Understanding Traffic Sources

Where do your website visitors come from? How do they find you?

You can find out for sure with the Google Analytics reports in Acquisitions. There’s a lot more detail in there than there used to be, so if you haven’t looked into this for a while, it’s worth another look.

Here’s the pie chart for our lab site. Organic Search, Referral, and Direct traffic used to be the main sources of traffic, but you’ll now usually see Social as well.


Organic Search is visitors who reach you by Googling or using another search engine which Google recognizes as a real search engine — mostly Bing and its second string, Yahoo. People using other search engines like DuckDuckGo or sites which are now commonly used as search engines but which have other purposes, like Pinterest, will show up in Referral traffic and in the case of Pinterest, in Social. If you have a good, well-optimized website, Organic Search will usually be your most frequent source. At our lab site, we do nothing to encourage other sources, so Organic Search is absolutely the top.

Referral means people clicked on a link somewhere else. This can be email or social, but is mostly links on other websites. If you switch the view in the Channels pie chart to Sources/Mediums, as we did for the screenshot below, you can see your most important links. For our lab site, Pinterest is major, as are Google’s educators’ sites and several homeschool sites. We can click on Acquisitions> Referrals to see more. Referral traffic can be a little confusing because it overlaps with Email and Social; more on that later.


Direct traffic is people who type your URL into their navigation bar, or who use a bookmark. These are your regular visitors, people who’ve discovered you in some other way and are now coming back, and — less now than in the past — people who type in a URL they’ve seen on your offline ads or who guess your web address based on your company name. Direct traffic is often the highest converting kind, but it can also be regular blog readers or your own staff. Filter your workers out if at all possible to keep your data clean. If you can’t filter them, at least ask them to use direct methods (rather than search, for example) and you may be able to identify it when you work in Analytics. Any traffic that Google can’t identify will also show up in Direct traffic, and that can include ads if you haven’t hooked up your ad accounts with your analytics, email or SMS campaigns if you haven’t tagged them for Google, and other sources that aren’t identified. Tag well and you’ll see less of this.

There are more options than these four, however. The site below has Organic Search, Direct, and Referral at the top of the list, but also uses Paid Search and Email marketing to bring in visitors.


The pie below is for a site that uses the same methods to drive traffic as the site above, but the proportions are different. The site below has a lot of direct traffic, and “Other” is ahead of email. “Other” is most often other paid traffic sources such as banner ads on a website or something of that kind which is not defined.


Next up, a site using lots of email marketing with the campaigns defined so they can be tracked. “Email” typically refers not to the occasional visitor who gets excited and emails your link to a friend, but to email marketing campaigns and newsletters. In this case, email is actually higher on the list than Organic Search.


Here’s another example showing another traffic source above Organic Search. For this website, social media traffic is the most important. If your website has excellent organic search traffic and awesome social media, that’s good. If you’re relying on social media for most of your traffic, read our discussion of this example at the end of the post.


And here’s an example that uses Paid Search and has no Social traffic at all:


This brings us to the question of what actionable insights you can glean from this report. The first question to ask yourself is whether your traffic sources reflect your strategy or not.

We used to like best to see a fairly balanced mix, back when there were mostly just three sources: Organic, Direct, and Referral. Organic Search traffic is a good sign of general site health, it’s usually the top source of conversions, and it generally shows great ROI. Direct traffic is often the people who love your site or are coming back to buy after they found you in some other way. These two groups of visitors are probably the ones that bring you the most sales or leads.

Referral traffic in Google Analytics can also include your social traffic or even your email visits. This is largely because there are different ways to track data and there are imperfections in the system, but it also depends on which reports you look at. For example, Acquisition> All channels> Referrals will include much of your social traffic, but the default All channels report does not include Social in your Referrals. The best solutions:

  • Look at the same reports each time to see progress toward a goal.
  • Start with a question so you can look at the place where you’ll find the answer.
  • Set up your reports to show what you want to know about.

Now, with the much higher level of competition for organic search and the much greater importance of social media, we don’t necessarily look for balance. Some strategies will work better than others for some businesses and some business goals.

So we’re confident that the high social traffic in the sixth example above reflects the highly successful social media campaigns the organization is working on. We could also see this pattern for a site which has decided that they can’t succeed with search and has, as Google suggests for such websites, chosen to work on social media success instead. The difference is, one site would have good Search and Direct traffic and really good social media, while the other might have dismal Search and rely heavily on social media, which is very time consuming and often has a low ROI. This second pattern is one we’ve seen with microbusinesses where the business owner is spending hours each day on social media and making very little progress in the business. Making the investment in a better website would probably pay off better in the long run, even if it seems like an expensive choice.

If your site gets most of its traffic from Paid Search, you should ask yourself the same kinds of questions. Is this because you have decided to use aggressive advertising to give your business a nice big push? Is the paid search bringing in plenty of sales for your healthy website? If so, that’s great; this strategy can be seen with some large successful companies. If it’s because you are unsuccessful with organic search so you’re doing paid search instead, you’d probably get a good return on investment if you optimize your website. Typically, the Paid Search results stay about the same, but the Organic Search increases and so do sales.

Looking back at our lab site, we can see that Organic Search is doing well for us. However, if we put a little effort into social media, we’d probably see growth in that sector — and a bigger pie. We’ve got some strong referrals (and high quality links that improve our search presence), but if we put some work into building more of those links, we’d probably see more referral traffic and, again, a bigger pie. Should we add paid search? For this site, no. It’s part of our community service and has little revenue potential, so we wouldn’t see much ROI from ads.

So look at your Channels pie chart and decide:

  • Should you see the small slices as opportunities, and put more resources into them?
  • Should you see the large slices as the things that work best for you, and put more resources into them?

It depends on the conversion rates for various traffic sources, your overall goals, and your resources. Broadly speaking, whatever will make the pie bigger is usually the best choice.







4 responses to “Understanding Traffic Sources”

  1. […] 3).   Stay updated and comment early:  If you can comment soon after a post is published, you’ll generate more referral traffic from top sources. […]

  2. skdsports Avatar

    Great blog right here! Also your web site lots up very fast!
    What web host are you the usage of? Can I am getting your affiliate link on your host?
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    1. Rebecca Haden Avatar
      Rebecca Haden

      We use WPEngine. Find the affiliate link on our homepage — scroll down to the bottom of the page. Thanks!

  3. Oliver Avatar

    Loved the way you had arranged things on the plate. Was wonderful reading! Made things easy for a newbie like me to understand the Referral terms!

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