TL;DR: If you’re using campaign parameters on internal links get them out. Immediately. And add an annotation noting that you got rid of them.
I’m a huge proponent of campaign tracking for marketing campaigns. But used the wrong way, they can totally trash your Google Analytics data. Like to the point of making the data in your profile completely unusable. And since I’ve run into this in the past six analytics audits I’ve done, I thought I’d aim to raise the level of awareness on this topic.
What Is Campaign Tagging?
If you’re unfamiliar with campaign tagging, check out Google’s resource on it. There’s also a great overview post on Search Engine Land. I also address it in my presentation from SearchLove, where I talk about marketers not taking enough credit for their work. It is beyond critical if you’re doing email marketing. If you’re doing email marketing and you’re not tagging your links, you’re junking up your direct and referral traffic numbers. (Can you say bogo special?)
A Cautionary Tale
But this post isn’t about the efficacies of campaign tagging; it’s a cautionary tale about what can go wrong if you use campaign tagging improperly. Why? Campaign tagging is meant for external links that point back to your site.
Ergo, the best way to trash your data is to use campaign parameters in internal links.
Deep In The Weeds
The reason for this is when you tag a link with campaign parameters using Google’s URL Builder or my Google Doc that enables you to just paste a list of URLs and have the parameters added automatically (wooOOoop!), you are reassigning the source and medium data. So let’s say you tagged a link to look something like this:
And someone clicks on this link from from hootsuite.com. Because I assigned the source to be twitter.com (via utm_source=twitter.com), that referral source will now show up as twitter.com, not hootsuite.com. And instead of the visit showing up as a referral, it will show up as social because I assigned the medium to social (via utm_medium=social).
You following me?
So what I’ve seen sites do is add campaign parameters to their navbar and footer links or even internal banners. The problem with this is let’s say you have a navigation link tagged, and it looks something like this:
Now let’s say someone comes to your site via Pinterest and then clicks this tagged link to get to your about page. That visitor no longer shows up as coming from Pinterest. Your referral is your own site.
Worst Case Scenario
In auditing a company’s Google Analytics profile this week (a service I offer), they had 1.4 million visits in the past month that had been reassigned. My heart stopped. I’ve seen campaign tagging cause shenanigans in data but never anything this pandemic. It was the first time I had to tell someone that their analytics data is completely useless. As in they can’t use their analytics data to measure any of their marketing efforts — organic, paid search, campaigns — nothing. Because they had tagged links in their navigation and all through the site, those reassigned visits were just too pervasive.
So if you’ve been using campaign tagging on internal links you need to see what percentage of your visits have been reassigned. If it’s a significant amount of data, I would recommend consulting with an experience analyst to make sure your data is trustworthy at all. Here are a couple preliminary checks I use to check for evidence of tagging internal links.