What’s Behind Those Long URLs? Tracking Codes, Of Course!

by Joanna Pineda Posted on June 10, 2010

Every day around 3pm, I get my afternoon update of The Washington Post via e-mail.  Each update contains a summary of about a dozen stories and links to the full story on the Post Web site.  Every time I get an update from Facebook about a message from a friend or a comment on one of my updates, I get a URL to click on.

Have you ever noticed how long these Web addresses are?  Ever wonder why these URL are so long?

The answer is simple: tracking codes. Tracking codes are strings of text added to the end of a URL that let you track the source of a click.  For example, if your organization has an e-mail newsletter and you want to know how many people click on the links in your e-mails, you add tracking codes to the URLs.  Your usage tracking software will almost always treat the URLs with the tracking codes as unique from the same URLs without the tracking codes.  So, when looking at your usage reports, you can look at usage overall to specific pages and then figure out how much of the traffic came from the e-mail newsletter.

If you usage Google Analytics for usage tracking, Google has a terrific URL builder that create properly formatted tracking codes to track the source of clicks, specific campaigns, even the duration of your campaign.  Here’s an example of how it works:

Let’s take the URL to my recent blog post on magazine subscriptions on the iPad.  The URL looks like this if I navigate directly to it:

When my marketing team promotes this blog post e-mails, Twitter, Facebook, etc., we use the Google URL builder to add tracking codes.  Here’s a sample URL:

If you look at the codes closely, you’ll easily decipher that the source is Twitter, the medium is SM (social media, as opposed to e-mail or a banner ad) and the campaign is blog (as opposed to events, news, jobs, etc.).  On a regular basis, we filter our usage reports in Google Analytics to see how many clicks we’re getting to the blog post from our posts on Twitter, as opposed to direct traffic and traffic from other sources.

Oh, btw, since these URLs are crazy long, I use a URL shortener service like TinyURL or Bit.ly to keep my links manageable on sites like Twitter.  I don’t bother shortening the URL when I’m posting links on Facebook, Amplify or this blog.

Bottom line?  Tracking codes are key to tracking the success of your outbound marketing campaigns.  I recommend never linking to pages on your Web site without some type of tracking code.

How about you?  Are you using tracking codes in your campaigns?  What services are you using?  How are tracking codes helping your measure the success of your campaigns?

4 replies on “What’s Behind Those Long URLs? Tracking Codes, Of Course!”

Good easy to understand post. I may add some value by presenting an online application I recently created (it’s free to use for fellow marketing folks, no catch). The system I built helps people manage the URLs, build quality links, manage vanity redirects, QR code images, TinyURLs and more… please google “marketylink” for more information…


In some cases, those “tracking keys” are mangled URLs for security sensitive information. For example, in a site that I am responsible for, I mangle the UserName and an id for their jobsite, that way they cannot be changed as easily as they would be normally. Otherwise, any user could access any other user by changing the userName. It’s possible that they’re used for tracking keys, but normally programmers don’t think about the $$, we care more about your privacy and site security.

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