Why Google Analytics Tagging Matters - Whiteboard Friday

Posted on Thursday, March 14th, 2013 and is filed under News, SEO. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Posted by RachaelGerson

When Google Analytics doesn't know where a traffic source comes from, it assumes the traffic is direct and lumps it in with your direct visits. This happens frequenly with social shares, as many of us make the mistake of not tagging our links accordingly.

In today's Whiteboard Friday, Rachael Gerson sheds some light on "dark social" and explains why tagging in Google Analytics improves the accuracy of your referrals. Take credit for the work that you're doing, and tag your links!

 

 

Video Transcription

"Hi, everyone. I'm Rachael Gerson. I'm the head of analytics at SEER Interactive. We're a digital marketing agency in Philadelphia, although we are growing and spreading across the world. Although we're primarily known for our SEO, we actually have an amazing paid search team and a really talented analytics team. I want to share our story with you. The timing on this story is actually really convenient because it ties with what I wanted to talk to you about.

My sister wrote a blog post last night. She has a new blog. No one ever goes to it. I think I may be the only person who knows it exists. She wrote the post. I read it this morning and went, "This is really good content. I'm going to share this." And I put it out on Twitter.

She saw me share it, and she put it on Facebook and thought, "Okay. Let's see what happens." In the last 8 hours, she's gotten 74,000 page views to this one blog post. I'm looking at the real-time traffic right now, down here. There are 1,500 people on the site. This thing is blowing up. It's going viral.

We can see it spreading through Twitter. We can see it spreading through Facebook. We can see it being referred by random sites, but we're also seeing a lot of traffic come in as direct. Since no one knows this blog exists, I highly doubt they're typing in the 40 plus characters of the URL to go directly to this page. They're not. It's being shared socially. This is the idea of dark social.

It's not a new idea, but it's a fascinating idea, and that's what I wanted to talk to you about today, was this idea of dark social, that content spreads, if it's good content, socially, organically.

Dark social sounds like a bad thing. It's not. It's actually really awesome and really fun to dig into. Let's say that someone read this post earlier, and they shared it on Twitter, Facebook, whatever. We kind of know where that came from for the most part. They may have texted it to a friend or copied a link and sent it in chat. In both cases, when the person clicks on the link and goes to the site, they come in as direct.

Direct is Google Analytics' version of, "We have no idea what this is, so let's call it direct and throw it in that bucket." We know it's not direct. That's our dark, organic social. It's spreading organically in all different ways, and we're getting traffic because of it. It's pretty amazing.

I wanted to talk to you about the analysis I'm doing on the dark social side because it's really fun stuff. Unfortunately, in talking to a lot of people, I found they're not there yet.

Here's the problem. When we say direct it's our catchall bucket and we need to look at direct to get an idea of our dark social, organic social, whatever we want to call it, if things are not tagged properly, we can't dig into to what's [out] to this dark social side. Actually, we can't do anything. If things aren't tagged properly, you're not taking credit for the work that you're doing.

For your paid search, for your social media, for email marketing, whatever it is, you have to tag your links. Otherwise, you're not getting credit for the work that you're doing.

You know what really sucks, by the way? When you work really hard on a project and, at the last second, your boss takes credit for it. That was your project. You did all the work for it. Why is he taking your credit? It sucks!

What we're talking about right now is the digital marketing version of that. It's the online version, where you're giving your credit away for the work that you're doing. Honestly, you need that credit to keep your budget, to keep your job, to get a promotion, to get any of these things. You need to prove your value.

When we talk about tagging, it's using UTM parameters. Dark social, organic social, that's really sexy. It's fun. We can dig into that. UTM parameters are not sexy. They're not fun, but they're necessary. If you're not doing this, you're wasting your time and you're wasting your money. Now that sucks.

How are you wasting your time? If you're not doing this, you're putting all kinds of time, hopefully, into analysis, if you're looking at what you're doing, but your analysis is based on data that's not accurate. You're putting your time into marketing efforts that may not actually be working as well as you think they are. You're putting your money into marketing efforts. You need to know that your stuff's actually working. Keep doing that. Make your well-informed decisions to help the business and drive it forward.

Again, time is money. You need to make sure you get all this stuff right, so you can do all the other stuff.

Let's talk about a few examples of where tagging actually matters. If we're looking at Twitter, if you don't tag your links, things will still come in. You'll see t.co showing up. In your real-time traffic, you'll see Twitter as social coming in, and you'll see some of that in your multi-channel funnels as well.

If you tag your links, you're going to always know it's Twitter. You're going to know which campaign it was. You're going to know all the information you put into it. You're also going to be protected from the other side of it. That's when people use Twitter apps. For example, HootSuite doesn't come in as Twitter unless you've tagged it. People clicking on a link that you post on Twitter that's untagged in HootSuite are going to come in as HootSuite referral usually.

If you posted on TweetDeck, they're coming in as direct. By the way, I'm still playing with all of this, and it all changes. I've played with stuff that's changed before. So if this is different by the time it comes out, I apologize. Just keep up with it all the time.

That's our Twitter side. On Facebook, if we don't tag our links, they'll come in as Facebook referral. It's nice and easy. It's clean. We know what it is. The exception to that is if someone's trying to open a link in Facebook, they click on the link, it doesn't load fast enough, they're probably going to click Open in Safari if they really care about it. Once they open in Safari, that's a direct visit. We just lost the Facebook tracking in it.

There're also a missing piece here, and that's if you do tag this stuff, you get an extra level to your analysis. You can say, "This is all the same campaign. It's the same effort, same content." You can tie it together across all these different platforms, and that helps.

We get to email. If you're putting time and money into your email marketing, you want to take your credit for it. If you're not tagging your email, it's usually going to come in one of two ways:  One as a referral from all the different mail things that can come in or as direct.

At least with the mail, where is says mail.yahoo.whatever, we know it's mail. We can't track it down to what you did versus what someone sent. We have some analysis on it. If it's direct, you lose everything. So tag your email.

Paid search. It's nice. AdWords actually makes it really easy for us to tag our paid search. We can connect Google Analytics and AdWords very easily, and they play really well together. It's awesome. The problem is when you don't tag your stuff. If you don't tag your paid search, either through AdWords or through your manual tracking parameters on other platforms as well, it comes in as organic.

This actually happened to us at SEER. One of our SEO clients, we were watching their traffic, and organic traffic spiked. The account manager went, "Hey, guys, this is awesome." To which the client responded, "Oh, we forgot to tell you we launched paid search," and the account manager discovered they weren't tagging their paid search. This paid search manager accidentally just gave away their credit. We don't want to have that happen.

Let's say you've actually tagged everything properly in your URLs. All this is done. These are just a few examples, but all of the other stuff is taken care of. Let's look at the tracking on the site itself. We see this happen pretty often with paid search landing pages, where we have to put this on our checklist that this is done immediately.

We'll create brand new landing pages that are optimized for paid search for conversion. They're different from the rest of the site. They're a totally new template, which means that if the Google Analytics code is in a template already for the site, it may not be in here. If we don't have someone add it back in, what's going to happen is paid search will drive all this traffic to the site, they'll get to that page, go to page two. Page two has the Google Analytics code, but they don't know where it came from. This is going to show up as direct. Paid search just gave away their credit. We can't have that happen. You worked too hard for that credit.

I've also seen it where people make little mistakes with the tracking on the site. Spotify did this a few months ago, and I sent them a message to help them out with it. They were tagging all of the links on their site with UTM parameters. When visitors would hit those different links, they'd reset the visit ,and it would be a new visit with each one. Spotify, all their marketers were giving away their credit through that.

Let's say you've got all this other stuff right. Good job. That's awesome. There's still stuff that you can't control unfortunately. There are a lot of things that can cause traffic to come in as direct when it really isn't. I have a short list that people have been adding to at [bitly/direct-wrong]. If you have others, keep adding them because I want to have a giant list of all the things we can tackle and fix, but the list just keeps growing.

If you look at mobile traffic, for example, iOS 6, we can't tell if it's search or if it's direct. That's a problem. For me, if I'm doing an analysis and I really need that part, or I really need to know that part for sure, I may cut that out so it's not throwing off my data. There are different ways to deal with that, and that's a whole other topic.

The point is control whatever you can. Where you control the spread of information, make sure you're doing your part. If you're sharing a link socially, tag your links. That way, if people want to share it or retweet it, the tracking is already in place there. If your posts on the site have social plugins, put the tracking in your social plugins too. It makes it easy if someone wants to hit the share on Facebook or to share on Twitter. It already has the tracking. It goes through, people get to the site, your tracking's in place, and you can breathe a sigh of relief.

Now once you've done everything else up here, your tagging is right on your URLs, your tracking is right on the site, there's nothing you messed up by accident, you've controlled everything you can with these other issues, you kind of have to accept what's left. You know that there's stuff that you can't account for. There's direct in there that may have been shared through a text, through a chat, through any other thing. You don't know where it actually came from.

First off, that gets a dark social. We can now start doing our awesome analysis, like dark social or other things, because we have confidence in our data. We can trust that we're making the right decisions for our business, and we can save our time and our money this way.

If you have questions or thoughts, hit me up on Twitter or in the comments below, because I love talking about this stuff. Maybe another time, we'll talk about this organic social idea."

Video transcription by Speechpad.com

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