Why We Don’t Always Tag Referrer Traffic (And When You Should)

Brian Nicholson

Referral traffic is website traffic that comes from other websites, such as your local DMO, blogs, partner sites, etc. It’s part of a healthy traffic channel mix, and we typically like to see it account for 4-8% of a site’s overall traffic.

Some referral traffic costs you money, such as when your DMO allows you to buy a premium placement. In those cases, you’ll want to track not only how much traffic came in, but how much revenue that traffic generated.

(If you’re an analytics geek, you can skip straight to the summary for the TL;DR version.)

You Already Get Some Data Without UTM Tags

If you’re familiar with UTM tags, you might be tempted to tag your referral links whenever you can. However, we often don’t. Here’s why.

  1. Google Analytics already identifies referral traffic, including the traffic source. When a site starts linking to you, Google properly categorizes that traffic as referral traffic, without your doing anything.
  2. By introducing a UTM tag, you’re potentially fragmenting your referral data. Let’s say that gohawaii.com links to you in one of their blog posts, AND that you have a listing on their website that you tag with “utm_source=GoHawaii.” The traffic will be split into 2 sources in your source / medium report:
    • GoHawaii / referral (traffic from the link you tagged)
    • gohawaii.com / referral (traffic you didn’t tag)

So if you want to find out how much traffic is coming from gohawaii.com, you have to look for both of those source / medium combinations. That doesn’t sound too bad until you multiply that by all of the referral sources where this could be happening. Also, year-over-year comparisons become a bit more challenging, for the same reason.

When You Should Use UTM Tags For Referral Links, And How To Do It Right

There are times when you want to distinguish between the different types of links though. There are at least 4 different types of placements on some of your top referral sites:

  • Free directory listing
  • Paid directory listing
  • Paid ads
  • Blog posts (within this category, you might get some free blog post exposure, but also have paid blog placement options)

As an example, one client paid to be mentioned in a blog post from one of their top referring sites, but wanted to know how much revenue was coming from that specific article. We used to be able to look at the referral path data in Google Analytics to help distinguish these, but that solution has some significant limitations, so UTM tags come into play here.

There are 2 things you should do if you’re going to use UTM tags in referral links:

  1. Match the site’s normal source name (such as gohawaii.com). That way ALL of the traffic from that site—tagged and untagged—rolls up into a single source when you want it to.
  2. Use utm_campaign—or other UTM parameters other than source and medium—as a way to distinguish the links. For example, your UTM string could look like this: utm_campaign=paid-placement&utm_source=gohawaii.com&utm_medium=referral. You could even add a utm_content parameter to further clarify which paid placement it was (utm_content=top-10-adventure-parks-for-families).

With that solution, you can get a report that looks like this:

In Summary:

  • You don’t always have to tag referral traffic. Google Analytics understands referral traffic without tags.
  • When you do tag referral traffic, match the Source that you already see in Google Analytics (such as gohawaii.com) rather than a different name.
  • Distinguish links by using additional UTM parameters such as utm_campaign or utm_content.

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About The Author

Brian Nicholson

Brian is a partner at Blend Marketing. He focuses on brand strategy, positioning, and analytics for the tourism industry.

Email Brian

About The Author

Brian Nicholson

Brian is a partner at Blend Marketing. He focuses on brand strategy, positioning, and analytics for the tourism industry.