Destination URLs, Tracking Parameters and 301 Redirects - A Cautionary Tale

You learn something new every day.  Period.  Yes, it’s cliche.  Yes, it makes me sound like my mother.  But surprise, surprise, it’s true!  As my headline suggests, this is a cautionary tale about the “bad things” that can happen when you combine destination URLs, tracking parameters and 301 redirects.  Needless to say, I learned something new the hard way.

I began working with a new client a month or so ago and quickly realized that the visitor statistics in their Google Analytics account didn’t quite match what I was reporting in their Google, Yahoo! and MSN PPC accounts.  The PPC visitors were being lumped under (organic) and (direct).  My first steps were the obvious ones: turn auto-tagging on in AdWords, and apply tracking parameters to my Yahoo! and MSN destination URLs.  Did this fix the problem?  No.

With a little help from my Google rep, it came to my attention that 301 redirects were removing my tracking parameters!  Long story short, there was a destination URL in all three PPC accounts that had been changed on the website, so it was had a 301 redirect applied.  301 redirects actually remove the GCLID tracking code for AdWords and the 3rd party tracking codes that start with ?utm_source=.  Consider that my “something new” learned.

If you think this may be an issue for you, you can test this pretty easily.  To test for the GCLID, enter your destination URL into your browser with the following appended at the end:  ?gclid=test   The GCLID should remain attached to your destination URL.  If it disappears, you’re losing your tracking information.  For the 3rd party tracking codes, enter your destination URL into your browser with the following appended at the end:  ?utm_source=test  Again, if it disappears, you’re losing your tracking info.

If you ever run into this problem yourself, there are a few options to rectify the situation.  The first (and easiest) is to update your destination URLs to point to the final webpage – NO REDIRECTS.  Or, if you’re a programmer, or have access to your website’s programmers – configure your server to pass the GCLID (and all) tracking parameters.

So, I’m a bit smarter now, and will forever be aware of 301 redirects.  Most importantly, my data is cleared up (with one minor exception, but that’s another blog post).  Has anyone else run into this quirky pitfall when tracking PPC with Analytics?