Google Analytics and the four kinds of traffic your web site receives

Your first look at a Google Analytics report can be daunting. So many numbers! And some concepts you may not be familiar with. I remember showing a report to a senior-level VP on a consulting job. She looked it over and asked, “Is it good?”

Ever since that day, I’ve tried to answer that question – is it good? – with every report I’ve shared. The overall goal is to take the mountains of data and to find the few precious, actionable insights.

So if you’re new to analytics, log in to your dashboard and look at the opening report. Weigh it in your mind. And then let’s drill down to a good starting place – traffic acquisition. Follow down the left column of your analytics screen, and click on “Traffic Sources,” then “Overview.” You’ll see something that looks like this:

traffic sources from Google AnalyticsHere are your four buckets of visitors:

  • Direct traffic comes when someone types your URL into their browser, or come on a bookmark. We love direct traffic.
  • Referral traffic comes on a link from another site. We love referral traffic.
  • Search traffic comes from search engines. Yes, we love search traffic, too.
  • Campaign traffic comes from, well, campaigns. Stuff like Google AdWords, email blasts, banner ads or social media shares. We love campaign traffic.

So here’s your first takeaway: we love traffic. Especially when it’s qualified traffic that sticks around and converts (does some thing we want them to do, like buy something or sign up for our newsletter).

Think of your web traffic as a financial portfolio, and each of the four buckets as positions. You want a balanced portfolio that minimizes risk and maximizes return. Let’s take a look at each of the four buckets (we’ll take a more detailed look at each in future posts):

Direct traffic. These people know you and love you. They typed your URL into their browser or bothered to bookmark you. To further enhance your direct traffic, choose a short, easy-to-remember and easy-to-type URL and promote it abundantly in your offline materials – letterhead, business cards, newspaper ads, wherever you have a presence offline. Analytics expert Avinash Kaushik recommends that direct traffic should be in the neighborhood of 20 percent.

Referral traffic. The people who linked to your site are your friends. Discover who they are (there are reports you can run, or you can use Webmaster tools or Open Explorer) and build those relationships. How? Reach out offline or online. Comment on a blog or guest author some content for them. Link back to them in appropriate content. You can also consider your list of friends, research others who are similar who should be on that list, and build relationships with them. There’s a bonus in doing this work: not only will you get more referral visitors in the future, but Google will also send you more visitors. That’s because the number and authority of inbound links are powerful signals that Google considers when ranking you in search engine results pages. Avinash says your referral traffic should be around 20-30 percent.

Search traffic. When people first look at their analytics, they’re often surprised at how strong their search traffic is. Avinash says 40-50 percent is normal. Increasing traffic in this bucket is the work we call search engine optimization. In addition to link building, we work to make our content as relevant as possible to searchers, and as visible as possible to Google and the other search engines. Too much dependence on search engines can be bad, however, because just as Google giveth, Google can also taketh away. Search is a fast-moving area and change is constant. So by all means get as many visits from search as possible, but also try to diversify your visitor portfolio.

Campaign traffic. By default, you will have no campaign traffic. But campaign traffic offers you wonderful opportunities to measure the effectiveness of your online marketing efforts. If you use Google AdWords (paid search) your AdWords campaigns will automatically show up here. Anything else, you’ll have to tag your links. How? By using the Google URL Builder.

Let’s take a look at how NPR tags its social media posts using the Google URL Builder. Here’s a sample link:

Wow, that’s a long link! But the actual link is just the part that’s in red, above. The rest is campaign tagging. There are five possible variables (source, medium, term, content, name) you can tag using this tool. Here’s a screenshot of the URL Builder:

Google url builderIf you look back at the URL, above, only three of the campaign fields are in use: source (NPR), medium (Facebook) and campaign name (20130228). Visitors from this link will show up as campaign traffic, and they will be easy to track as they click their way through the NPR website.

Hopefully you’re having an “aha” moment right now. Something like, “oh, so you can finally assess the performance of your Facebook engagement as the referrals hit the website!” And you would be correct.

Tagging requires a little bit of work, and you need to be consistent in how you apply your tags. Here are two articles that dig deeper:

As you spend time online, start paying attention to URLS and look for utm_source and other utm tags, and study how others implement tags. Tagged URLs are more prevalent than you think.

In upcoming posts, I’ll dig deeper into these four buckets of visitors, addressing limitations of the data, ways to optimize your traffic, and then ways to attract more visitors. When the new posts are up, I’ll link inline, above. See you then!


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  1. says

    Hey David,

    Your information on Direct Traffic is a bit misleading – there are numerous ways for Google Analytics to classify traffic as direct. All that is required is a missing referrer – and with Google switching to SSL for search, as well as many browsers not passing the referrer – I think the sad truth is most Direct Traffic is NOT from a user typing in your domain.

    I just noticed a huge increase in direct, followed by a corresponding decrease in referral traffic starting in January 2013 when Chrome switched to SSL:

    That lead me on the hunt where I ended up here but I also found this useful list (older but still true):


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