM Source Tracking or Auto-Tagging?

The good news is that you are in complete control of your tagging style and don't have to select just one. The truth is that the most effective campaign analytics strategies usually employ a combination of UTM and auto-tagging. While some smaller organizations or brands might use auto-tagging exclusively, this becomes more difficult for marketers who like to use a third-party marketing platform in addition to Google Ads and Google Analytics. Companies that want to report on all tags in their preferred platforms will want to integrate UTM tagging so that all tags are visible within the same reports.

The most important thing to know for this hybrid tagging strategy to succeed is that you must set your manual tags to override the parameters set by auto-tags or tag templates. This will allow the tags to transmit the exact type of data you're hoping to collect, rather than the data that Google's platform determines you need. Custom data will be more specific to your exact strategy, and thus, more effective in helping you figure out how to optimize your marketing activities.

With a hybrid approach, you get the best of both worlds. Auto-tagging is easy to use and prevents errors that can disrupt your data, while UTM tagging provides a higher degree of customization and control. Using both together will help you get the most helpful information possible out of your data.

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