Google Analytics: Direct vs. Search Engine vs. Referral Traffic
Jan 2, 2020
Originally published in
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Google Analytics allows you to track where your customers are coming from before landing on your website. This information can help you analyze your customer acquisition and marketing strategy to identify the different channels that are driving customers to visit your website (or alternatively, channels you may be focusing time on budget on, but they are failing to get you traffic).
In today's post, we'll cover where to find traffic sources in Google Analytics and provide clarity on three important sources: direct, organic search, and referral traffic.
Where to Find Google Analytics Traffic Sources
In your account, click on the Acquisition > Overview report in the left sidebar and it will show you an "Overview" of traffic coming to your site. Google Analytics shows you simple visualizations to understand the volume of website traffic coming from each source and metrics to dig deeper into each.
(You can view a traffic breakdown's through additional reports in Google Analytics. For example, we also love the Acquisition > All Traffic > Channels report for a simplified view of this information.) Sources like email or social are straight forward, but today, we'll explain the differences of organic search, direct, and referral, using a coffee shop example to explain.
Direct Traffic in Google Analytics
You're new in town and don't know the local hangouts yet. However, you know just about every town has a Starbucks. So, you're going directly to the nearest Starbucks.
This is a simple example of direct traffic. A company, brand, or product is a household name and customers seek it out directly.
Online, this equates to typing the URL into the address bar and - voila! - the correct site appears.
For example, to find an award-winning agency specializing in smart growth through digital marketing strategy and activation, you'd input Whereoware.com directly into the address bar (cough, shameless plug).
Search Traffic in Google Analytics
You're new in town. There's no Starbucks, but that doesn't stop you from wanting that latte! You browse the local directory and come across "Latte Cafe" (sounds promising!). Sure enough, they serve exactly the drink you're looking for.
This scenario stands in for most online organic search engine traffic. A customer is searching for a specific business or product by searching a directory (or in today's age, using a search engine like Google) to find businesses that carry that product or offer that service. They may not have decided who to buy from, but they know what they are looking for.
Organic Search vs. Paid Search
When they type their query into a search engine, they are presented with two possible ways to find the information: organic search or paid (PPC) search. You'll see both of these options in your Acquisition reports.
If you were to input "coffee shop" into a search engine like Google, they will return website options that closely mirror what you're seeking.
This source is called "organic" because it's natural; it hasn't been paid for, so the results are not biased towards brands with a higher ad budget. Certainly, marketers have ways to influence it - this is the entire concept of search engine optimization (SEO)! (Feel free to learn some of our SEO tips.)
Marketers and businesses write helpful and informative, keyword-driven content that helps search engines return their website when a user is searching for a matching business or product.
Within the returned search listings, you'll likely see ads toward the top or bottom of the page, or in the right sidebar.
These ads, known as pay-per-click (PPC) campaigns are captured under Paid Search traffic. Their ads are placed in distinct sections around the "organic" results and can take on a variety of format. Visit our Google Analytics Guide for more information on how to interpret Channel Reports and traffic sources.
Referring Traffic in Google Analytics
You're new in town, and are craving a latte, but haven't seen any local Starbucks. You ask a friend for help. Turns out, there's one close by, just one street over from your normal commute. You stop by and enjoy that latte on your way home.
Google's final category, "Referring Sites" refers to traffic that came from another website. These "other websites" could be: partner websites, blogs, Yelp, and more.
For example, if the coffee shop was written up by the local magazine, and you click the magazine article to get to the coffee shop website, then you landed via "referral" traffic.
Clicking on the "Referrals" link in your traffic sources overview will show you every site that's sent a visitor in your selected timeframe. You might also use these "Referring Sites" to see if there are any blogs or websites out there that you'd like to partner with - after all, they're already doing half of the work of directing traffic to your site!
Measure Traffic to Improve Marketing Success
By measuring the channels driving traffic to your website, you can finetune your marketing strategy, reduce budget, and improve success.