Backlinks, Referrals and UTM Parameters
Website Referrals and Backlinks - What are they and is there a difference?
In terms of where a marketing budget is most often spent - the humble referral channel is oft-overlooked. We’re here to encourage you to buck that trend and get after referrals - they can deliver highly qualified traffic to your site and make the cost of acquiring that customer lower than your more typical routes of acquisition.
Let’s quickly cover the jargon so we all know what we’re talking about. We’d consider a referral to be a user who arrives on our website as a result of a link from another website. This makes it easy to identify who the referrer is - it’s the website sending that user our way.
Backlink is a strange term - it sort of sounds like the opposite of a referring link, but that’s not how we think about them. A backlink is any link from one website to another. So Air New Zealand might have a ‘backlink’ on their website to Qantas (but would they?!), and Qantas might also have a backlink to Air New Zealand, to Jetstar, and to Qatar Airways.
So as you’ve probably deduced by now, building up backlinks on other sites TO yours, is the idea. However - linking in the other direction, from your site to theirs, can also have a positive impact on SEO for you.
The two sites should generally be within the same industry and the reason for the links should be obvious and serve the user productively.
Not a good strategy: Bombarding every email address you can find on every website you scrape for email addresses, and asking for a backlink - an even worse strategy is to do that with the promise of giving them a reciprocal backlink from your site.
This worked well in the earlier days of Google, but not so much now - which you should expect given that the complexity of the problems Google is trying to solve today are orders of magnitude bigger and harder than they were 15 or even 5 years ago (think AI for a start).
Google Algorithm Updates
As an interesting aside (we think it’s interesting anyway) - did you know that Google’s algorithm is periodically updated, typically with capability added, and each addition is given a name? Sometimes it’s an animal, other times it’s in honour of the individual who first reported or inspired the change.
Specifically, it was the Penguin update which tackled the issue of spam links - it rolled out in 2012, so if your link-building strategy still looks like the ‘not a good strategy’ described above, you're about 11 years behind at time of writing, and likely seriously harming your SEO. Stop!
Let’s consider what constitutes a strong referral strategy, and how you should go about creating one. After that we’ll solidify using examples exactly why this should be part of your marketing strategy.
Your priority as a marketer is to grow traffic to your website - but to put a finer point on it, it should be to grow traffic and increase traffic quality. Traffic quality can be measured using conversion rate to lead, assuming your website captures contact information somewhere in exchange for something (like a newsletter, a free guide, a brainstorming sessions, etc).
In order to identify your best opportunities for backlinks, the recommended approach looks something like the below.
It’s extremely important to remember that you’re going to receive traffic at different stages in the buying decision process - the goal is to shorten this decision process by interrupting it with what you can offer. It’s still your job to convert that user into a customer - you’re not going to be acquiring 100% qualified purchase-ready users. If only!
So here are the things to consider:
1. The places your potential customers might direct their attention digitally - this can include newsletters they’d subscribe to, websites they’d use, YouTube channels they’d watch, social media accounts they’d follow - be creative!
2. Narrow down your list to content you think is highly relevant to your customers wherever they might be in the buying journey, and crucially, consider whether the owner or curator of that content could benefit from what you can offer them. Remember the benefit doesn’t always need to be direct (a backlink from you might be meaningless for them) but providing you one on their site might mean they’re giving their visitors an improved experience, which they’ll (hopefully) know is good for their SEO.
3. Find the highest attention areas of the referrer’s platform. If it’s a website then that’s likely to be the home page and first child pages, if it’s a large site with massive traffic volume then consider going deeper into the site.
4. Match the content from the referral with the most relevant pages of your own website.
5. Reach out and connect with the administrators of the platform and request your backlink however you think will work best - remember to emphasise how you can help them too!
UTM stands for Urchin Tracking Module - we won’t go into the history of Urchin Software Corporation just now though. A UTM parameter is a string of text that can be appended to a URL without changing the URL itself or the page the user lands on when they click it. What it does is add invisible ‘tags’ to that user’s traffic in Google Analytics, so that GA attributes their visit to the right marketing channel.
Pretty cool huh? We’re getting into the weeds now but this is extremely important - without UTMs you’re making assumptions about your traffic, and you know what they say about assumptions.
Here’s an example of a URL with a UTM parameter appended (don’t click it unless you want to find your way back to this article!). The question mark and everything after is the UTM parameter:
Here’s what they mean:
- source: Simple - where did the click come from? (Other examples include: direct, google, bing, facebook, youtube, newsletter, billboard)
- medium: This is the important part - for all links you supply for the purpose of backlinks to your site, this should be referral. (It’s not always obvious if this is case-sensitive and you don’t want any extra punctuation, just the word in lowercase is best practise).
- campaign: The next level of detail, use it to define the campaign or push this link is relevant to. (Examples include: Q3 Search Ads, November Newsletter, Social Influencer)
The above parameters are typically required when creating a UTM string - source, medium and campaign. There are two further levels you can use if required:
- content: Where the link was located within the medium (Examples include: Header Image, Text Link, Contact Page).
- term: Can be used to identify separate links in the same content (Examples include: Paragraph One, Image Link, Text Link).
There are multiple different ‘UTM Generator’ tools out there, most of them are free. They provide a clean and simple user experience for you to build a URL, and then copy it at the end ready to paste it where you need it. This one is our favourite.
Once you’re using URLs with UTMs consistently across all your channels, not just for referrals, then we can use Google Analytics reports to unravel what’s working and what isn’t.
Google Analytics Source, Medium, Campaign, Term & Content Reports
You do this by going to the Traffic Acquisition Report and adding either a filter or a second level to the drill-down, using ‘session source/medium’ or ‘first user source/medium’, as well as ‘session campaign’ and ‘first user campaign’.
It’s useful to explore using all options to get a picture of where your visitors first came from, separately to lumping them in with returning traffic coming via that channel, source, or campaign.
You can also use ‘first user manual term’, ‘session manual term’, ‘first user manual ad content’ and ‘session manual ad content’ to dig into which terms and content types are working best within a particular campaign/medium.
These are some of the more detailed reports you can surface in Google Analytics 4, and can be extremely helpful in narrowing down your strategy across all of your channels.
Why aim to build Referrals?
We’ve explained the “How?” of referral strategy, but let’s quickly go back to “Why?” using a couple of examples.
Imagine you’re a travel company which sells a somewhat expensive one-day experience to tourists - like a helicopter company or jetboat operator. It’s very popular.
Your customers are here, in-person. But they’ve all booked in advance - the nature of your business is that your product is in demand and there are limited seats.
Now imagine that your customers come from overseas, and have been planning their trip for several months - not unrealistic, right?
In the process of planning their trip they’ve visited newzealand.com several times to explore things to do and places to go - they’ve used their phone and a laptop at different times. This is a once in a lifetime trip afterall - they don’t want to miss anything. Whilst browsing, they’ve come across a page about jetboat operators, and have clicked through to your website using a UTM’d URL.
They’ve landed on your site and their visit has been captured by Google Analytics and by your Facebook Pixel. They take a look around and think “That might be fun”. But they’re not ready to book yet, their trip is still months away.
Now you can retarget that user using a custom audience created from your Facebook Pixel, showing them ads for exactly your product (which they’ll now recognise), over the course of the next few months. Once they arrive in New Zealand and are in your local area looking for a jetboat operator - they see your Search ad and book with you because they recognise your brand name. The ecommerce data is captured in Google Analytics.
Cool - but all of that could have happened even if the URLs they clicked didn’t have UTMs added to them, couldn’t it?
Yep - absolutely could. The difference is that when you combine all of the above with UTM’d URLs and ecomm data, you’re no longer guessing about which referrals work for your business - because Google Analytics’ will tell you.
We won’t go into revenue attribution modelling here, as that would add a whole new level of complexity to interpreting this amazing new data we’re gathering. Suffice it to say that UTM’d URLs offer you an opportunity you’d be foolish not to take. You don’t have to go to the nth degree in analysing every single UTM you create - but setting repeatable parameters you can use will mean you are building a consistent picture of what works and what doesn’t.