Social Media Tracking - The Onion Gets It Right (Ninja Style!)

So I was on digg the other day (working, honest!) when I came across this awesome video from the Onion:

Ninja Parade Slips Through Town Unnoticed Once Again

It hit the homepage rather predictably and received over 6000 diggs. After all, who doesn’t like a story about ninjas :-) . The thing that struck me however (being a social media and seo geek) is that the URL that had been submitted to digg was not this one:

http://www.theonion.com/content/video/ninja_parade_slips_through_town

But instead this one:

http://www.theonion.com/content/video/ninja_parade_slips_through_town?&utm_source=digg_1

Now, as anyone who’s familiar with Google Analytics will tell you, that URL is designed to provide enhanced tracking of visitors from Digg. The question is, how did this URL get submitted? Are the Onion submitting the content themselves?

No, the answer is that they force whomever submits the content to use this URL, and here’s how: on their site they have a ‘share’ widget which gives quick links to all the top social media sites (many sites have these, including the BBC) but the difference is that the URLs that get submitted if you click on these links include the relevant tracking parameters to ensure that the Onion can track the visitors more accurately. Smooth work Onion.

##But the ninja skills don’t end there!

Oh no, because if you look at the code for the embedded video in this blog post you’ll notice something far more interesting, namely that the link back looks like this:

http://www.theonion.com/content/video/ninja_parade_slips_through_town?utm_source=embedded_video

Notice how this enables them to combine all their traffic from embedded video referrals together? Imagine how powerful that is for them.

After all, you can always segment Google Analytics (or any other decent analytics package) by referring domain so it’s not too hard to find all the Digg or Reddit traffic but being able to segment your social media traffic to this level is very powerful.

Of course, the slightly less obvious outcome of this is that it also gives their content another chance to become popular with the social media sites in case it didn’t make it the first time round since users could still submit the original URL by editing the submission. Truly ninja! ;-)

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9 Comments

  1. Genius, Tom. This is one of the more brilliant posts I have read this entire year. I'm going to sphinn it, if it hasn't been already.

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  2. Do they not then end up with duplicate content? People might start linking to that the tracking URL instead of the original URL. Or do you not think that is an issue?

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  3. @David - Thank for the feedback (and the sphinn!)

    @Adam - That's a very good point Adam. I'd love to see behind the scenes and analyse their data to see what effect this is having for them. I think they will definitely be losing a little bit of link love by having multiple URLs for each video but then I don't imagine the majority of their traffic comes from the search engines so I don't think it's a huge concern. Also - since the content is identical on the pages Google is getting pretty good at knowing which page is the 'right' page.

    What they should really do (although this will be another bunch of work) is to make all those tracking URLs 301 to the main video page. That way the visitor will be tracked but the search engines will only see one page.

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  4. Update - Adam, it actually turns out that for the tracking URLs they also automatically implement a meta robots tag like this:

    <meta name="robots" content="noindex, follow">

    Which means these pages won't cause any problems for rankings. They may still lose a small amount of link weight but I suspect it will be negligible.

    Whoever was behind implementing this knows what they're doing!

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  5. That's pretty cool! Is that auto done by GA or something they've implemented themselves?

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  6. Nope - that's not something done by GA, it's a custom implementation.

    I think I'd still prefer a 301 redirect since that would conserve the link juice better but this implementation will still work very well (and although my programming knowledge is limited, I think this implementation is easier than performing a 301 each time but I could be wrong there)

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  7. Nice post Tom - good find.

    Your code snippet got ignored by wordpress there - obviously a bit of code you're not allowed to put in comments!

    You can use & lt; and & gt; (without the spaces) to write <meta blah blah >

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  8. Good spot Will - thanks! I've edited my above comment and it now makes more sense!

    It should have said this:

    <meta name=”robots” content=”noindex, follow”>

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  9. That solves a huge problem for me. When we used to do directory submissions and link building, we could not track whether traffic was coming through, but now this post, albeit in a round about way, has revealed how to do it.

    A clear description on tracking external links and banners can be found on http://www.google.com/support/googleanalytics/bin/topic.py?topic=11096 .

    Thanks

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