A Breakdown of All Your Website's Traffic Sources (What Means What?)

by Corey Eridon

Date

January 2, 2013 at 9:00 AM

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So. You know how we're always on your case to measure your marketing? Get in good with your analytics ? Evaluate what's working, and what's not, so you can spend your time and dollars more wisely?

That's way easier to do when you understand what all the things you're measuring actually mean. The first place I always start when evaluating a business' marketing is figuring out where the heck all their site traffic, leads, and customers come from. But it occurred to me -- if you don't even know what all those channels mean or how they're bucketed as traffic sources to your website -- it's probably pretty hard for you to start that self-evaluation.

So I figured it's high time to break down what all those sources actually mean . Now, depending on what software you're using to measure all of these things, they may be bucketed slightly differently, but these definitions are pretty common across most tools you'll encounter. Make sure to double check on the finer points of some of them, but this should be a good starting point for you if you're new to this whole marketing measurement and analysis "thing."

What Your Website Sources Really Mean

1) Organic Search

Organic search traffic used to just mean the amount of traffic that came to your site via someone who found your site using a search engine. Then, you could drill down into more detail to see which keyword they searched to get to your website. For example, we might learn that someone came to HubSpot.com by searching the keyword phrase "inbound marketing." This is important to know because it helps businesses understand which keywords are driving the most traffic, leads, and customers so they can develop better-informed content and keyword strategies.

But now, that is all changing. We can still see all of that information ... sometimes. Things got a whole heck of a lot more complicated a little over a year ago, when Google introduced SSL encryption . What does that mean? It means Google started encrypting keyword data for anyone conducting a Google search while logged in to Google. So if you're logged in to, say, Gmail when you do a search, the keyword you used to arrive on a website is now encrypted, or hidden. So if that website drilled down into its organic search traffic source information, they'd see something like this:

 

ssl keywords resized 600

 

In other words, businesses have much less visibility into which keywords searchers are using to find them, making it much harder to understand which words and terms are or working -- or not working -- in their search engine optimization. Google said this would only affect about 11% of searches, but the truth of the matter is the number is much greater than that, and is only continuing to increase as Google's user base grows. It's important to keep this curveball in mind when evaluating organic search as a traffic and lead generation source.

2) Referrals

Referrals is one of those source names that could mean a lot of things, because the definition of it is simply ... any website sending traffic your way via an inbound link. Pretty vague, eh? Depending on the software or tool you're using to track the sources of traffic to your site, what's included under this might vary.

For example, sometimes this could include social media websites, sometimes it might not -- in HubSpot's software , social media websites are not included in referral traffic because they're included in a separate "social media" bucket. Another instance of variance is whether subdomains are included -- HubSpot software, for example, includes subdomains (like academy.hubspot.com) as a traffic source under Referrals. And sometimes it's not that tricky -- you'll always see third-party domains, like mashable.com, for instance -- right under here. This is particularly helpful if you're trying to ascertain which web properties are great for co-marketing, SEO partnerships, and guest blogging opportunities.

Whatever tool or software you use to measure referrals, just be sure you sort out exactly what is bucketed under it.

3) Social Media

As we mentioned before, when someone finds your site via a link on a social network, they'll be bucketed under social media as a traffic source. This could include someone tweeting out a link, or it could include you posting a link to your Facebook page. If it's you doing the posting, you can also add a tracking token before posting to track those links as part of a larger campaign for you to analyze later!

Remember that social media as a source could include more than just Facebook and Twitter, too. There are sites like StumbleUpon, Digg, Delicious, Squidoo, even HootSuite that might be bucketed under here! Be sure to confirm with your software provider what social media sites are included under social media as a source.

4) Email Marketing

When you run an email marketing campaign, we hope you're including links in that email that lead recipients back to your website -- to read more content, convert, whatever. When you take a look at email marketing as a source of traffic, you'll be able to see how much traffic is sent to your website due to email marketing campaigns you've sent out. That's how we found out, for instance, that driving blog email subscriptions was extremely important to the growth of a business blog -- because many of the visits we receive each month come from subscribers who get pinged in their inboxes that a new blog post is published, prompting a click through to the post! Just be sure to include tracking tokens in the links of your email, otherwise the clicks won't be properly bucketed under the email marketing source.

5) Paid Search

When you run a PPC campaign -- whether through Google or some other PPC provider -- you can track how much site traffic it drives in this part of your sources report. Obviously for proper PPC campaign management , you'll also need to be reviewing whether that traffic actually converts , too. Like email marketing as a source, be sure to include tracking tokens with all of your paid search campaigns so this is properly bucketed as, you know, paid search.

6) Direct Traffic

Direct traffic refers to traffic you receive to your website that doesn't come through any other channel. So, when you type www.hubspot.com into your search bar and hit 'Enter,' you're accessing HubSpot.com via direct traffic. If someone posted a link to www.hubspot.com on Facebook, however, and you clicked on that link, your visit would be bucketed in HubSpot.com's social media sources.

Make sense?

To sum it up, there is no referring URL when someone reaches your site via direct traffic. So if your direct traffic is going up each month, that means more and more people know you by name. Good job, branding team!

Now, there's one more little group that might fall into direct traffic -- it's something you might have heard about as "Dark Social" if you've been staying up to date on, well, dark social as a referral source. Basically, dark social is what some people are calling the social site traffic that most analytics programs can't capture since it lacks referral data, but is coming from things like emails and instant messengers (which, technically, are social mechanisms). Often, this unidentifiable traffic -- anything without a referring URL -- is also bucketed into direct traffic. Now, as BuzzFeed so eloquently puts it, "all 'dark social' traffic is direct traffic, but not all direct traffic is dark social."

The amount of dark social that comprises one's direct traffic is going to vary. For example, you might be diligent about incorporating tracking tokens into your email marketing campaigns, and asking your co-marketing partners to do the same when they promote your site content. Great. You won't have a huge chunk of traffic dumped into direct traffic that should really go into email campaigns. On the other hand, perhaps you're embroiled in a viral video firestorm, and a video on your site gets forwarded around to thousands of inboxes ... you don't exactly have control over that kind of exposure, and as a result you'll be seeing a lot of traffic without referral data in the URL that, consequently, gets bucketed under direct traffic. See what I mean? It depends.

The good news is, however, indications are that dark social should decrease more and more over time, as social media as a sharing mechanism -- as opposed to email -- only continues to grow. In fact, in the same article we mentioned earlier, BuzzFeed cited a preference with millennials to share over Facebook and Twitter, alongside a longer term downward trend of sharing over email.

7) Other Campaigns

Finally, if you're running some other kind of marketing campaign for which you've generated a tracking URL, but does not fit into any of the other buckets, you might find it ends up in a nebulous "Other Campaigns" source. Hey, just because it doesn't neatly fit into another bucket doesn't mean it shouldn't be tracked, right?

How do you bucket your website's traffic sources?

Image credit: Daniel Wehner

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