GCLID vs UTM: What’s Best For Your Tracking Needs?

Alex Morisset

Google Click Identifier (GCLID) and Urchin Tracking Module (UTM) parameters allow you to track your marketing campaign’s performance more accurately. Both analyze and interpret online traffic sources but serve different purposes with distinct applications.

What is GCLID?

GCLID, a unique tracking parameter generated by Google Ads, is added to the URL of your landing pages to track your advertisement’s success. When a user clicks on a Google ad, GCLID provides insights into the user interaction and behavior from the ad.

The GCLID identifier typically resembles a series of alphanumeric characters appended to a URL. 

If the URL of the landing page is https://www.yoursite.com, after a user clicks on the ad, the URL might look like: 

utm vs gclid

GCLID can help marketers track:

  • Click Timestamp: When the user clicked on the ad
  • Ad Campaign: Information about the specific advertising campaign
  • Keywords: The keywords that triggered the ad
  • Location: The geographical location of the user
  • Device Type: Whether the user accessed the ad via mobile, tablet, or desktop
  • Ad Position: Where the ad was placed on the page

GCLID Use Cases

The gclid parameter is not merely a tracking tool. It also helps marketers:

  • Campaign Performance Analysis: Understand how different campaigns perform for better budget allocation.
  • Conversion Tracking: Monitor which clicks lead to desired actions, like making a purchase or signing up for a newsletter.
  • Audience Segmentation: Create specific audience segments based on behavior and interaction with the ad for more targeted strategies.

When to Use GCLID

  • Google Ads Tracking: If your primary focus is on tracking and optimizing Google Ads campaigns, GCLID is the appropriate tool. Google automatically generates it and gives detailed insights within the Google Ads platform.
  • Automation and Integration with Google Analytics: If you want seamless integration with Google Analytics and automation in tracking various metrics related to clicks on Google Ads, you’ll want to use GCLID.

gclid example

Using GCLID with Google Analytics can help you track user behavior across your Google ads.

🛑 Important: Some websites don’t allow arbitrary URL parameters like GCLID. In this case, Google recommends using manual UTM tags. Learn to create them here.

GCLID Examples

1. Targeted Marketing for an Automotive Company

An automotive company promoting a new car model can use GCLID to analyze user data like location, device, and keywords across different regions and platforms. This way, they can pinpoint which ads drive interest and sales, and target the right customers in the right geographic location.

2. Targeted University Recruitment

A university looking to attract new students to specific programs or courses can use GCLID to understand the keywords that resonate with prospective students, the geographical areas showing higher interest, and the devices used to access the ads. The university can use this information to create more targeted and appealing campaigns.

📚 Case Study: College Admissions Marketing: Learn how KORTX helped one large public university achieve 793 site conversions and over 58,000 views across the website.

What are UTM Codes?

Urchin Tracking Module (UTM) codes are simple pieces of code added to the end of a URL to help marketers track the performance of their online marketing efforts across various channels. Unlike the GCLID, which is specific to Google Ads, UTM codes are platform-independent, providing a more versatile tool for monitoring web traffic.

Here’s what a typical UTM code might look like:

utm parameters

And a breakdown of the various components to show what UTMs can track:

  • utm_source: Identifies the traffic source, such as a search engine, specific social media platform, or other referral sites.
  • utm_medium: Specifies the marketing medium used, such as email, CPC (Cost Per Click), or organic.
  • utm_campaign: Names the specific marketing campaign, product, or promotion driving the traffic.
  • utm_term: This can monitor search terms or keywords associated with paid search traffic.
  • utm_content: Helps differentiate between multiple links leading to the same URL, for instance, various call-to-action buttons within the same campaign.

UTM Use Cases

Different from GCLID, UTM can help marketers:

  • Multichannel Tracking: Track campaign performance across different channels to see where traffic comes from.
  • Performance Analysis: See what’s working best for a campaign, like the content that resonates best, the medium most likely to motivate a click, and more. 
  • Custom Campaign Monitoring: Tailor the parameters to specific business goals, such as tracking engagement with a particular product launch or seasonal promotion.

When to Use UTM Codes

  • Multichannel Tracking: If you want to monitor performance across channels like social media, email, or organic search, UTM codes are the ideal choice. They allow for tracking across various platforms, not just Google Ads.
  • Customized Tracking: UTM codes provide flexibility in tracking specific aspects of a campaign, such as source, medium, content, etc. If you need tailored tracking to analyze different parts of a marketing campaign, you can manually configure UTMs to your needs.
  • Broader Insights without Platform Restrictions: UTMs are suitable if you want a more comprehensive view of user interaction that isn’t confined to Google Ads.

🤔 Why are both GCLID and UTM codes valuable to help businesses track user behavior?

“While GCLID (Google Click Identifier) is instrumental in tracking user interactions specifically within Google Ads, UTM (Urchin Tracking Module) codes offer a broader view. Combining both tools can create a comprehensive picture of user behavior, enabling teams to make data-driven decisions to optimize marketing strategies.”
–Josh Petovello, Sr. Marketing Data Analyst

However, you can use UTM codes with Google Analytics 4 to pull information on how different media tactics drive traffic to your website.

UTM Examples

1. Reaching the Right Customers for a Quick Service Restaurant

A QSR can use UTMs to identify the best marketing channels and advertising content to reach potential customers. Tracking parameters like source, medium, and campaign can help them tailor special menu promotions for specific segments like families or professionals.

2. Cookieless Targeting with UTMs

UTM codes offer a viable cookieless targeting solution for tracking user interactions without infringing on user privacy. Companies can create unique UTM codes to track the source, medium, and campaign that works best for their audience.

📚 Related Article: Welcome to the Cookieless Future: Testing & Tracking Without Third-Party Data: As 3P cookies phase out, read about other solutions to tracking user data while respecting their privacy.

The Difference between GCLID vs. UTM

GCLID (Google Click Identifier) and UTM (Urchin Tracking Module) codes track online marketing performance, but they serve different purposes.

The GCLID allows you to track ads specifically within the Google Ads platform. 

UTM codes are platform-independent and can be manually set up to track various parameters like source, medium, campaign, term, and content across multiple platforms and campaigns.

GCLID is exclusive to Google’s ecosystem and offers detailed insights into ad performance on Google’s advertising network.UTM codes provide a comprehensive and flexible approach suitable for multichannel tracking. 

The choice between GCLID and UTM often depends on the specific needs and goals of the marketing campaign, with GCLID focusing on Google Ads optimization and UTM codes offering a broader perspective on overall online engagement.

📚 Learn how to create UTM codes in Google Analytics 4 (GA4) in our guide.

GCLID and UTMs: Wrapping It Up

GCLID is tailored for Google Ads, providing precise tracking within Google’s ecosystem, and integrating with Google Analytics, while UTMs offer platform-independent tracking across various channels.

Using GCLID and UTMs together gives a comprehensive view of online presence and advertising success, catering to different platforms and offering an alternative to tracking cookies. Choosing between them depends on campaign needs, but understanding their differences empowers marketers to create the most impactful campaigns.

UTM Codes Aren’t Enough.

Your marketing strategy needs a well-rounded strategy to attract & convert leads. Our experts can craft the strategy tailored specifically to you.

Alex Morisset is the VP of Product and Solutions at KORTX.

Alex Morisset

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