This marks the fourth part in our ongoing series on traffic sources. If you haven’t already read them, check out the introduction and my analyses of direct traffic and traffic from social media.
Today, we’re going to be talking about traffic from external links — those unpredictable pickups from sites across the internet. Unsurprisingly, external referrers provides sites’ greatest volume of new visitors. They also provide sites’ greatest challenge in terms of generating actual engagement.
Types of external traffic
Broadly, we can divide external referrals into two camps: huge aggregators that send large volumes of traffic and incidental links from across the web. Let’s go through each in turn.
In any discussion of external traffic sources, Google News deserves its own special treatment. As opposed to the majority of traffic sources, where links are human-curated, Google News pickups are algorithmically generated. That means that while most sites can probably only expect a few pickups from major referrers on a given day, many sites have hundreds of articles linked on Google News — over the last two weeks alone, over 616,000 distinct pages across our network received traffic from Google News.
Because of its volume of links, Google News is a significant and consistent driver of traffic — you’re not going to get new pickups from most sites every day, but you can reasonably expect to get daily links from Google News. On the other hand, while a pickup from many external sites might presage a cascade of links from across the web, Google News pickups are not necessarily predictive of broader trends.
People who read Google News tend to do so frequently, which means that visitors from Google News come back substantially more frequently than average. On a typical site, over a quarter of visitors from Google News return in the next week. Very few of those Google News visitors who do return, though, come back to a site directly — fewer than 15%. That means that to attract these users back you have to concentrate on receiving a regular supply of links from Google News.
Perhaps the best example of a non-automated site that sends massive amounts of traffic is Drudge Report. Just over 2000 pages had traffic from Drudge over the past two weeks, though the total volume of traffic sent was roughly comparable to that of Google News. Visitors from Drudge rarely read more than one page in their visit and are exceptionally unlikely to return to a site — fewer than 15% of Drudge visitors to a typical site return, and fewer than 15% of returners come back directly. Drudge is perhaps the most significant example, but we see similar behavior across most aggregators. Indeed, large social sites like Reddit send traffic that’s typically even less likely to return to your site than that from Drudge.
Beyond the largest sources of external traffic, there’s a long tail containing all of the incidental links that occur. These links have such huge variation in traffic quality that it’s difficult to sum them up. The best guiding principle we see is that, unsurprisingly, visitors from similarly-oriented websites are dramatically more likely to engage with your site and return than those who come from sites unrelated to your own. Visitors on a left-leaning political site, for example, can be twice as likely to return when coming from another left-leaning site as opposed to a right-leaning one. That means it’s always important to consider external traffic spikes in context — a pickup from a referrer that’s likely to send high quality traffic might be worth doubling down on, whereas a pickup from an unrelated site might be best treated as a less significant event.
Concerns for external traffic
We’ve consistently seen that people who come from external sources are: (1) very likely to be new to your site and (2) unlikely to return and extremely unlikely to return except via links from the same referrer.
That means that you should interpret an external pickup very differently than a pickup on social or a page that’s getting its traffic from the homepage. To get visitors from Twitter, for instance, to return you might push them to follow you on Twitter, but no such mechanism exists for external traffic. External links typically denote interest a topic, as opposed to interest in your site in general. To that end, stories garnering the most external traffic should be thought of as inspirations for follow-up pieces. The rare external site with a high return rate should be thought of as a top candidate for a link partnership.
Of course, external sources’ extremely low return rates can also be taken as a challenge: if 3% of visitors from Drudge come back to your site and you can push that number to 5%, you could see dramatic growth in your audience. Compared to pushing Facebook traffic’s return rate up from 30%, that challenge might be relatively easy.
Over the past four pieces we’ve given a numerical breakdown of what traffic from each major source looks like. In our next, final piece, we’ll go over some major strategies that publishers are using to increase the traffic that comes in the door and strategies they’re using for audience retention. Stay tuned!