What a multi-year analysis of traffic sources, device type, and loyalty tells us about the year ahead

Understanding your readers starts with understanding how they discover your content. Before testing a headline or repositioning an article or finding another strategy to entice them to come back another day, you should know where they’re coming from and what they’re expecting to find.

In our last blog, we analyzed engagement trends from the last three years to uncover opportunities for building a stronger connection with your audience. In this analysis of the same period, we’re taking a step back to pull insights from the traffic sources used to discover content, the types of devices involved, and the differences in behavior from new, returning, and loyal visitors.  

When we understand how different segments of visitors arrive at the same piece of content, we’re able to draw more accurate throughlines from discovery to loyalty and make better predictions about the future.

Performance by traffic source over the last three years

For the purposes of this analysis, we’ll look at five major sources of traffic – Internal, Search, Social, Direct, and External – and the proportion of total traffic that they accounted for during this period. The first thing to note is that Internal traffic, or traffic that is already on site and recirculating to additional pages, was by far the largest source of traffic during all three years, accounting for about 41% of total traffic

Proportion of Traffic by Source 2019-2021

When we look at traffic that’s coming from outside a given site, Search is the largest referrer at 19.3% of total traffic, and it also grew much faster than any other source from 2019 to 2021. Social and Direct traffic remained relatively stable, especially in 2021. 

When we talk about External as a category independent of Social and Search, we use it to bucket any source of traffic that doesn’t fall neatly into one of the other four categories. An example from this category is a news aggregator like Google News. Altogether, this category accounts for around 10% of traffic.


Related: What a multi-year analysis of traffic tells us about the year ahead


Engagement by traffic source

When we look at engagement by traffic source, it’s a different picture. Search dominated this field with an Average Engaged Time of 41 seconds and a 36% increase in pageviews since 2019. Internal and Direct dropped to the bottom with meager gains in pageviews while External traffic saw a 14% increase.

Pageview Growth since 2019 and Engaged Time

When comparing external sources of traffic (Search, Social, External) with those recirculating internally or going directly to a site, readers coming from other sites had a higher Average Engaged Time. This isn’t surprising when we stop to consider how readers typically use Search and Social for content discovery. Typing in a search query, for example, is a good indicator that a reader is invested in the topic and that they’ll be engaged with the resulting content. 

Though Internal and Direct visitors lag behind in Average Engaged Time, it’s worth noting that these visitors typically load more pages per visit, and Direct readers also visit more often. In a given week, they will visit the same site about 6 times while those who come via Search or Social only do so once. This frequency and depth of visit indicates that Internal and Direct traffic is more likely to be composed of loyal readers, and ultimately more valuable than other sources.

A closer look at Search and Social

Since the peak of COVID-19 coverage in 2020, Search and Social have shown similar monthly traffic patterns, but Search has been growing at a much faster pace. Within Search, Google is responsible for much of the growth, increasing by about 3.5% in 2021, and easily outpacing Facebook.

Traffic from Google and Facebook

Across all three years, both Google and Facebook saw traffic increases (particularly in 2020), but average monthly pageviews from Google increased 51% while Facebook only saw a 21% increase. In addition to the difference in traffic, visitors from Google were also more engaged. In 2021, visitors from Google recorded an Average Engaged Time of 41.7 seconds while visitors from Facebook only engaged with content for 34.9 seconds (a decline from 39.7 seconds in 2019).

Behavior by device

As we’ve noted in our quarterly audience insights, mobile adoption has been growing steadily as a percentage of total traffic for years. This indicates a long-term, organic device shift, and if you’re not already optimizing for mobile visitors, it’s past time to personalize the reader journey for around 70% of the visitors you’ll see in 2022.

Monthly Mobile Pageviews by Region

When we analyzed monthly mobile pageviews during this period, we observed different growth patterns by region. From 2019-2021, Europe, Middle East, and Africa saw the most overall growth with a gain of 33%, and North America saw the least growth at 27%. We expect to see continued mobile adoption across the world in 2022.

Traffic by loyalty 

In addition to analyzing referral sources and device types, another way to examine traffic during this period is by type of visitor and frequency of visit. At Chartbeat, we segment visitors into three categories – new, returning, and loyal. New visitors are readers who are visiting a site for the first time in 30 days. Returning visitors are readers who have visited the same site more than once in the past 30 days, but less frequently than every other day. Loyal visitors are readers who have visited a site at least 8 of the last 16 days.

Percentage of Monthly Pageviews by Loyalty

Starting in the second half of 2020, loyal traffic has been rising steadily as a proportion of overall traffic, and from 2019-2021, loyal readers, though smaller in actual number, contributed the highest percentage of traffic at around 40%

By region, we also saw year over year increases in the percentage of traffic from Loyal readers. In North America, the percentage of pageviews from new readers grew, and this was observed for sites regardless of size. In Asia / Pacific and Latin America, we saw a slight rise in the percentage of pageviews from Loyal readers and a corresponding decline in pageviews from returning readers, signaling a shift towards greater loyalty. 

Key takeaways from the research

1. Readers from external sources of traffic (Search, Social, External) have a higher Average Engaged Time than Direct or Internal, but the latter group views more pages per visit.

2. Search, in particular, is an important audience to optimize for this year as it’s grown 36% since 2019.

3. Mobile readership has been steadily increasing since 2013, and even with more people working from home in 2020 and 2021, this trend shows no indication of changing.

4. An increase in pageviews from loyal readers, as well as a decline in pageviews from returning visitors, points to a trend of greater loyalty.

5. Reflecting the nuances of different traffic sources in engagement strategies will help move all types of visitors toward loyalty.

Start measuring your traffic from discovery to loyalty  — request a demo of our analytics and optimization tools today.

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