UTM Tagging V Auto Tagging in Google Ads


9 mins

UTM VS Auto tagging

Table of Contents

Competition in the marketing industry has always been fierce, but it’s much more so today. That’s why you need to invest in different ways to reach your target audience, especially in channels like Google Ads. 

PPC campaigns on these platforms cost money, but you’ll find that they’re worth it. Besides, there are ways to get the most out of every marketing dollar here, such as website tagging. 

Tagging gives you a means to track the performance of your ads, allowing you to optimise your strategies. There are two ways that you can do it: Google Ads auto tagging and UTM tagging.

In this article, we’ll discuss both methods in detail. After reading, you should be able to decide with confidence when to use one over the other.  

UTM overview

UTM stands for Urchin tracking module, which came from Urchin Software Corporation, the company that first developed it in 1995. 

It was originally designed to evaluate web server log files, but slowly evolved into a web analysis tool. Now, it’s the most common form of ad or link tracking, often associated with social and email campaigns. 

UTM was in its sixth version in 2005, and Google was still developing Google Analytics. However, Google was having trouble with the tracking of ads or links at the time, so they decided to buy UTM. This turned out to be a very wise move, as Google Analytics went on to become the most popular analytics tool across the internet. 

So what does UTM tagging mean exactly?

A UTM tag is a bit of code integrated into the trailing end of a URL. It helps Google Analytics identify the source of the traffic. This feature is critical because it helps you evaluate the effectiveness of your ad campaign. 

There are five different parameters for UTMs:

  • Campaign source
  • Campaign medium
  • Campaign name
  • Campaign term
  • Campaign content

Let’s take a closer look at them one by one.

1. Campaign source

This parameter identifies the search engine or platform where the ad is being run. It includes social media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, as well as third-party sites.  

2. Campaign medium

Campaign medium describes the type of advertising activity that uses the URL. Some of the most common examples are paid search, email, and banner ads. 

3. Campaign name

You can name your campaigns with this tag. It also allows you to create parameters that will make it easier to gauge how effective a campaign is at drawing users to your website.  

4. Campaign term

This tag is applicable to paid ads. It identifies the keywords that your ad is competing in. 

5. Campaign content

This parameter allows you to tell the difference between various ad contents people can click on to reach your website, including headline links and images. It’s slightly similar to the campaign medium tag, only more specific.   

There are several ways you can put a UTM tag in the final URLs of your Google Ads. The simplest way is to do it manually by typing it. 

However, the strings have the tendency to be long, so if you use this method, you’ll be prone to errors, not to mention that it would be very tedious. 

Another way is to use tracking templates, which automate the process of parameter insertion, making things much easier for you. That said, we highly recommend that you use the third method, which is the UTM link builder tool.  

Note that Google Analytics and other tools like it use these Google Ads UTM parameters to track link clicks. They also support marketing campaigns by providing reporting and analysis capabilities.

What is auto-tagging in Google Ads?

Google Ads UTM tagging is a very useful technique, but it’s a bit limited in its application. For instance, you have to do everything within the confines of the five available parameters, which can be tricky. 

If you want it to be effective, you’ll have to do some careful planning and be consistent in implementing it. You can’t afford to have errors in spelling, capitalisation, or naming conventions. In other words, it can be very cumbersome. 

The good thing is that Google Ads supports a feature known as auto-tagging. It was designed to make things easier for marketers who are running ad campaigns for different clients and businesses. 

What makes Google auto tagging very effective is that instead of requiring five different parameters in the URL, it uses only one parameter. This parameter is known as the Google Click Identifier or GCLID. 

It’s automatically created every time someone clicks on your ad, or appears in an app. Therefore, it does not require any additional effort from the marketing team. 

All in all, auto-tagging Google Ads is much simpler and faster than using Google Ads UTM parameters. What’s more, it offers better insights into how people navigate your content and interact with your brand.   

Auto-tagging uses a single parameter, but it adds so many dimensions to the whole process, including the following:

  • Query Match Type, which denotes the extent to which your keyword matches the user’s search query
  • The Ad Group that is connected to the keyword and the click
  • The final URL of the Google Ads
  • The format of the display, text, or video in the ad
  • The ad distribution network, which in this case, is Google Search
  • The domain where the ads on the content network were being run
  • The Customer ID assigned to your Google Ads account


Based on the above list, it’s easy to see how auto-tagging offers marketers a more detailed look at ad click activity. That said, it’s far from perfect. That’s because it operates in a closed system, which means that it works with Google Ads and Google Analytics only. 

If you use Google Ads auto-tagging, it’s almost impossible to do cross-channel tracking and attribution. 

Despite this obvious downside, we still highly recommend that you use this method. However, note that it’s not active in the default setting of Google Adwords. You would have to go to your account settings to enable this feature.     

When not to use auto-tagging

As mentioned above, auto-tagging only works with Google Ads and Google Analytics. That is because the GCLID transfers information within the Google ecosystem only. In addition, this unique tracking parameter is encrypted, and only Google can decipher it.  

So if you try to export your data outside the Google stack to create custom reports, you won’t be able to identify the UTM parameters. There are a handful of platforms that can do the matching even with GCLIDs, but they’re the exception, not the rule. 

Here are some instances where you won’t be able to use auto-tagging:

When using third-party analytics software solutions

Data analytics is a valuable tool, even for small businesses. It allows them to understand their customers better so they can make informed decisions when it comes to their products or marketing campaigns. 

The good thing is that there are free software solutions like Google Analytics that even companies with a limited marketing budget can use. These tools level the playing field for startups and small businesses, allowing them to compete against their more established counterparts.

That said, Google Analytics has inherent limitations, like its 14-month retention cap and the 25-user limit on scoped custom dimensions. On top of this, some marketers and analysts feel that the interface is not user-friendly. This may be due in some part to the fact that it’s new, but just the same, its controls are not intuitive. 

As a result, there are some organisations that prefer using third-party analytics tools. If your business is one of them, you won’t be able to use auto-tagging.

When using automation software

If you use a marketing automation platform like Marketo, you won’t be able to tag URLs automatically. That’s because the application programming interface or API of these tools does not expose the URLs in its image module. 

When using CRM tools

Customer relationship management or CRM software is a tool that lets you store customer information, spot sales opportunities, and manage marketing campaigns. When it comes to CRMs, Salesforce is the first name that comes to mind.

If you’re using software solutions like Salesforce, you won’t be able to do auto-tagging with Google Ads. This is true even if you enable Account Engagement in your Google Ads connector. Instead, you’ll have to manually add the parameters with Google’s URL builder.


When using in-house tools

Using in-house data analytics tools offers many advantages. It gives you the flexibility to make changes quickly or to customise as much as you need to. You also get to enjoy a certain level of independence. Finally, any software solution that you create is yours, and it will be your intellectual property.

However, note that in this situation, you won’t be able to use auto-tagging for Google Ads. 

Dynamic manual tagging

Google Ads auto-tagging is clearly a powerful tool that can make things much easier when tracking the performance of ad campaigns. However, it takes away your ability to share tracking data with other channels. 

The good thing is that marketers don’t have to choose one over the other. 

While we did mention that Google Ads auto-tagging is almost impossible to do across channels or platforms, the operative word here is “almost.” Thanks to Google’s dynamic manual tagging feature, there’s a way to work around this barrier. 

First things first: what is dynamic tagging?

Dynamic tagging offers two ways to place tags on every page of your site. One is with the global site tag, and the other is with the Google Tag manager.     

Either way, you get enhanced measurement capabilities, benefit from the latest updates and integrations, and measure conversions more accurately. 

Most importantly, you can do codeless tag management. It allows you to enable measurement features from within Google Analytics without having to change the tags on your page by hand.

The UTM and auto-tagging hybrid

Using manual tagging while the auto-tagging feature is enabled leads to discrepancies, but fortunately, there is a way around this too. To do hybrid tagging, simply follow the steps below:

  1. First, turn on AutoTagging in the Auto-tagging section of your account settings in Google Ads. You can do this by checking the box next to the section that says, “Tag the URL that people click through from my ad.”
  2. Define the UTM parameters of your campaign using Tracking Templates. 
  3. Next, go to the Admin section and click on Property Settings. Then, activate the part that says, “Allow manual tagging to override AutoTagging.

The UTM parameters you set manually using the above steps will take precedence over the GCLIDs. At the same time, Adwords would still pass to Google Analytics all parameters that have not been overwritten, which means that you don’t miss out on the benefits that GCLID tracking details provide.

Does auto-tagging override UTMs?

GCLIDs are designed to override the manual UTM parameters in Google Analytics. Unfortunately, it means you won’t be able to import conversions that are connected to your manual tag if you have any.

This won’t be a problem If you’re just taking the manual tags from the URL for personal reasons. However, if you have plans of using it to track your campaign performance in third-party platforms, you would have to allow manual tagging to override auto-tagging, or in other words, do hybrid tagging. We have outlined the steps you need to take in the previous section.  

Which one to use?

UTM and auto-tagging are both useful, but in different situations. So how do you know when to use one in favour of the other?

Consider the following scenarios to help with your decision-making process:

1. Using Google Ads and Google Analytics exclusively

If you use Adwords and Google Analytics and have them linked to one another, your best option is to use auto-tagging. That’s because, in this case, you have no use for UTMs to track your campaign’s performance or optimise it. 

However, note that using this approach will have your data stockpiled in Google Analytics. When this happens, your ability to track your customer’s buyer journey will be a bit limited. This will be fine for small campaigns but is not ideal for large ad campaigns. 

2. Using third-party tools and software solutions

Say you’re running a large ad campaign that warrants the use of third-party tools and software. Unfortunately, you won’t be seeing any GCLIDs here, so you’re basically left with one clear option, which is to use UTM tagging. 

3. Using Google Analytics and third-party tools

Linking your Google Ads with your Google Analytics opens up many possibilities for your marketing campaigns. Using third-party tools takes things to a whole new level, as you’ll be able to enjoy a number of benefits. 

For starters, you can to store your data in different destinations. You don’t have to worry about being restricted to a single channel. 

Combining Google Analytics with non-Google tools is also better when it comes to tracking the customer journey. You’ll have all the information you need to monitor your target audience in every stage of your marketing funnel. 

In terms of data richness, you could also expect more with this approach. It means that your sales will have more to work with, so they’re more likely to close deals, make sales, or convert in any other way.   

In this situation, you’ll be dealing with both GCLIDs and UTM parameters. It’s something that hybrid tagging is best suited for. 

While it’s possible to use UTM tags, you’ll be missing out on the advantages that come with auto-tagging and Google Analytics integrations. 

Both UTM and auto-tagging are important, and one isn’t necessarily better than the other. However, there’s a time and a place for UTM tags, and there are situations that call for auto-tagging.

Better yet, you can use both and do hybrid tagging. This way, you won’t be missing out on third-party tools and services like the ones we offer here at Reporting Ninja. We can help you build amazing custom reports quickly and effortlessly. 

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