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Want to know more about traffic sources how they can help you understand your audience’s behavior? Download our guide.

Over the past year, we’ve published extensive research on how to use data to understand and build your audience — everything from the effects of Engaged Time to scrolling behaviors and traffic sources driving traffic to the sites in our network. All of the data in those pieces are combined from a set of customers who allow us to use their data in anonymous, aggregated form. Looking at statistics aggregated from across a wide swath of sites is interesting because it lets us identify network-wide facts.

But, subtle patterns often get averaged out, so it’s hard to tell a nuanced story using aggregated data. Today, in partnership with New York Magazine and Rick Edmonds and Sam Kirkland of Poynter, we’re excited to present something different: a deep look into the data for one site, New York Magazine’s, about what factors drive visitor loyalty. (A quick note: This data is presented with the consent of New York Magazine and Chartbeat never shares customer-specific data.)

If you’re going to read one piece, I’d highly encourage you to click over and read  the Poynter team’s piece, which contains much of the data given below, as well as extensive feedback from the Vulture team. But, we also wanted to present our own take on the data, which you’ll find below. Our goal is less to provide answers than to get you thinking about what questions you might ask of your own site.


How We Define “Loyalty” and Why It’s Important to Measure

Before we can look at how visitors become loyal to a site, the first thing to do is define loyalty. Informally, by “loyal” we mean something like “a person who is highly likely to continue to return to the site across time.” For instance, a person might be loyal to the site of their daily newspaper. One way of getting toward a specific definition using the data is by asking how many times a person must visit before we’re nearly certain they’ll continue to return. In the figure above, we plot the probability that a person will return to, given the number of times they’ve already been to the site.

There are perhaps three things worth noting on this plot:

  1. Visitors who have come once so far in a month are just over 20% likely to return.

  2. That rate of return climbs rapidly until we reach visitors who have visited five or six times. Once a person has come five or six times in a month, we can be highly confident that they’ll continue to return.

  3. The downward slope on the right side of the graph is a windowing effect because we’re looking at one month of data: people are unlikely to come every single day in a month, so once a visitor has come more than about 22 times their probability of returning more times begins to decrease.

Based on this, a reasonable definition of a “loyal” visitor is one who visits at least five times in a month — after a person has come five times, we have a strong belief that they’ll continue to come back.

The Relationship Between Time of Day and Return Rate

After asking if visitors returned to the site, the next question was when visitors returned. One of the most striking data points we found was that visitors are far more likely to return at the same time of day as that of their initial visit — those who first visit the site today at noon are most likely to come back to the site tomorrow at noon, and so on. While that pattern is significant throughout the day, for Vulture it’s substantially stronger for visitors who come in the afternoon and evening, as demonstrated in the figure below.


In this figure, we’re comparing two sets of visitors: those who first arrive on a Wednesday between 10:00 a.m. and 10:59 a.m. and those who arrive on the same day, but between 6:00 p.m. and 6:59 p.m. The red lines show what hours of the day the 10 a.m. visitors return to the site throughout the rest of the month, and the blue lines represent the same statistics for the 6 p.m. visitors. For both audiences, the vast majority of time spent on other days of the week is at the same time of day — for instance, the 10 a.m. audience is most likely to return on Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday at about 10 a.m. What’s striking, though, is that the 6 p.m. audience spends dramatically more time on site throughout the week when compared to the 10 a.m. crowd. It’s worth noting that, though we’re showing traffic from Wednesday morning and evening, the basic pattern holds for those who arrive at other hours on other days.

One theory might be that this variation is caused by a difference in topics consume — perhaps, for instance, readers are engaging with Vulture’s TV coverage during the afternoon and evening. Interestingly, we saw no evidence that this is the case: the breakdown of traffic by topic is roughly constant throughout the day. On the other hand, this variation in return times lines up extraordinarily well with device usage. In the early daytime, when traffic is less likely to return, upwards of 40% of traffic is mobile. In the evening, when traffic is much more predictable and more likely to return, mobile falls to only 22% of overall traffic.

This data raises more questions than it answers: What can be done to get the morning audience to come back more frequently? How can editors take advantage of the daily patterns of their evening readers? Answering those questions is out of the scope of this article, but the upshot here is that there is a hugely interesting opportunity in understanding behavior as it relates to time of day.

Improving Return Rates of New Visitors

Obviously, one key challenge for any publication is in getting new, incidental visitors to move down the funnel toward loyalty. We saw three factors that exhibited significant influence over a new visitor’s probability of returning: how they arrived at the site, the type of content they landed on, and how much time they spent reading.

Vulture’s top referrers are similar to what we see across the internet, as are their relative rates of return. Unsuprisingly, new visitors coming from its sister site are most likely to return (22%), followed those from Twitter (16%) and Buzzfeed (10%). Perhaps surprisingly, the length of an article proved to be a strong predictor of likelihood to return, as shown below.


Stepping through this graph from left to right:

  1. Visitors who land on the shortest articles are extremely unlikely to return, but their probability of return rapidly increases from there.

  2. Those who view the Vulture homepage, forming the first peak at about 3900 pixels, are substantially more likely to return than those who view average-length articles — this article, for example — which are 4000-4500 pixels high.

  3. However, those who visit longer articles — this article, for example — are substantially more likely to return.

We see similar trends when we look at the time that a visitor spends reading whatever page they land on.


Visitors who spend substantial time reading on the first page they land on are also much more likely to return to the site. Overall, this confirmed an editorial hunch the Vulture team had, that they were better off moving away from extremely short pieces of content.

But that’s the Vulture team specifically; shorter posts may work best for your site. We dove into this study with precisely because every site is different: the content is different, the people visiting are different, the goals and metrics are different. I hope you and your team will see this data as a starting point for everything you can be looking at and acting on. There’s a lot more richness to your site’s data than purely traffic numbers. If you need help getting started and knowing what to look for — Chartbeat or not — just send me an email at

Current estimates are that nearly 100 million viewers tuned in to watch Seattle’s 43-8 win against Denver last night. Of course, there’ll be many reports that dissect the ways we watched the game, but for us, one particular area of interest is the prevalence of multi-device viewing. The concept of the “second screen”—people consuming media on multiple devices simultaneously—gets a lot of discussion these days, and sports sites are perhaps the best study in second screens. Sports fans still consume the vast majority of games on TVs but, while watching, they might also scan stats, highlights, and commentary on their phones, tablets, and computers.

That’s why I found myself flipping back and forth last night between a livestream of the game, my Chartbeat Publishing Dashboard, and an Emacs window, trying to figure out how online traffic varied throughout the night. Whereas on a typical night it’s hard to collate real-world events with online behavior, last night’s game was different. Whether you were watching online or on television, the commercials and game events happened at the exact same moment, which gave us the opportunity to watch second-by-second shifts in web traffic.

One of the most interesting observations was how much online traffic fluctuated before and after commercial breaks. Across sports sites, we saw upticks of 5% to 15% in traffic just as the game went to a commercial break, and that traffic drained off just as quickly when the game resumed play. That trend was present across every commercial break during the game. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vast majority of those upticks were on mobile devices.

After watching that trend for the first half, I expected a similar increase in traffic during halftime. But, interestingly, halftime elicited exactly the opposite response; sports traffic dropped by 15% to 50% during the break, and the majority of that drop was on mobile.

Because it’s so difficult to know for certain that the same person is using multiple devices, most analyses of second-screen behavior have measured device usage via surveys. In this case, though, because we saw behavior that was so tightly coupled to events taking place on TV screens, we can start to get a sense of the scale of multi-device usage across the web. And, with patterns in usage as strong as we saw, it’s clear that a large portion of people tuning in were actively engaged on second screens in response to game events.

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.


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.


chartbeat external traffic quote

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.

external site external traffic chartbeat

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.

Next time

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!

This post is part three in our ongoing series on traffic sources. In part one, I talked about how we classify traffic and introduced some basic metrics for understanding the quality of traffic; in part two, we dove into some details on direct traffic. Today, I’ll talk about traffic from social sharing.

Overall, about 26% of traffic we measure comes from social sources — Facebook, Twitter, and email, for example — making social the second most significant source of traffic, next to direct. In some sense, social traffic and direct traffic represent polar opposites: Visitors who arrive via your homepage are, critically, people who intended to visit your site specifically rather than a particular piece of content. Those who come from social sources may or may not know what site they’re landing on, they’re coming because of an article that’s been recommended to them. That’s a double edged sword. On the one hand, social visitors are more likely than other visitors to actually read the pages they land on; on the other, they’re also amongst the least likely to return to your site, and when they do they’re very likely to only come via the same social channel.

Social is also categorically different than other sources of traffic because it’s the only channel that’s easily influenced — while converting visitors to come directly to your homepage is an art and affecting search engine placement leaves much to chance, we can actively choose which articles we put on social media and when to provide those links.


Before we talk about evaluating social traffic, it’s worth discussing what sort of visitors come from social sites and how they read. First off, social sources are a better than average source of new visitors: while an average of 31% of a site’s traffic comes from new visitors (those who haven’t visited in the past 30 days), an average of 41% of social visitors are new.



Social traffic is also dramatically more mobile-based than all other traffic — an average of 25% of traffic is on mobile, but on many sites over 40% of social traffic is mobile. That should affect what stories you push to social media, and when you push them. We’ll cover both of those topics below.


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Social engagement versus on-site engagement

People frequently take social media interactions as the de facto standard for “engagement” with a piece. The idea is that people who share a piece are likely to have enjoyed it. While there’s some kernel of truth here, our data suggests that there’s more to the engagement story than raw counts of tweets and likes.

Take a look at the graph below, which was first presented in Slate:

This graph shows how fully people read an article (as measured by how far down the page they scrolled; all articles shown here were over 3000 pixels high), compared to how frequently they tweet about it. If the most engaging stories to read were the stories that were most likely to be shared, we’d expect this graph to look like a line. Instead, we see that there’s essentially no correlation between the two numbers. That doesn’t mean that social interactions are a bad way to measure engagement, but it does show that social engagement and on-site engagement are often different phenomena.

Timing of social posts

So, what makes for successful social content? There’s been much written about how to write successful social posts — most recently, I read a great study by Knight fellow Sonya Song and its more concise writeup on Nieman Lab. It’s beyond the scope of this post to tackle what content to put in your social posts, but one question we’re frequently asked is what time of day is best for social sharing. Below is a chart showing how social traffic compares to overall traffic across for a set of sites (all of which are based in EST) across the past week.


Unsurprisingly, the shape of social traffic closely follows that of overall traffic, but it’s notable that social traffic substantially underperforms overall traffic from about 5am to noon, and social substantially overperforms overall traffic from about 3pm until 1am. From the perspective of driving traffic to your site, it appears that late afternoon through night is the best time to reach your readers on social media and get them to click through to your site.


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Interestingly, this trend appears to be true despite people’s best efforts to the contrary. Below, we see a graph of how frequently these sites posted to Twitter, compared to their social traffic.



Posting to twitter is strong all morning and reaches its peak just before noon, even though traffic from social is actually its strongest later in the day.

Return frequency

While we’re discussing timing, it’s worth noting that visitors who come to a site from social sources do so an average of 1.5 times per week. Below we see the distribution of how many times a visitor comes from social sources across a week.


About 82% of visitors who come from social only come once, but there’s a long tail of people who come two or more times.

As mentioned above, almost 80% of visitors who come to your site from a social source will only come to your site via that source. That figure is particularly bad for visitors from Twitter, of which only about 16% will return to your site directly. These are fairly significant numbers to consider as you decide where to invest time and resources into developing your audience.



This post barely scratched the surface of what can be said about social media — entire companies exist to help optimize social strategy — but I hope it started you thinking about how social sharing relates to your site’s overall traffic. We’ll save further discussion of social traffic for a future post; in the meantime, stay tuned for the next post in our traffic sources series, where we’ll cover external and search traffic.

Questions? Throw them in the Comments section and I’ll respond.