If you’ve ever run an Adwords campaign, you may have heard of auto-tagging. Auto-tagging is an Adwords feature that makes it easy to track and optimize Adwords campaigns. However, it has its limitations. There are compelling reasons to use auto-tagging exclusively, manual tagging exclusively or a hybrid of both. We will cover the pros and cons of each approach and then recommend an approach for three different scenarios.
What Is Auto-tagging and Why Should You Use It?
UTM parameters are the most common form of link/ad tracking. You either manually add UTM parameters like utm_campaign, utm_medium, and utm_source to all of your outbound URLs, or you use a utm link builder tool to help you do this efficiently (which we recommend).
With Adwords, they provide a nice shortcut, a shortcut that will make your life a lot easier: Auto-tagging. Auto-tagging automatically tags URLs in all of your Adwords campaigns. So instead of adding UTM parameters to every destination URL you have, you simply enter the “naked” landing page URL. Adwords does the rest, literally at the push of a button. See for yourself:
But why bother with auto-tagging when you’re used to good ol’ UTMs? Other than the obvious fact that auto-tagging is a huge timer saver, it also gives you access to analytics data that is otherwise impossible to obtain through regular UTMs. Here’s an example from Google’s help center:
When you use auto-tagging, you get richer data than with manual tagging in the following reports:
- Hour of Day
- Placements (Where your ads on the content network were placed)
- Keyword Positions (What position your ad appeared in on Google Search)
- Display Targeting
- Video Campaigns
- Shopping Campaigns
So to summarize, auto-tagging saves you the time and effort of manually tagging URLs, makes the whole process almost completely error free, provides more detailed analytics, pushes all the data automagically to Google Analytics, and is available at the click of a button. Sounds like a no-brainer, right?
What’s the Catch?
You’d think it’s too good to be true, and it kinda is. All these features come at a cost: being completely tied into Google’s ecosystem. To elaborate, Adwords’ auto-tagging only works with Google Analytics. So if you have in-house tools, third-party analytics software, CRMs, etc. that also parse and read UTMs, they won’t be able to. Why? Isn’t Auto-tagging just like manual tagging but…auto? Well, not exactly. Let’s look at how auto-tagging works to better understand this.
See this “GCLID” parameter that’s passed at the end of the URL? This is what the URL would look like when you click an Adwords ad that has auto-tagging enabled. This gibberish after the “=” sign is all of your tracking data, but encrypted. Only Google Analytics can actually translate this gibberish and have it show up as human-readable analytics data in your dashboard, hence the reason why it only works with Google Analytics. Of course this is no coincidence. Google wants to give their Analytics tool an edge over others when it comes to Adwords tracking, so that people would be inclined to stick to their ecosystem.
At this point you should have a pretty solid grasp of how auto-tagging. If you still have questions about manual tagging, check out our awesome guide. You can thank us later.
Now let’s dive into the different scenarios to see what the appropriate tracking mechanism would be for each.
Scenario #1: You’re Not Using Adwords and Analytics
In order to make use of auto-tagging, you need to be using both Google Adwords and Google Analytics. If you’re not using either of them or are only using one of them, then auto-tagging is not an option and you should carry on using regular UTM tags. The good news here is that you do not have to go to each and every ad you have in your account and manually tag each URL. Adwords’ (relatively) new feature called “tracking templates” makes this process a breeze. More information about how to use tracking templates can be found in this Adwords blog post. Scroll down to the part where it says “tracking templates.”
Scenario #2: You’re Only Using Adwords and Google Analytics
By “only” we mean that you do not use any other in-house or third-party tools that utilize UTM parameters to generate their reports. In this case, you’d have absolutely no reason to use UTMs solely for tracking and optimizing the Adwords campaign because auto-tagging would be the clear winner here. All you need to do is enable auto-tagging inside Adwords as shown earlier and you’re good to go.
Scenario #3: You’re Using Adwords, Analytics, and Other Third-Party Tools
If you’re only using Adwords and other third-party analytics tools (not Google Analytics), then you should use regular UTMs only as in scenario #1. If you are, however, using Google Adwords, Google Analytics, and other third-party or in-house tools that depend on UTMs, you have two options.
The first is to exclusively use regular UTM tagging, again like scenario #1. The obvious disadvantage there is that you’re missing out on all the juicy features of auto-tagging and its Google Analytics integration. The second option is to use a “hybrid” of both auto-tagging and manual tagging. This is the option I see a lot of big companies use and is the one we opted for here at Effin Amazing.
Avoiding Potential Problems with the Hybrid Solution
There are a lot of conflicting thoughts on the Adwords Help Community about whether using both auto and manual tagging right out of the box would cause issues. We would advise avoiding this route. Even if you are experienced, using a hybrid solution poses a potential problem: data discrepancies.
From this Adwords help article:
Use caution when manually tagging your links: Remember to disable auto-tagging. If you unintentionally mix manual and auto-tagging, you’re likely to encounter data discrepancies.
Two Ways to Implement the Hybrid Solution
So how do you avoid conflicts if you intend to use this “hybrid” solution?
There are two approaches to this. The first is to use “custom” tracking parameters. Take a look at this example from Mixpanel:
This appears in the address after clicking a Mixpanel Adwords ad. As you can see, they pass two parameters, the second is the GCLID, used for Adwords auto-tagging. The first one is a custom tracking parameter they use: “from=adwords-mp1”. They may have a lot of reasons for using a custom parameter like this, but one major advantage is that they avoid potential conflicts by not using regular utm_campaign, utm_medium, and utm_source tags which the GCLID parameter from auto-tagging already sets. So the first way to set this up would be to have your third-party tools read the data from that custom parameter or parameters. Just make sure you stay away from the regular UTM names when naming them.
If having your in-house or third-party analytics tools read from custom parameters is a complex task, you may opt for the second way to implement the hybrid solution. This method requires you to use both regular UTMs and auto-tagging at the same time. For this to work, you’re going to need to have auto-tagging enabled and also manually tag your ad URLs with the regular UTM tags (through tracking templates). However, you’re not done yet. You’ll need to tweak one little setting inside Google Analytics to avoid any conflicts/data discrepancies. Again, this Adwords Help article makes the process simple enough:
And here’s a screenshot of the setting you need to enable for your convenience:
So what does this do? It simply allows manual UTMs to override auto-tagging so you can avoid any kind of discrepancies. This also means that you can retain the richer analytics data obtained from auto-tagging while avoiding duplicate reporting because whenever a tag has two different values (one from manual UTMs and the other from auto-tagging), the manual tag will “override” the auto-tag. Here’s an example from the Adwords help article:
This setting enables Analytics reports to use UTM values for Campaign, Term, and Content that you’ve specified via manual tagging. If you haven’t specified UTM values for one or more of these parameters, Analytics uses the auto-tagged values for those parameters instead.
You specify utm_campaign = “foo”.
Analytics reports use:
- Campaign = “foo”
- Auto-tagged values for all other parameters:
- source = “google”
- medium = “cpc”
- term = [auto-tagged value from AdWords]
content = [auto-tagged value from AdWords]
At this point you should have a solid grasp on whether using manual tagging, auto-tagging, or a hybrid approach is right for you. You should now also be able to implement a hybrid approach without having to worry about nasty data conflicts.
Which of the above scenarios apply to you and which setup are you using? Let us know in the comments section below.