Understanding Your Traffic Sources, Part 5: Conclusion

December 17th, 2013 by Josh

For the final installment of our series on Understanding Your Traffic Sources, I wanted to go over some best practices for managing referral traffic and identify a few places where you can use Chartbeat data to support your decision-making.

But first, let's sum up the data that we've seen over the past few weeks. The graphic below shows what sort of browsing behaviors are indicative of visitors coming back to your site, based on many sites' most common traffic sources.

At one extreme, we have visitors who come to your site homepage direct and are always likely to return. At the other, those who come via Google News are unlikely to return, regardless of how they read. In the middle, though, we have an interesting split:

  • Visitors who come from Facebook are likely to read most of the article they land on, but those who click to a second article are much more likely to return

  • Visitors from Twitter and Google search, on the other hand, consuming the entire article they land on is the best indicator of a likelihood of returning

Traffic from other, smaller sources tends to behave much like Google News or Twitter traffic in this graphic. Now that we have a sense of how different kinds of referral traffic behaves, I’ll dive into right into what actions you can take with this data.

Where, and how, to concentrate your efforts

One of the starkest data points we've come across is how much more likely a person is to return to a site via the referrer they come from versus all other referrers combined. Those who come from Facebook are likely to return only via Facebook, those who come from Google News are likely to return only via Google News, and so on. In that sense, the most important thing you can do to grow audience from a given referrer is maintain a steady stream of links from that referrer.

Given that, you should ask two questions. First, what sources should we concentrate on building traffic from? Second, what can we do to build that traffic?

The best way to decide the former, if you're a Chartbeat Publishing client, is to take a look at the "return rate" and "return direct rate" columns of your Weekly Perspectives. Those columns express, in essence, the value of links from different referrers — those with higher return rates send traffic that's more likely to return to your site.

If you don't have access to Chartbeat Publishing, the general trend that we've seen is that, unsurprisingly, visitors from social sources have the highest likelihood of returning, while sources like Google News, Reddit, and Outbrain are likely to increase your site's reach by sending new visitors, but are unlikely to meaningfully help you grow your audience in a self-sustaining way.

The second question, of course, is much harder to answer in broad terms. Taking each traffic source one-by-one, though:
  • Twitter: One thing we've seen many times is that people don't promote posts nearly as often on Twitter as they should. Most sites see the majority of their Twitter traffic coming from their own tweets, and the lifetime of a tweet is incredibly short. Tweeting headlines is rarely the right choice.

  • Facebook: Facebook traffic typically comes from organic sharing, which means it's harder to predict and control. One thing you can control is Facebook's preview text, and it's hugely important. If you don't know what text is showing up on Facebook's previews, you need to figure it out.

  • In-network sites: If your site is part of a network, working to maintain links from your sister sites is critical. It’s not uncommon to see return rates over 50% (about twice as high as for typical referrers) for in-network traffic, which is a function both of similarity of audience and of the regularity of links. Fostering these types of link partnerships is one of the best ways to sustainably build audience.

  • Google: First off, it’s critical to separate “branded” search (searches for your domain name or URL) from truly organic search and Google News. Branded search should be thought of as akin to direct traffic. Optimization for organic search is a huge topics unto itself and probably beyond the scope of this post.

A caveat for paywall sites

One place where sites often miss out is with paywalls that are porous for traffic from external referrers, only presenting a prompt to subscribe on later pages. Under that scheme, a visitor, for instance, who always comes from Twitter and only read the article she lands on will never even be asked to subscribe. We've seen some publishers move toward differentiated paywalls for exactly this reason -- traffic from some referrers is immediately asked to log in while visitors from others are allowed to read an article or two for free.

If that fine-grained control isn't in the cards, your goal should always be to get visitors to read through to a second article. Looking at "subsequent time" in your Weekly Perspectives should give you some idea of which referrers send visitors that are likely to click to a second page -- concentrating on getting traffic from these referrers makes sense. And, understanding where people are leaving each article will give you a clue into where you should be placing link suggestions. Great related links at the top of an article aren't in view for visitors who read the whole page, and great links at the bottom of an article don't matter to those who never scroll down to see them.

Wrapping up

We've hardly scratched the surface of what can be said about traffic sources. Much of the most exciting data is easiest to find under the hood of your dashboard – the data that's specific to your site, not the internet as a whole. We're working on putting out several case studies that look in detail at traffic for a few sites, which we'll be sure to let you know about here once they go live.

In the meantime, thanks for reading, and if I can leave you with one message it's this: experiment!

What we've presented over the past five articles are broad statistics about traffic across the internet, but we regularly see sites that wildly depart from the average. If you see a return rate of 10% from a given referrer, take that as a challenge and try getting traffic to a different set of links from that referrer and see if you can push next week's rate to 11%.

Let me know your questions or what you're seeing in your data in the comments here or by tweeting at @joshuadschwartz; I'll be sure to come back to your site if you get in touch.