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What is Referral Traffic?

May 4, 2020
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Knowing the difference between your traffic mediums can have a big impact of your marketing strategy. In this video, we take a look at referral traffic. We share what it is, how it's tracked and a few ways you can leverage referral traffic for better reporting. Ok, let's go! 

 

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Video Transcript: 

As I said in the intro, we're going to be talking about referral traffic. This is the second installment in our guide to understanding Google analytics. The first one was on direct traffic and if you're interested in that, you can find that either in the card right here or checking out our channel, but today we're going to be talking about referral traffic, specifically.

Referral traffic is Google's method of reporting a visit to your site that came from either another website or another web page. So this could be a blog, this could be a directory, it could be an industry related forum. Any of those types of sites or another page on the internet that links back to you and sends traffic to your site is going to be known as a refer. So this is what Google is going to count as a referral traffic hit in your source and medium reports within Google analytics.

So how is referral traffic tracked? Well, it's passed via HTTP refer. So when somebody clicks a link on your site, the browser sends a request to your server and this information is included in most cases. Now, not all cases, people can obviously hide things and use VPNs, but in most cases the request includes a field of data about the last place that the person had visited. So Google analytics captures that field, saves this information and reports it to you as a referral inside of your source reports.

One of the main issues with referral traffic is that Google often puts a number of social media sites into your referral report. This happens because by default Google sees people coming from another website like social as referral traffic. As you can see here, Facebook's got a number of different domains and all of these have been tracked via this site as a referral hit, not a social media hit.

So why does this happen? One of the main reasons is that social platforms, they're available in a number of different sub domains and devices across numbers of different networks. So you can do Facebook in the app, you can do it in your browser, you can do your browser on mobile, a tablet or a computer or even other connected devices now, and this can obviously cause issues in tracking because Google will look for that information, it will pick up that information if it sees it coming from an outside site and it doesn't necessarily see all the social signals or the UTM hasn't been built with a social tracking in it, it's going to go into referral. The other reason this happens is that social networks will use redirects to help protect user ID and identity. So this causes some issues when it comes to tracking social.

If you want to clean this up, there's a really good blog post from lovesdata.com and it's specifically talking about Facebook referrals in Google analytics, but the same logic and the same filtering that they walk through in that piece of content will help you clean up other social channels or maybe other issues with referral traffic not ending up in the right buckets. One of the important things to do is to control tracking on what you can when it comes to your referral traffic. Now, when building links or doing guest content contributions on other websites, it's nice to know if those site links are actually generating traffic.

In SEO, we've talked about it a lot on this channel. We want to build links, but we don't want just links for the sake of having links. We want links that are going to send qualified traffic. And the one way we can do that is by adding UTMs onto those links in either our backlinking or with our guest content. You can use your UTMs to force a referral link and then create some custom dimensions that you want to track. You could create your own source medium if you want to. But to make it easy, I would start with doing it based on referral.

Use the Google tool that's linked right here to help you create those UTM codes and this will help you track your referral traffic from the sites that you control at least, at a much deeper level to make sure that your links and your guest content or the other pieces of content you're creating on other different channels is driving the right traffic to your site.

So to wrap this video up, let's go over a couple of the main points. Referral traffic is visits that came to your site from another site. How does Google know this? They know this based on the HTTP refer. The issues that we see with referral traffic is that some social traffic can get mixed in here. So you might want to create filters to fix this issue, to make sure that you have really clean reporting. And lastly, you want to leverage UTMs to track visits from links and content from other sites to make sure that you know whether those outbound activities you're doing are working for your business.

If you have any questions about what we talked about in this video or any of the other videos, if you have any questions about what we talked about here today, please comment below. We'd love to continue the conversation with you. And until next time, Happy Marketing.

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Ryan Shelley, CPBI

By Ryan Shelley, CPBI

Ryan is passionate about helping companies make a more personal connection online with their customers and prospects. He is a regular contributor to Search Engine Land, the largest and most popular SEO news site on the web. His works have also been featured on the HubSpot Blog, Business2Community and by LinkedIn Marketing Solutions.

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