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Where there’s traffic, there’s hope.
Because every visit is a chance for something good to happen.
That’s why increasing website traffic is the first goal of most digital marketing strategies. It’s the equivalent of traditional marketing’s goal of brand awareness.
If we’re going to spend all this time, energy (and maybe money) to generate traffic, let’s first spend a few minutes to understand the sources of website traffic, how they’re defined and how they’re measured.
This guide breaks down the traffic sources of website traffic and includes tips for increasing traffic from each.
*Not always the case, this guide shows why these aren’t quite what they seem.
Here’s how the traffic sources look in Google Analytics.
Assuming that marketing campaigns (such as advertising and email newsletters) are tracked using UTM tracking codes with a URL builder, this is what the Acquisitions > All Traffic > Channels report will look like. To see the percentage view, click on the pie chart.
If you switch back to the data view, you’ll see behavior metrics (bounce rate, pages per visit, average length of a visit) and the conversion metrics (the percentage of visitors who took action) for each source of traffic.
Useful for tracking the effectiveness of various marketing efforts.
Let’s look more closely at each specific source of website traffic. But first, here’s a helpful way to think about the sources and the efforts that make them go.
Here’s a fun little metaphor we’ll use to help us understand the sources of traffic to websites.
Imagine weighing anchor and heading out to sea for a fishing trip. The farther you go, the more fish you’ll catch. You want to go far, go fast and you don’t want to break your bank account (or your back) in the process.
You’ve got a few options: sail, row or fire up the motor.
Anyone can buy traffic. Social ads, pay per click, retargeting and banner ads (usually called display ads) are certainly one way to get the boat moving.
Here are the defining traits of paid traffic.
Nobody goes to Google to browse. And no one goes to Facebook to look for something specific.
A skilled digital strategist can look at a product, service or headline and know where it will perform: paid search or paid social.
User data is digital currency. It can help you run better, more empathetic and less interruptive paid campaigns like account-based marketing (ABM) and retargeting. Beyond paid search and social, digital advertising empowers marketers to reach audiences across channels, and personalize ad experiences based on what we know about users and their behaviors.
Sure, anyone can buy traffic. But when you’re paying for visitors, it’s even more important that they’re qualified and able to take action.
Just like sailors rely on the weather, SEOs are subject to the winds of Google. But sailors who know search optimization often go very far very efficiently.
Here’s why: every page can catch traffic, like a sail catches wind.
Search traffic is durable.
A page that ranks for a given phrase is likely to keep ranking. Many of the listings we see in search results have been there for months or years.
Keyword opportunities are virtually limitless.
Unlike a boat, which can only hold so many sails, there is no limit to the number of pages you can publish and phrases you can target. Some sites rank for millions of pages.
Search is hypercompetitive.
You need super high quality content because you’re competing with the 10M+ pages that are relevant for your target phrase.
Beyond that, every brand now has to compete with Google itself. Each year, there are more “SERP features” which pull attention away from organic listings and reduce click through rates to websites. This is the biggest trend in SEO.
When it works, organic search is a durable, almost passive source of “free traffic.” You get more traffic with less continued effort. You could stop marketing completely and keep pulling in visitors for years.
But it’s hard to predict and it’s often slow, uncertain work. If this is your maiden voyage (new website, young domain) be patient. It’ll take a while.
⚠️ Analytics issues with organic traffic
Medium exactly matches organic
That’s how Google Analytics categorizes organic visitors in the Channels report.
But here’s the problem: Many of these visitors didn’t “discover” you in search at all. A lot of them were already brand-aware but forgot your web address. So they searched for your company name, saw you there in position #1 and clicked. Organic traffic! But not discovery.
So a lot of organic traffic is basically direct traffic.
You can check Google Search Console to see what percentage of your organic traffic were for branded (navigational) queries, as in your company name.
Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!
Social media traffic requires social media activity. Every time you pull those oars, you can move ahead a little bit. But if you stop, you won’t coast for long. You’ll soon be dead in the water.
Here are the defining traits of social media traffic:
Social media is unpredictable.
Even with consistent activity, you’re going to see big spikes and valleys in traffic patterns. Anyone know what’s going to trend tomorrow? Is anybody really good at “viral marketing?”
Social media isn’t just about traffic.
It’s about networking, PR, customer service, influencer marketing and listening. None of these are measured in Analytics. If your only reason for being active on social media is to attract visitors, you’re probably going to be disappointed.
(Some) social media can be delegated and/or automated.
You can’t replace yourself with a robot. But the types of social posts that drive traffic can certainly be scheduled or even automated.
There are basically three kinds of social media posts, and promotional social posts (sharing your own content to drive traffic) can be managed through tools (scheduling and automation tools like CoSchedule).
Here’s what social media traffic often looks like in Analytics. Spikey, isn’t it?
⚠️ Analytics issue with social traffic
Social Source Referral exactly matches Yes OR Medium matches regex ^(social|social-network|social-media|sm|social network|social media)$
That’s how Google Analytics knows what traffic to categorize as social media in the Channels report.
So “social media traffic” drastically undercounts traffic from social shares. Here’s why:
Something like 80% of all sharing (source) is not trackable as social shares. This traffic is called “dark social” because it’s not accurately tracked by Analytics. Dark social includes:
Campaign tracking code with UTM parameters would fix the problem. But these are just random visitors copying and pasting URLs out of the address bar and into an app or an email. No tracking code. So most of these will get recorded as Direct traffic. More on that in a bit.
Sometimes there is no giant tech company, such as Google or Facebook, between you and your potential visitor. That’s email. It’s the one digital channel you own and you control.
You don’t own your social followers or search rankings, but you do own your email list.
Email is very spiky like social, but more consistent over time.
A rowing team gets results through repetition and coordination. The Olympic-level email marketers are just as consistent and organized. Here are the defining traits of an email marketing program:
Email marketing is about consistencyEmail drives the cadence of a content strategy. It’s in sync with publishing calendars, event schedules, product launches.
Email marketing is about trustThe subscriber has control. You have a sender name and subject line. To win an email visitor, you need to first build enough trust through your content to get their email address, then build your reputation in the inbox to get opened and clicked.
Email gets a little easierResults gradually improve as you build your email list and try new things. What’s working? Ever tried sending on a weekend? Changing the sender name? Doubling frequency?
⚠️ Analytics issues: Email traffic
Medium exactly matches email
That’s how Google Analytics knows what traffic to categorize as email in the Channels report.
Simple, right? Yes, but only if you add tracking code. Add it to every inbound link in every email you send. It doesn’t take long. Follow these instructions and use this campaign URL builder.
Just like the current under a boat, brand awareness drives traffic. They know the brand, they type the address into a browser, a direct traffic visitor arrives.
It’s probably the least discussed source of traffic, but it’s the most important. I asked my friends at SimilarWeb to share the traffic source estimates from the top online marketing companies. Direct traffic is the top traffic source by a lot, more than all other sources of traffic combined.
Probably most internet traffic is direct traffic, but people don’t talk about it much. There’s also a lot of confusion about it.
⚠️ Analytics issues with Direct Traffic
Source exactly matches direct AND
Medium exactly matches (not set)
Medium exactly matches (none)
That’s how Google Analytics knows what traffic to categorize as social media in the Channels report. Look at that last part. If there is no medium for the visit, it gets counted as direct!
So here’s the misunderstanding:
Direct traffic is supposedly from visitors who typed your address into their browser, but it’s actually all unknown sources of traffic. It’s direct traffic if the visitor…
Any visit that isn’t from a search engine, social network or referring website and has no tracking code is lumped into direct traffic. A better name for it would be “Unknown traffic.”
There are ways to minimize these issues, but Google Analytics will never be 100% accurate. And that’s fine. We only need it to be accurate enough to help us make good marketing decisions.
This is a really interesting question that no one ever asks. I’ve never heard of anyone setting a goal to increase direct traffic. But why not, right?
Keep that current of direct visitors flowing by doing anything that builds brand awareness.
Here’s another source that people don’t talk about much, probably because it doesn’t align with a marketing activity, unlike search, social and email.
But like direct, it can be a consistent current under your boat.
Spikes usually come from news mentions and links on blog posts. Steady traffic often comes from directories.
⚠️ Analytics issues with Referral Traffic
Medium exactly matches referral
That’s pretty straightforward. It should be all traffic from other non-search, non-social websites. But in reality, a lot gets caught in here, including a bit of search and a bit of social.
Check your Acquisition > All Traffic > Referrals report to see which sites are sending you visitors. You’re likely to see sources that are obviously email (mail.google.com) or search (uk.search.yahoo.com)
If you’d like to have more sites tracked as organic search sources, rather than referral sources, you can add them in the property settings.
Here you can see we’ve added Duck Duck Go and Ecosia …which apparently isn’t necessary anymore. They’re on the list of default search engines.
The best fishermen don’t always go to the same lake.
The best marketers don’t rely on one source of traffic.
Smart marketers diversify their traffic sources. It’s risky to rely too heavily on one traffic source, especially search and social. We can’t control what big tech companies do with their algorithms.
A friend of mine shared the breakdown of his default channel groupings. It’s impressive. None of his traffic sources make up more than 23% of his traffic. Take a look:
Clearly he has a budget. In fact, he has a team dedicated to each channel. Must be nice to have that kind of fishing fleet!
Read next: What’s a good bounce rate?
We looked at 500 Analytics accounts and found the average bounce rate for each of the online traffic sources. Here’s are the averages:
What about your site? Here you can see the average bounce rate for companies in your industry.
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