WTF are URL Parameters?

Being a good digital marketer requires a level of comfort with technical terms.  So that’s what we’re going to do: get comfortable. You’ve got to know just enough that you can get down in those conversations with your engineers and developers since you’ll frequently need their help to ensure your marketing programs rock.

Think of URL parameters as little pieces of information in a URL.

Let’s start with a technical concept that’s foundational to how websites work: URL parameters. Think of URL parameters as little pieces of information in a URL. They serve two primary purposes. First, they can help a site determine what type of content to deliver. This mechanism is likely something your web development team uses. Let’s take a real life example. If you’ve got a pet, hopefully you can relate to this example. If not, presumably you’re familiar enough with dogs and cats to follow along. Take the ecommerce site for pets, Chewy. From the homepage you might run a search for dog food, and if you did, you’d see that you land on a set of search results for dog food, with the following URL:

URL parameters have two components, a key and a value. In the Chewy example, our key is ?query and our value is the dog+food. You’ll notice that the key and value are connected with an “=” and this will almost always be the case (I qualified with an “almost” because in tech, there are almost always exceptions). Here, the URL parameter ?query=dog+food is what the developers and engineers used to get the site to deliver a set of search results for, you guessed it, dog food.

The second application of URL parameters is the one you’ll care about as a digital marketer. URL parameters are used by web analytics platforms to capture and store information about inbound traffic. Google has a writeup here. You can store virtually any value in a parameter, so long as the key matches what your web analytics platform expects to see. This is the technical way web analytics platforms can help us categorize our traffic to understand which of our marketing efforts are working, and which aren’t. Let’s break down a real example. I went to LinkedIn and the first promoted post was from Forrester. When I clicked it, I wound up on a landing page with the following URL string:

The marketing team at Forrester is capturing three different pieces of information in their Google Analytics parameters.

Key Value Note
?utm_source linkedin The source or website, in this case, LinkedIn
&utm_medium ppc The categorical marketing channel Forrester wants this to fall in – ppc or pay per click
&utm_campaign capstone_org A specific campaign from Forrester designed to drive a particular outcome

You may notice that the first key begins with a “?” and the second and third begin with an “&” – this is because the first parameter gets attached to the URL with a “?” and any subsequent parameters get attached with an “&.”

For digital marketers to harness the real power of URL parameters, you need to master three things, which we’ll break down in an upcoming series…

  1. Defining your elements – or the values you want to capture in your parameters
  2. Develop a structure to capture those elements
  3. Documentation. Yes it’s boring, but you’ll thank yourself.

Stay tuned.


  1. Pingback: Campaign Tagging Best Practices | Part 1: Define Your Elements – A Real Marketer

  2. Pingback: Campaign Tagging Best Practices | Part 2: Develop a Structure – A Real Marketer

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