Tom Benattar
December 10, 2018

How can you track your traffic sources with Google Analytics?

Running any kind of website is tricky. You’re competing for clicks and views with billions of others, and every one counts.

Which is what makes understanding your traffic sources so valuable. You spend time and effort – and possibly real money – to bring visitors to your site. If someone buys something, or signs up for a service, it’s money well spent. If they leave right away…perhaps not.

The smartest thing you can do as a site owner is to know which traffic sources are the real money-makers. Which bring in good customers, and which should you stop investing in.

Figuring this out isn’t particularly tricky. You have free tools including Google Analytics at your disposal – you just have to know how to use them.

So we’re going to show you the best tool in your traffic tracking arsenal: UTMs. But before we get to the “how,” a quick word of warning…

Set up tracking before you launch a campaign

Unfortunately, some mistakes in life are almost impossible to undo. And forgetting to set up good tracking for your traffic sources is one such mistake.

Even if you think it’s going to be pretty clear where your traffic comes from, you need to be sure. Otherwise, you won’t know which of your various growth strategies is actually paying off.

This is true whether you’re using a paid marketing strategy like Google Adwords or social media ads, or you’ve begged a few industry blogs to include your site in their newsletter.

Too often you’ll log into Google Analytics, and all you’ll see is this:

That’s not helping anyone.

If you’re ever going to care about where your traffic comes from – and you should – you need to start tracking its sources now.

And the best practice, industry standard, tried and true tracking method is the handy UTM.

What is a UTM tag?

Ever look at the top of your web browser and find a bizarrely long and complicated URL? Something like:

It’s not to make the link seem more impressive. And it’s not to squeeze in more keywords for SEO. Those extra parameters after the question mark help Google Analytics (and other tools) figure out where the traffic is coming from.

More importantly, they help you identify which of your hundreds of ads and marketing campaigns is responsible for driving this traffic.

Without these, you may have some idea. Google may know that the traffic comes from Facebook or Bing, but not the specific post or advertisement the user clicked on.

Which means your Google Analytics data will be incomplete, or even downright wrong.

Why do you need to use UTMs when you launch a campaign?

Good marketing campaigns don’t rely on guesswork. Even the most experienced marketers need some proof that their campaigns are working. This is true if you’re an entrepreneur running your own business, but even more important if you have a client or manager to answer to.

You have to be able to prove that you’re doing a good job. And if bold text
And while it’s always exciting to see a huge uptick in website traffic, it’s a wasted opportunity if you don’t know where it came from.

UTM tags are the best method you have to track traffic. And as we just discussed, they need to be in place before users start clicking. Otherwise, it’s already too late.

How to create UTM tags for tracking URLs

Here’s a free UTM builder to help you actually create the URL. Because there’s no reason to fiddle with code.

There are a few important things to know when creating a UTM. First, everything after the question mark is customizable. And in fact, you need to customize it if you want to track things properly.

Here’s that example again, with the updatable parts in bold:

The most important are medium and source. We’re going to see below what these look like when you track them in Google Analytics.

Update each of the fields that matter to you, and simply remove any you don’t need. (Remove everything including and after the “&”).

You can fill these fields in however you like, but caution: they are case sensitive. “Email” and “email” will be different in Google Analytics, which makes tracking annoying.

Other than that, complete your UTM parameters however suits you. If you want to have a completely new campaign for every single email or Google Ad, name each slightly differently. If you’d prefer to have all of your ads under a single campaign, use the same tag for each.

Just be consistent, because Google Analytics can get messy in a hurry.

Try our simple URL creator for free to make tracking traffic simple.

What’s the difference between tracking free and paid acquisition?

In many ways, there’s no big difference between free and paid acquisition. If you’re placing links on social media, in emails, on forums, or on an ecommerce site like Amazon and Shopify, you need to know which page traffic is coming from. That’s the case for paid placement or free.

But there is one important difference to consider: if you’re paying for traffic, you need to track every single click. And frankly, if you can’t track every one, you might want to think twice about paying for traffic.

For example, you might think about paying an influencer to promote your products on Instagram or Twitter. They have a lot of followers, so if they say nice things about you, you’re going to see more traffic to your website.

Maybe. But the only surefire way to know that this traffic came from that influencer is to give them a unique URL to share. Then you can be sure that it’s thanks to this influencer that you’ve seen a sudden spike, and you can feel good about paying for this.

By contrast, there are plenty of free acquisition methods that you may struggle to track.

For example, when a customer shares your products on social media, this may lead others to buy. You can try to track these conversations with a social listening tool, but you won’t always be able to attribute them in Google Analytics. And they certainly won’t involve UTM links.

Likewise for organic search traffic. When people find your blog posts or website on Google, you’ll be able to track this. But you won’t always know exactly which search terms they used, or what they were looking at before they arrived on your page.

The point is, the more accurate your tracking, the better. But if you’re going to pay for traffic, good tracking is essential.

How to analyze your acquisition sources on Google Analytics

If you’ve been tracking a campaign since the beginning, it’s time to dive into Analytics and see where your traffic comes from. There are a few very basic, but very important places to begin:

Top traffic channels

At the very least, you need to know which marketing channels work the best for you. For sites with sound SEO practices and appealing content, a large portion of this will be from organic search (Google and other search engines):

For smaller sites, a larger portion of this traffic will come from social media, paid marketing, or referrals. In very simple terms, if you’re paying for traffic from Google, Facebook, or anywhere else, you hope to see that reflected in your top channels.

Likewise, if you invest a lot in content and optimizing it for search, it’s nice to see a large share of traffic coming from organic search.

To find Top Channels
: In Google Analytics, go to Acquisition on the left of the dashboard, then select overview.

Top source & medium

This is where your UTM tags come in handy. You can see which sources send you the most traffic, and even which medium the clicks came from:

Remember, you set the “medium” tag in your UTM earlier. So this is where you’ll be able to track traffic coming from specific campaigns, and with specific mediums.

If you want to know whether your email campaigns have worked recently, or which of your paid marketing sources is best, here’s where you’ll find that.

To find Source / Medium:
Under Acquisition, select All Traffic, then Source / Medium.

Track traffic sources for smarter campaigns

This was just a very brief introduction to Google Analytics and how to track traffic. The main takeaway is that you need to be tracking traffic if you want a successful website.

That goes for one-person e-commerce companies, growing SaaS companies, and popular blogs in a particular industry niche.

More traffic typically means more sales. And the more you know about where that traffic comes from, the easier it is to bring even more visitors to your site in the future.

In short, if you know what works, you can work smarter in the future.

To create better tracking links (with additional analytics), get started with PixelMe.