Part 3: The pros and cons of Internal URL Referral Parameters by Lukas Oldenburg
Facebook used to have them, Amazon still has them: parameters in the URL that show through which on-site campaign link the visitor has reached the current page. But unless you really have a thoroughly thought-through system in place, you should think twice about using them.
Internal Referral Parameters are not Campaign Parameters
First of all, let me clarify what I mean by “Internal Referral Parameters” (IRPs): Those are not to be confused with (external) Campaign Parameters (for Google Analytics, read “utm_campaign” and the like). As stated in the first article of this series, you should never use Campaign Parameters in the links of your on-site campaign because they will override the external source of the visitor.
To give you an example for an IRP: If you visit Amazon.com’s homepage and click on “Books” in the left-hand navigation, you get to a page with the URL:
See the “ref=sa_menu_bo8”? That is the IRP. It helps Amazon.com determine which links (=on-site campaigns) on its homepage, category pages, and so on are the most effective.
Another website that uses IRPs is YouTube. There, you often encounter URLs like
Here, the “feature” parameter is telling YouTube which link you used to get to the current video (in that case, I clicked on a “related video” on the right-hand side.
We stopped using them, and so did Facebook
My company used internal referral parameters for some months, but we stopped using them for the reasons I will explain below. So has Facebook, which had used them extensively until a couple of months ago. They now seem to have dropped almost all URL parameters. Apart from the challenges those can cause for web analysts, they had other negative side effects: It was not easy, for example, to get a clean or “canonical” URL of your profile or fanpage because there always was “parameter clutter” attached to it, and every page existed in the form of countless URLs. You’d even see websites linking to the “wrong” (non-canonical) version of their fanpage.
1. Easy to see in the most basic reports which on-site campaigns contributed how much.
In many cases, Internal Referral Parameters (IRPs) make reporting a lot easier. For example, if you are analyzing the performance of your article on Spanish Fuet sausage in the standard content report, you can see at once which on-site campaign produced how many Pageviews:
2. You can combine those reports with goals and conversion analysis.
Create a Custom Report, and you can get an insightful overview with Unique Pageviews (or Visits), Goal Conversions and the Conversion Rate. That way you can see in a simple report which internal campaign drove most of the conversions:
|Page||Unique Pageviews||Conversions||Conversion Rate|
Those kinds of reports are easily understood by anyone and don’t require advanced segments or other more sophisticated methods. That is why a lot of people at my company weren’t too happy at first when we decided to abandon IRPs.
3. Data is more easily available for other analysis tools.
While your Event Tracking Data rests inside of Google Analytics and needs to be exported first, your URL parameters are readily available for any other analysis tool that is able to extract the URL data (from your server logs for example).
Cons of Internal Referral Parameters
1. SEO issues
If you use Internal Referral Parameters, you are creating countless URLs for the very same page. That makes it harder for your visitors to read your URLs, and search engine bots and other crawlers have a tougher time to find out which is the “real” or “canonical” URL of the current page. Search engines might even assume you are producing “duplicate content” (several URLs for one piece of content) and drop you in their rankings. So if you want to use IRPs, you should at least ensure the following:
- Specify your canonical URL in the head of each HTML page (see Google Webmaster Central’s instructions) or, even better, in the HTTP header
- Tell Google and other search engines that the parameter(s) you use for your on-site campaign tracking are irrelevant for the content of the page and can be ignored (see Webmaster Central’s instructions for Google)
Even though they are really nice for a quick content analysis, IRPs can cause trouble in other reports: For instance, imagine you want to analyze your content category “sausages” and you have five articles on sausages in that category. Since all the URLs contain “/sausage”, you’d usually filter by “/sausage” to get a list of all those article URLS. But if you use IRPs, you don’t get five URLS, you get dozens, one for every different on-site campaign link to that page (plus all the broken links that also tend to increase the longer your URLs are). Thus, in order to get a better picture of which sausage is your main performer, you first need to add up the Pageviews of each one.
Now, imagine this report if you had several versions of each URL. You need to add up not only the total
Pageviews and Bounce Rates, you will have to do that for each source. No fun! So if you are using referral parameters, make sure to set up a second Analytics profile with a filter that weeds out the IRPs.
3. More up-front coding and conceptual work needed
Marketing campaigns need recognizable names, and so do on-site campaigns.
In a basic on-site campaign tracking model, the campaign name is just the path of the page where you clicked on an on-site campaign link. So all on-site campaign links on your category homepage for sausages (mydomain.com/sausages) would get the campaign name “/sausages”. The URL parameter thus would look like this: “?onsiteRef=/sausages”.
For more refined on-site campaign tracking like the one Amazon uses, each on-site campaign link needs its own name, and you constantly have to check if all the links have the right parameters attached. Doable, but requires a lot more conceptual and coding work up-front.
4. Shared URLs may lead to misleading results
Imagine someone gets to your Fuet Sausage article via your on-site campaign banner with the dancing sausage and shares that URL with his 3.248 Facebook Friends and on his Facebook Fanpage for Sausage Lovers. Tons of visitors pour in. You may now look at your report and misleadingly attribute the success to that wonderful dancing sausage campaign, because that’s the IRP you’re seeing in your report.
You can alleviate this issue by making sure the share icons on your site (like the Facebook “like button”) always convey the canonical URL (URL without parameters), but it is hard to entirely prevent the sharing of non-canonical URLs because people still do copy and paste URLs (isn’t that crazy? ;)). Then again, the same thing can happen with external campaign parameters.