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Categorizing Incoming Traffic

Source, Medium, and Source / Medium

Source and Medium are two fields that Google Analytics automatically fills in about every visit to your website. Often, reports show these two fields pasted together into something called Source / Medium. When combined like that, they tell a fuller story of where the traffic came from.


This is usually the name of the previous website your user saw. When your visitor was on another website before yours, you'll see its domain name in the Source field, It is the best Medium that Google can identify for others.

Direct traffic - when there's no Source

Traffic from people just typing in your address, clicking on bookmarks they made in the past, or clicking on links in non-website things like PDFs, eBooks, text messages, etc. appears as Direct traffic.

Common Mediums


If the traffic came from a standard link on another website, the Medium will say Referral. For example, if the Calgary Herald website is linking to one of your pages, your Source / Medium will be: / referral.

Email, Social, Affiliates, Paid Search, Display

Google Analytics does its best to put other traffic into these categories, but this is less standardized and these are not always accurate.


If the traffic came from a search engine, the Medium will say Organic. For example, if the traffic came from a Google search, the Source / Medium will be: google / organic.


Direct traffic will not have any Medium known. Its Source / Medium will be direct / (none).

Channel Groupings

Source / Medium can be tricky to read and interpret. Google Analytics also includes a way to group traffic into nicer categories built on top of Source and Medium information. These are called Channel Groupings, and a default set is available out of the box.

Channel Groupings can be customized - if you're interested, please get in touch with the Web Services team for help.

Default rules that power Google Analytics Channel Groupings

Tips for understanding incoming traffic

You'll find information about traffic sources all across Google Analytics reports, but there are a few areas that are especially useful.

The Acquisition section

This section of reports in Google Analytics' main navigation revolves around telling you where your traffic came from.

In particular, check out the Acquisition Overview for a highly visual and interactive way of exploring the volume and quality of traffic from each of your channels. You can set it to Source / Medium too.

The All Traffic section of Acquisition also contains the highly useful Source / Medium and Channels reports. If you're looking for KPIs, this is a great first stop.

If you set up Campaigns using UTMs (see Google URL Builder), the Campaigns section of Acquisition is the easiest way to see how they are performing.

Understanding on-site behaviour by traffic source

Flow reports create a sort of map of the most common paths through your website. In the "Behaviour" section of the left-hand navigation, the Behaviour Flow report is near the top of the list. Using the controls at the top of the report, you can set the first step to display Source / Medium or one of your Channel Groupings. Then you can click one of the white buckets on the left and select "Highlight traffic through here" or "View only this segment" to help get a feel for how your traffic differs from each of your channels.

All reports can be segmented to show only traffic coming from a particular place. Use the custom segments feature to zero in on only a particular area you're interested in, then use any report to find what you're looking for.

Learn more on how to segment your reports in Google Analytics

Recommended UTM (Urchin Tracking Module) patterns

The most important thing is to keep your website's UTMs consistent with each other. Other initiatives on campus have followed these patterns in particular scenarios, so they may be useful to you, too. You don't have to follow these, but they may help you keep things consistent.

Vanity URLs

Redirects are invisible to Google Analytics unless we use UTM Tags. For this reason, the Web Services team adds a UTM Tag to every redirect it creates. It looks like this:

Source = The vanity URL
Medium = redirect
Campaign = (Optional) – Use to group this traffic across channel types for multi-channel campaigns

Owned & paid social media

Separating traffic sent from your owned and paid channels versus earned traffic can really help you understand how your social campaigns drive traffic to your website.

Source = FB or TW or LI or YT or IG
Medium = owned or noto
Campaign = (Optional) – Use to group this traffic across channel types for multi-channel campaigns

These will be grouped together nicely if you also change your channel definitions accordingly

Ad networks

When you’re using non-Google ad platforms:

Source = Name of ad provider
Medium = Ad format, eg. RTB
Campaign = (Optional) – Use to group this traffic across channel types for multi-channel campaigns
Content = (Optional) – Use to differentiate different types of placement

Google Ads will automatically integrate with your Google Analytics data, and if you're using that platform, you don't need to create UTM tags. All you have to do is link your accounts together.

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