A Guide to Website Traffic Sources: What Do They Mean for Your Business?

Google Analytics isn't just for your web agency. Business owners and their marketing and sales teams alike can get a lot of invaluable data from basic Analytics reports. Understanding website traffic sources is one of them. Just knowing that you have 2,000 organic visits a day isn't enough. The audience from each traffic type has its own unique characteristics. Knowing them is crucial when developing a marketing or SEO strategy for your business. Here's our guide to website traffic sources.

Article by Dawid Zimny
I am particularly interested in web analytics. Knowing the way your visitors browse your website will help you improve their browsing experience and is crucial for converting them into clients.

Website Traffic Sources in Google Analytics

The default traffic channel grouping in Google Analytics is as follows:

  • organic search
  • paid search
  • display
  • direct
  • social
  • referral
  • other

Google traffic channels definitions and characteristics

Organic search

With the introduction of SSL encryption and privacy policy changes of Google, the complexity of organic traffic has changed. What used to be a great metric to discover which keywords visitors used to find your website is now a little less valuable.

Most of the organic visits don’t report the keyword anymore, but there’s still a lot we know about organic traffic. First of all, these are people that know what they’re searching for. Every traffic type includes “spam traffic”, but it’s safe to assume that your business website is ranking for the visitor’s query on purpose.

When done right, organic traffic gives you longevity and is very cost-effective. However, it’s a hit or miss. The oversaturation in the digital space means that it might be incredibly hard to compete in your niche.

Who are they?

People that know what they want. They’ve used a very specific search query to find you and expect to find a relevant solution. Usually, they won’t know your brand, unless they searched for it directly.

Paid search

This is where you’ll find the visitors from your PPC campaigns, regardless of the advertiser. Paid traffic channel relies on third-party solutions, so make sure you’re using applicable tracking scripts for your campaigns.

It varies by the campaign type but Google PPC specifically has as many similarities to organic traffic as it has differences.

What’s different is that you pay to show up at the top of Google for a limited amount of people. You can use audiences filtered by geolocation or interests to ensure a higher quality of traffic. Many paid campaigns use landing pages instead of the core pages of a website, which are highly optimised for conversions.

However, most organic search factors still matter for paid search. User experience plays a critical role for both your conversion rates, but also for how high you show up. The automated system grades your ads based on their content and the quality of the target page. Factors like content quality and relevance, as well as page speed, are just as important as for organic search.

Who are they?

A specific group of people from organic visits for the same query. Whether filtered by location, interests or time of the day/week, paid advertising gives you higher quality traffic, bringing in visitors that usually are more likely to convert.

They’ve used an ad rather than browsing the options in search results, which may indicate they’re impatient.

Display advertising

Contrary to the often overlooked similarities of paid and organic search, display advertising is usually put in the same bag as paid search. That’s further from the truth than you can imagine.

Once again it heavily depends on your campaign set up but for one of the most popular ones, remarketing campaign, display advertising is more like giving your potential customers a nudge rather than appearing when they’re looking for your services.

You can showcase your ads in a wide range of locations like Gmail, YouTube, other websites or even mobile apps. While the ultimate goal is to convert a potential client, the means to achieve it are quite different from regular paid search.

Who are they?

Depending on the type of campaign these might be brand new visitors from a variety of sources or ones that have already visited your website. In most cases, they weren’t looking for your services at the time when the ad appeared.

You’ve captured their attention in the midst of other activities, which is slightly similar to targetted visits from paid search… or they accidentally tapped on a frustrating ad in a mobile app because you haven’t blocked these.

Direct traffic

The name seems straightforward at first but as a recurring theme of this article, many of the aspects of direct traffic are overlooked. Typing in www.nerdcow.co.uk in your browser will be the most of our direct traffic, that’s correct.

But this also includes bookmarks and false-positives. The former indicates a very loyal audience, while the latter is much different, as it includes misplaced traffic from other sources. These other sources include errors (both manual and technical) in referring mechanisms, as well as some apps like instant messengers, which might not report the source correctly. Sharing a link in these might count as a direct visit.

Who are they?

Direct traffic is word-of-mouth marketing for your website. While the false-positives exist, most of these visits should be legitimate, bringing in people that know your brand and possibly used your services in the past.

Social traffic

For a change, social traffic has fewer quirks that the aforementioned traffic types. However, there is still one aspect that perhaps everyone knows but just doesn’t think about it.

Social media traffic includes much more than Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or other platforms that you use daily. YouTube, Yelp, Pinterest, some WordPress pages or even company review/job search services like Glassdoor could fall under this category.

A list of social networks in the social traffic on Google Analytics, reading (in order): Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, WordPress, YouTube, paper.li and Yelp.
Your social traffic can include some surprising entries.

Who are they?

Social visitors might already know your brand or just found it by scrolling through their timelines. Due to the fact a couple of surprising sources can be found here it’s important you check where your social visits come from.

It’s also crucial to track each individual link you post on your social media. This will help you segment your audience and optimise your content. While you can’t control people just posting a link to your website, you can add UTM attributes to every link you post on your social media to know exactly how they found you.

Was it the link in your Twitter bio or the blog post from Monday? Perhaps you’ve posted the same article for the second time this year – have they found you using the old post, or the new one?

There’s a lot of variables here, perhaps the most out of any traffic source, but the good thing is that you can control a lot of it.

Referral traffic

Referrals are the word-of-mouth of digital marketing. This traffic simply means that there’s someone out there who mentioned you and linked to your website – and it’s generating traffic for you, great!

Not only because you’re getting “free” visits, but also because you get backlinks, which are still very important for the SEO.

Who are they?

This audience can be even more diverse than social traffic, depending on the number of mentions your website gets on other sites.

Is it a small personal blog or a national news outlet that mentioned you? Without answering this question and knowing the contest you can’t tell who they are. But once you find it out, you’ll get invaluable insight into your referral traffic.

Other website traffic sources

With a variety of tracking tools and their high customisability it’s impossible to compile the ultimate list of traffic sources. You can create your own traffic types depending on URL parameters.

If you’re running a newsletter, email traffic can be added to the list. Much like social media, you can track these with UTM tags to get very specific insights on your audience. Your mobile app can be a traffic source. You can single-out some referral traffic and call it partner/affiliate traffic.

Traffic sources help you understand your audience

Every specific traffic type, whether at the high-level, gives you insights into your audience. As you dig down deeper, for example with specific social media sites or referral sources, you learn more and more about your visitors.

This is invaluable for your marketing team, editors and web agency. You can optimise your advertising, SEO strategy, user journey, email campaigns, social media profiles and even traditional marketing campaigns.

Have you used traffic sources in Google Analytics or other tracking tools to draw conclusions that helped your business, or is it something that never crossed your mind? Have we missed something that’s worth noting in the articles?

Let’s talk about it in the comments below. Our team is looking forward to hearing from you.

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