Referral Traffic: The Overlooked Traffic Source

(Image Credit: Michael Patterson / CC-BY-SA-2.0)

When’s the last time you heard someone talk about traffic from referred sources? Across boardrooms, Google+ hangouts, and industry conferences, we mainly focus on search traffic (either organic or paid), and all the ways to optimize it. We disregard referral traffic because we didn’t spend a dime on it and consider it to be “free.” And to most people, no budget –> no need to justify budget –> don’t care.

What a shame.

Because while we’re busy covering our butts, we’re also ignoring insightful data that could contribute to big picture success. Thankfully, despite our neglect, our trusted web analytics programs still quietly collect data on referral traffic: where it’s coming from; and what this traffic is doing once they get to our site.

Just for giggles, let’s see what actionable insights we can gain from referred visits. It turns out there’s something for everyone, across discipline and specialties.

Paid Display Advertising

Are you seeing any good traffic from blogs, publishers, or other content creators/curators? Don’t worry if it’s only a small nugget of golden visitors. With display advertising, we’re turning this small nugget into the next gold rush! (Next step: retire like a pope.)

See if these websites offer advertising space directly or whether they’re part of a larger ad network (Google Display Network, DoubleClick, OpenX, …). The odds are that you can augment the naturally referred visits with display ads, control the messaging to their audience, and throttle more of their visitors to your site.

Pay on a cost-per-click model and get a solid idea of how many visits you’ll get with your budget.

Link Building (SEO)

Talking to SEOs, in particular link building experts, you’ll hear the usual refrain of where to build backlinks from, like directories, articles, and bookmarking. Those wearing white hats will preach that acquiring clean natural links is the best way to go, and I would agree.

With referral traffic, what we are witnessing is exactly that – clean natural links that have been built to our site organically by the Netizens. Let’s take their free guidance and capitalize on it.

Check out the websites that are sending you referred visitors, and see whether opportunities exist for leaving a comment, or even submitting a (non-paid) guest post on these sites. Just like that, we’ve built organically-sourced links outside of the usual directories/articles/bookmarks. Your link profile will thank you by fending off penguins.

Social Media, Content, and Communications

Analyze the list of sites that are sending you referral traffic, and take note of any social media sites. Which ones are sending you a high volume of visits, or highly engaged visitors? Look for lower bounce rates, higher pages/visit, and longer average time on site.

These social media sites are the ones you should focus in on, especially if your business does not already have a presence there. Join these communities and get in on the conversations – they’re talking about you after all.

As Jean-Luc would say, “Engage!”

Email

Did you know that you don’t need to be running an email campaign to get traffic from email sources? Yes, your content could be so awesome that your visitors are sharing it on their own. So then the question becomes, what is this awesome content of yours that people are sharing via email?

To segment out referred traffic from web-based email services (Gmail, Hotmail, Yahoo! Mail, …), filter for “mail” in your list of referred traffic sources. Now apply a secondary dimension to this data to include landing page.

What you’re looking at now is your Hall of Fame of Emailed Content.

Action on this insight. Are there certain themes or topics being shared more than others? Do certain media formats resonate better? Look for these patterns and create similar content in similar formats. Rinse and repeat like you’re in Hollywood.

Public Relations (PR)

Any press is good press, but the best is when it’s free.

See if you’re getting any referral traffic from news sites, industry-specific sites, large organizations, or well-known blogs. Spot check to make sure they’re not mentioning you in a negative way. Then get your content writer, communications person, and webmaster to include some “as seen/mentioned on…” on your website and other marketing material.

And don’t forget to cc your boss.


Who knew that the traffic source we’re all overlooking can be useful in so many different ways? Don’t let data on referral traffic go to waste. Analyze and apply. You might even stand out at your next speaking gig!

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Shockley is a digital marketing consultant, helping businesses succeed online through SEM/PPC, SEO, Social Media, and Web Analytics. He is certified in Google Analytics, Google AdWords, and Bing Ads.

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