Why Should I Put UTM Tags on 301 Redirects?

Est. Reading Time: 6 minutes

So you probably just did a search for something like ‘Why Should I Put UTM Tags on 301 Redirects?’ Awesome, you’re being proactive and realized that you’re missing out on data and attribution. This is a practice I’ve been using for about a year now, there are many applications for tagging redirect URLs with UTMs and I’ll address a few of them here. The Cliffs Notes version though is this: UTMs on the resolving URL of a 301 redirect give you better attribution in Google Analytics, and help you identify 301 redirects that are no longer need and could be slowing down your site.

If you’re a web developer, webmaster, or digital marketer, chances are pretty good that you’ve been involved in 301 redirects at one point or another. Whether it’s another domain you’ve purchased, a dead page, or products being removed from your eCommerce site, there are plenty of reasons to implement a 301. Users still get where they wanted to go, search engines don’t ding you for dead URLs, it’s a perfect solution to page removals right? Well, that is until you look at data in Google Analytics. The problem with 301 redirects is all the traffic coming from a 301 appears as ‘direct’ traffic in Google Analytics. ‘So what?’ you may ask yourself. There are a couple of use-cases where you definitely want to know what 301 redirects are sending traffic to your site.

Use-Case 1: Offline URL Presentation

Ways in which you might be doing this:

  1. Domain redirects – i.e. yoursite.co redirects to yoursite.com – you might use the .co version in your collateral
  2. Vanity URLs – i.e. yoursite.com/promo redirects to yoursite.com/annual-fall-sale – it’s much easier for people to type /promo and you handle the rest

Kudos to the marketers for using vanity URLs, or purchasing other domain variations for these uses. HOWEVER, 99.99% of the time I see either one of these implementations, they’ve made one crucial error. Not. Using. Tracking. Parameters. If you’re just doing basic 301 redirects for these cases, you’re missing a huge opportunity to analyze how much traffic was driven, and how the users engaged with your site once they landed there. The solution to this problem is ridiculously simple; UTM parameters. If you’re not familiar with these parameters, check out Google’s URL builder for some assistance. You’ll need to identify a source, medium, and name (name is actually optional, but Google makes it required), then append it to the end of your destination URL. This way your redirect doesn’t strip anything out, and your landing page has the parameters built in, feeding important data straight to your Google Analytics account. For medium, always enter ’301′, and for source, I like to do the referring URL. Here’s what mine would look like for the examples provided:

  1. yoursite.co >> yoursite.com?utm_source=yoursite.co&utm_medium=301
  2. yoursite.com/promo >> yoursite.com/annual-fall-sale?utm_source=yoursite.com/promo&utm_medium=301

Here’s an example in action: ga-fusion.com is the domain we use for our GAFUSION product, but you’ll notice when you click on that link, it takes you to beacontechnologies.com/technology/products/gafusion?utm_source=ga-fusion&utm_medium=301.

Use-Case 2: Removed Pages

Why might you remove pages?

  1. You run an eCommerce site and stopped selling a particular product
  2. You have some old, non-relevant pages that you just don’t want people to see anymore
  3. Two pages exist that have same/similar content (it’s easy for this to happen on large sites)

It’s obvious that if a page is removed, something needs to be done about it. You don’t want to provide a poor user experience, and if you’re concerned about SEO, you want to make sure you let search engine bots know what happened to that page. The main difference in this use-case for UTM parameters isn’t necessarily for tracking and analysis purposes. With these types of 301 redirects, UTM parameters will be helpful in determining which 301s you can eventually remove. It’s no secret that too many redirects will slow your site down, but how can you tell which ones are adding value and which ones to nix? UTM Parameters, that’s how. Using the same methodology above, append your parameters to the destination URL, still using ’301′ as the medium and the referring (dead) URL as the source. The difference is, we’re not going to use this to understand behavior of these users, we’re going to use this to see which 301 redirects are no longer needed. Login to Google Analytics, and go to Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels then click on ‘Source/Medium’ as your primary dimension, then apply an in-line filter for ’301′. Choosing ‘Landing Page’ as your secondary dimension will provide you with a list of all the 301 redirects that are sending traffic to your site. Once enough time has passed that your comfortable saying ‘OK these redirects have contributed nothing in time period XYZ’, you can remove that 301 redirect. This will help you manage your list and not have unnecessary redirects slowing down your page load times.

***Edited to Add a Third Use

Use-Case 3: URL Shorteners

While this technically doesn’t fall into the category of an internally implemented 301 redirect, I’m still going to address this one.  It occurred to me while sharing this article on social media sites that I left out one crucial use-case, shortlinks! Everyone loves a good URL shortener, Bit.ly, Goo.gl, Ow.ly, and so on. They make links much more presentable, especially for Twitter where character count matters. But once you shorten that URL, you lose all of the source/medium information that Google Analytics would normally pick up on automatically. So how do you solve this? Easy, add your UTM parameters to the URL before you drop it in your shortener. If you’re not doing this, all of your short links are feeding zero useful data into Google Analytics and your analysts will scream in agony at all the ‘direct’ traffic.

Have any other use-cases where you would apply UTM parameters to 301 redirects? Let me know in the comments!