How Google Analytics Tracks ‘Bookmark’ Visits

I was recently inspired by a Tweet to write about how GA tracks visitors that use a bookmark to access a site.

Simply put, Google Analytics will attribute a ‘bookmark’ visit to the information in the Google Analytics campaign cookie.

Many people believe that GA tracks bookmark visits as (direct) traffic. Google Analytics does not track bookmark traffic as (direct) traffic unless (direct) is the value in the cookie. Whatever is stored in the campaign cookie becomes the source of the ‘bookmark’ visit.

The cookie is named __utmz, I’ve talked about a few times, in my series on Campaign Tracking and my post on GA – CRM integration. __utmz always stores where the visitor came from (organic search, campaign referral, etc.)

How about a quick video to walk through an example and save me some typing.

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    1. says

      Good demo. Must say though that I see the way GA behaves as a limitation, since it’s not reporting on the actual action. For example, webtrends will determine that a visit is “direct” when the first hit to the site has nothing in the cs-refferer. This too has limitations, but since it’s not stored, you can come from a search engine and an hour later come from a bookmark (or typing), and WT would show both distinct sources.

      This means that in GA’s case, if I understand correctly, a visitor could come first via the search engine, and come back 10 times directly after that and all those visits would still be attributed to search? Hmm.

      Anyway, add to all this the phenomenon of navigational use of Google, i.e. people using it to get to a site they already know, and the direct category of trafic sources gets quite blurred. I don’t trust it so much anymore, regardless of the tool.

      • says

        Hi Jaques,

        Yes, you are correct. If someone visits from a search engine, and then visits the site directly 10 times, all of the 10 visits will be attributed to the search engine. I’ve written in the past about how Google Analytics tracks conversions, Basically GA uses a last click attribution model UNLESS the last click is direct. Direct traffic is always let’s the existing referral information persist.

        This phenomenon then trickles into how ‘bookmark’ visits are tracked.

        I agree, true referral information, no matter what the tool, is a challenge. Maybe we should all give up!

        Thanks so much for the comment.


    2. Alexander says

      Are cookies rewritten when I click inside a site? For example, I got to this post from Google Reader, but when I’ve opened _utmz for, it was utmccn=(referral)||utmcct=/contact.html|utmcmd=referral
      I clicked to other post here but _utmz hasn’t changed. I removed all cookies for and clicked to homepage. It shows now utmcsr=(direct)|utmccn=(direct)|utmcmd=(none)
      This is strange, as I thought before that _utmz is rewritten after every click. But it seems not to be the case here.

      • says

        Hi Alexander,

        Thanks for the comment.

        The _utmz cookie is not updated on every pageview. Other cookies are, but not __utmz. The campaign cookie is only updated in certain circumstances, like when the visit begins, or if Google detects that there is no campaign cookie or if you try to tag internal links (which you should never do).

        There is also a lot of strange behavior if you change traffic sources during a visit. If you visit from organic, then hit the back button and visit from Paid Search GA will capture both, but will only show data for the first source of traffic. That’s the problem with changing the __utmz cookie during a visit. GA takes the first value during processing.


    3. says

      Hi Justin,
      Great entry and debunks a myth I’d secretly been perpetuating! The logic behind this attribution model makes sense to me in the context of what brought the visitor to the site. Without the last touch, the bookmark wouldn’t exist so to attribute that visit and future repeat visits to the referring search term or site is hugely useful! Being able to say that a certain source refers more loyal repeat visitors is great. The question of whether a visitor was compelled enough to come back is far simpler than trying to understand how many people bookmark something but never use the bookmark!

      Great video and thorough explanation. Now I have to try to decide how to explain significant (direct) traffic to my clients again…

    4. says

      Great demo. BTW, PPC tracking software does this too (all of them to the best of my knowledge) so that if someone bookmarks a paid search and returns later via that bookmark, the software thinks it was a new paid search. Lots of bad implications from this in terms of data accuracy.

    5. says

      I don’t think the statement that bookmarks aren’t tracked as direct is entirely accurate. There are MANY cases where it will be measured in the way you describe in your video.

      Such as:
      1) I have never done a google search to get to a site
      2) That cookie has expired – it looked like it was set to last a month – this is very likely
      3) I clear my cookies

      So I feel your statement “Google Analytics does not track bookmark traffic as (direct) traffic unless (direct) is the value in the cookie.” is a bit misleading.

    6. says

      Hi Justin,

      Some quick question:

      What if we were to utilize favicon.ico in tracking bookmarking ?

      Could we base the tracking via the percentage of web visitors using browsers that support favicon.ico ?

    7. Jon says

      Hey Jaques (& Justin),

      IMO NOT having the _umtz cookie info overwritten is a benefit when you are evaluating the results of campaign spend. This is because you really want to attribute the credit for conversion to the budget that created the conversion rather than subsequent (reminder) sources.

      Do you agree that it is wise to use the NOOVERWRITE tag on a PPC link so that PPC conversions are not lost to other sources down the road?


    8. says

      Hi Justin,

      The post is quite interesting. It actually shows one of the very famous “did you know…” question about calculating referrals, where most wouldn’t believe this is how it actually works.

      The way GA works sometimes surprises clients, and this is one of those cases.

      On another note, the post title is a bit misleading IMO – as the post is so very sharp on presenting the utmz but has very little to do with bookmark visits, which remain quite an enigma.


    9. says

      Thanks Justin great demonstration –
      So I have it clear in my mind that it is all blured and difficult, but I can handle that.

      How do I explain the different traffic refering areas to management in a way that they dont shake their heads and think analytics is a load of rubbish?

    10. says

      Sorry for the delay in posting all of these great comments and observations…

      Adam: I agree, that statement could be misleading. I’ve made an update that I hope is a bit more clear.

      Deric: I’m not sure how favicon.ico would work in this situation. Could you give me an example?

      Jon: The problem with NOOVERRIDE is that it can only affect traffic sources that you have control of. Remember, there is just one cookie that stores where a visitor comes from. You can’t control organic and referral traffic.

      Ophir: Always an honor to get a comment from you! My goal was to explain the source of a bookmark visit, and the only way to do that is to dive into the __utmz cookie and its oddities. I’m hoping that video shows how the two are connected. If you have any suggestions how I could do that please let me know!

      Rory: HA! My suggestion would be to explain that GA, like many analytics systems, is a last click attribution system. Credit for a conversion (for the most part) goes to the last source. I’d also point out that there are lots of issues with analytics data, and you need to fundamentally get over it and appreciate what you have.

      Thanks again to EVERYONE for the awesome contributions.


    11. Jiyi says

      Hi Justin,

      I have set up a goal conversion for multiple pages in GA, using regular expression to group them together. However, when I checked the unique pageviews for these pages from content report and added them up, the result was quite different to the number from goal conversions.

      Do you know what the root cause was? Was it due to my setup of regular expression? Or was it resulted from different definition of page views?

    12. says

      Hello guys!

      I think you might be confusing things a little bit. You are talking about conversion attribution and visit attribution as if they worked exactly the same way.

      Campaign Cookie works exactly as Justin’s video shows, and the value it holds is used to attribute a conversion/transaction (not a visit) to a particular source.

      The source of the visit is held in another variable which is not persistent over different visits. As you were saying, it wouldn’t make any sense.

      In a nutshell, if we look at the gif Request parameters, the source of the conversion is attributed to the utmcsr variable inside the utmz cookie. Whereas the source of the visit is attributed to the utmr variable.

      A direct visit (including a bookmark originated visit) will show “utmr=-” in the gif request thus attributing correctly the source of the traffic on the reports.

      Does that make sense?

      Go ahead and run some tests using Live HTTP Headers (for Firefox) or any other tool that shows you the actual requests going out of the browser.

      Here’s some useful documentation on Google Code web site

      Hope this helps you recover trust on your reports.


    13. says

      Great post Justin! Seems that Google should be reporting that as a visitor referrer and not a session or visit referrer. Other analytics tools actually let you split those into different dimension and metric types so that you can look at them both ways.


    14. says

      Jiyi: The problem is that a visitor can only convert once per visit. So if your goal is triggering the first time the visitor hits one of those pages, and never again.

      Jodi: Always an honor to get your feedback. Great point. Not so in GA, we don’t have a lot of metrics that are visitor specific. We really live in a visit based world. We’re hoping this changes in the future as we would love visitor related data.

      Juergen: The point is that GA attributes visit via a bookmark to whatever information previously brought the visitor to the site.

      Thanks everyone for the great comments.


    15. Ketan says

      Hi Justin,

      Great post! One follow up question:
      If one delets the cookies and then clicks the bookmark, then is this visit direct or not?
      Besides, Conversion University still maintains that bookmark is a direct visit.


    16. says

      Justin, great video, very clear and to the point.

      But a little worrying. I can see the logic of having the cookie always refer to the original source, but I don’t like it.

      I think it grossly distorts every other marketing effort and response from then on.

      EG It may have been a bookmark or a search that got them there in the first place, but what happens if it was an email 12 months later that actually made them make a sale?

      The reports would say that the sale came from the bookmark, when in fact it was the email that made them buy.

      If taken to its logical conclusion it would mean no future marketing efforts would show any results, as everything would be being attributed to the original source.

      Doesn’t work that way in the real world.

      The person who makes the sale gets the commission, regardless of how many other staff a customer may have spoken to beforehand.

    17. says

      I can see why this could be very confusing. Do you think Google would consider correcting this as it could pretty much be considered a ‘problem’ or ‘fault’?

    18. Greg Moore says

      Hi Justin,

      Within the AdWords system, a visitor who clicks an ad will be cookied, and if they hit a Thank You page within the next 30 days, that conversion will be credited to AdWords.

      If this AdWords visitor comes back three days later via a click on an organic results, Google Analytics will update the utmz cookie to reflect an organic visit.

      If this visitor converts on the second visit, the arrive at a Thank You page with two JavaScript snippets: AdWords and Google Analytics. Within the AdWords system an AdWords conversion is recorded, but within Google Analytics an organic conversion is recorded that is associated with they query they used for the second, organic visit. Right?

      What do you think about Google Analytics installations where they are sync’ed with an AdWords account? Will two conversion now show in Google Analytics – one for the organic visit and another within the AdWords reports, because the AdWords data is simply pulled into Google Analytics?

      Or is something different going on? Thanks!

    19. says

      This clears up something that was bothering me yesterday.

      In GA, I saw four visits for the same term: “Anchorage Web Design.” This search term never happens four times daily in GA for our site, so I was interested how this was done.

      I was thinking: “Did that user type in ‘Anchorage Web Design’ 4 times in Google?’ and ‘How could 4 different people type this term and come to our site in one day.’

      I believe you provided the answer by the bookmarks, which I earlier attributed to direct traffic.


    20. Mike says


      In the “Traffic Sources Overview” page, “About This Report” section, it says:
      ‘”Direct Traffic” is visits from people who clicked a bookmark to come to your site or who typed your site URL directly into their browser.’

      So, is that info wrong? Sounds like it is.

    21. says

      Very interesting post, but it still it begs the what exactly are direct visitors? I always assumed they were bookmarks, or typing domain name into a browser.

      I have a site which I recently added to analytics, and of 300 visitors in one day, 114 are direct according to GA. I don’t think I believe that 114 people typed a domain name into a browser, especially when 90% of visits were new visitors.

      Odd how you can use something like Analytical for so long, and not know what you are reading.


    22. says

      Hi Justin,
      and thanx for the eye-opening video. I have seen that visitors sometimes are returning to my blog several times, and I been puzzled that Analytics told me that they made the same organic search each time.

      Now I realize that they must have bookmarked my site (which is good news)!
      Keep them comin,

    23. Andreas says

      I’m probably not understanding this correctly but I’m left wondering:

      (1) If your are saying that Google’s own documentation stating that “Direct Traffic is visits from people who clicked a bookmark to come to your site…” is false?

      (2) If I can use the _utmz cookie to single out bookmark traffic even though I’m not an AdWords user? Enrique’s comment makes think this might not be the case?

      Appreciate the insights. Cheers.

    24. says

      I know I’m late to the party on this one, but this really troubles me. I understand it’s useful from a campaign attribution standpoint, but from a user activity standpoint it really presents a very cloudy picture.

      Noting the comment from Enrique I wonder if there is some way that GA is able to assign immediate session referral credit along with with original referring source credit and reflect both pieces of data in the the Analytics solution. Is this done? possible?

      This seems like it would enable GA to deliver more accurate and useful numbers in the referring sources report while at the same time allowing for backward attribution to original referring sources, should the analyst be interested to see this.

      There’s a whole added sphere of payoff with that kind of tracking too, where you could analyze your visitor source shift rate, etc.

      Any Thoughts?


      • Justin says

        Thanks to everyone for the thoughtful comments. I think one common theme that has emerged is that Google has a tremendous amount of data on each visitor. This includes the source of their visit. So, with all of this data, why has Google not created a better campaign tracking solution? I wish I had the answer, but I don’t. However, I do think that Google is starting to build a solution. With the introduction of AdWords Funnel Reports Google has started to tackle attribution. Now they just need to figure out the best model for cross campaign attribution modeling and implement it. I have o idea if this is close, but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn they are working on it.

        Thanks again for the comments.


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