Practical Ecommerce

Understanding ‘Traffic Sources’ in Google Analytics

The Google Analytics “Traffic Sources” section can help ecommerce marketers understand how well campaigns are working and how better to invest in site content, advertising, or other forms of engagement.

Google Analytics is a free service that uses cookies — which we explain in “Cookies Make Shoppers Feel Welcome” — to monitor how visitors are interacting with a particular site. The Traffic Sources overview and its various sub-menu items describe how visitors are getting to your site.

3 Basic Traffic Mediums

The Google Analytics Traffic Sources section categorizes your site traffic as “direct” traffic, “referring” traffic, or “search engine” traffic.

The Traffic Sources report places each visit in one of three mediums.

The Traffic Sources report places each visit in one of three mediums.

  • Direct traffic. Direct traffic represents those visitors that arrive directly and immediate on your site by: (1) typing your URL into the browser’s address bar; (2) clicking on a bookmark; or (3) clicking on a link in an email, SMS, or chat message. Direct traffic is a strong indicator of your brand strength and your success in email or text message marketing. Direct traffic can also be an indicator of offline marketing success. We offer our views on the benefits of direct traffic at “Direct Traffic is Better than Google Traffic.”

  • Referring traffic. Referring site traffic, which is sometimes called referrer traffic or referral traffic, counts those visitors that click a link on another site and land on your site. Referral traffic can be indicative of social media marketing success.

  • Search engine traffic. Search engine traffic is that traffic that comes from visitors clicking on links on a search results page for any search engine — whether Google, Bing, Yahoo!, Blekko, or similar. This traffic source is divided into organic or non-paid search engine traffic — meaning that the visitor clicked on a so-called natural search result — and CPC or paid search engine traffic, which is the traffic you purchase (via pay-per-click ads_ from search engines. Search engine traffic usually indicates that you have good or at least reasonably good content. It also can mean that you have chosen a good software platform. Be sure to learn which keywords are driving this traffic. Multi-channel merchants, as an example, may find that their brand name is a key search term. When this is the case, offline marketing is usually the real traffic driver.

In the default table for the Traffic Sources report Google Analytics shows a source followed by its medium.

In the default table for the Traffic Sources report Google Analytics shows a source followed by its medium.

Selecting “All Traffic Sources” from Google Analytics left-side navigation will show you a table listing the most active traffic sources and their medium. Direct traffic, as you would expect, has a medium of “none.” Traffic from Facebook, as an example, will have a medium of “referral.” Search engine traffic will have a medium or “organic” or “CPC” as described above.

Sometimes you will see a search engine domain, like Google.com, with the medium “referral.” This indicates that the site sent you traffic from a page other than a search engine results page. This could be a link from a Google+ account or some other Google service.

Interpreting the Traffic Sources Report

Of course, data — not interpreted and analyzed — will be unable to inform your marketing planning or investment. So take the excellent information found in the Traffic Sources section and discern what it says about a website and that site’s marketing.

Put another way, looking only at the sources that drove the most traffic will not tell you anything about why visitors are coming or whether the site is meeting expectations or making sales. Rather, you need to look at traffic sources in context in order to properly interpret them.

Using Bounce Rate with Traffic Sources

Start by navigating to the “All Traffic Sources” sub-menu. Notice the site’s “bounce rate” for the selected time period.

Bounce rate is a good indicator of visitor engagement on ecommerce sites.

Bounce rate is a good indicator of visitor engagement on ecommerce sites.

The bounce rate measures the percentage of site traffic that resulted in a single page visit. A visitor landed on the site and left without clicking to any other page. Comparing a source’s bounce rate to other sources and the site average can be a good indicator of a source’s compatibility, and it will help with some marketing campaigns.

To see this in your Traffic Sources section, switch your analytics view from “table” to “comparison” by selecting the comparison icon on the right side of the page.

The comparison views shows how individual sources perform relative to the site average.

The comparison views shows how individual sources perform relative to the site average.

Set the “compared to site average” drop down to “Bounce” so that a source’s visits and bounce rates are compared to the site average for bounce rate.

Compare site visitors to the site average for bounces.

Compare site visitors to the site average for bounces.

In the example below, Google’s organic results generated the most site traffic for the time period shown, but had a bounce rate that was greater than the site average. By contrast direct traffic generated fewer visits, but had a lower than average bounce rate. A page from another website, generated 5,946 visits but had a bounce rate 22.62 percent less than the site average.

Search engine traffic will often have a higher bounce rate than direct traffic.

Search engine traffic will often have a higher bounce rate than direct traffic.

So what does this mean? “Bounce rate” can be thought of as a measure of engagement. If visitors are moving around your site, they are engaged. If they are bouncing, they cannot think of a good reason to stay. There is one notable exception to this: Blogs, videos, and news sites often have higher bounce rates because a visitor reads a particular article or watches a video and then leaves. For an ecommerce site, however, you would like to see relative low bounce rates. Sources that bounce a lot are probably not providing quality traffic.

You can apply this to marketing in a few ways. If, for example, you purchase paid search advertising, you’ll want to make sure those “CPC” sources have generally low bounce rates. If a pay-per-click or cost-per-click campaign has a high bounce rate (1) check your landing page to make sure that it provides the content promised in your ad, (2) check your ad copy to ensure it is clear, and (3) check your keywords.

Bottom line, if a source has a high bounce rate, the site is probably not relevant to what the visitor clicked on.

Use Average Time on Site with Traffic Sources

Another good metric to follow in the Traffic Sources section is the “average time on site” compared to visits comparison view. This report can be found under “All Traffic Sources,” in the comparison view. In fact, this is the same place as I directed you to go for bounces, only select “Avg. Time on Site” from the drop down menu.

Switch the drop down menu to "Avg. Time on Site" for another way to measure visitor engagement.

Switch the drop down menu to "Avg. Time on Site" for another way to measure visitor engagement.

Google measures average time on site by first collecting each visitor’s exact time on a particular page. Imagine that a visitor lands on page 1 of your site. Google places a cookie, including a unique code for the visitor and a time stamp. When that visitor clicks through to page 2 of your site, Google again notes the time, and then subtracts the time that the visitor arrived at page 2 from the time that the visitor arrived at page 1. Google then averages each and every page’s time spent to get the average time each visitor spends on the site.

It is worth noting that a visitor must click to at least one additional page for Google to capture the time spent. When a visitor bounces, Google does not include the bounced page in this calculation.

A source's performance relative to the average time on site can be a key indicator for marketing programs.

A source’s performance relative to the average time on site can be a key indicator for marketing programs.

In the example above, Google organic results drove the most total traffic for the time period in view. But the Google organic traffic source forwarded visitors that spent an average of 31.39 less time on the site than the average. Visitors coming directly to the site, by contrast, spent 51.31 percent more time on site than average.

With average time on site, it is worth taking the analysis a step deeper. Try (1) clicking on one of the individual traffic sources, (2) selecting the comparison view, and (3) setting the dimension to “keyword.”

Dimensions can be found in a drop down menu at the top left of the comparison view and serve to further refine the Traffic Sources section.]

Dimensions can be found in a drop down menu at the top left of the comparison view and serve to further refine the Traffic Sources section.]

This section is particularly helpful when looking at organic results from search engines, since it will let you know which search queries resulted in engaged traffic. Below is another example from a site that focuses on electronic components. Overall, the Google organic source was well behind the site average, but some specific search queries were actually performing better than average.

Digging deeper into the Traffic Sources section can provide specific and actionable data.

Digging deeper into the Traffic Sources section can provide specific and actionable data.

For marketing, try to monitor the traffic sources that provide visitors who spend the most time on site. For example, if you notice that Twitter is sending visitors that spend a few minutes on each page, it would be worth investigating the site’s Twitter presence.

Summing Up

The Google Analytics Traffic Sources section monitors which sources are sending traffic to a site and — with a bit of interpretation — this data can be used to measure the quality of traffic being sent.

Armed with this information, ecommerce marketers can learn why some sources might be underperforming or focus efforts on sources that drive better quality traffic. In some cases, this might mean relying less on search engines and more on social media or brand awareness. Other times the opposite could be the best course of action. Either way, the Traffic Sources section in Google Analytics can help.

Armando Roggio

Armando Roggio

Bio   •   RSS Feed


email-news-env

Sign up for our email newsletter

  1. Alissaw July 30, 2011 Reply

    I enjoyed this article. The bounce rate now makes sense.

  2. Jeff Oster August 9, 2011 Reply

    Thanks for getting me to dig into GA. I must of sat here for an hour reading your article and digging into Traffic Sources.

    Jeff
    Myfootshop.com

  3. Tomer Tishgarten January 6, 2012 Reply

    Great tutorial. After applying this new knowledge to researching my blog’s traffic, I found that I needed to filter out non-US traffic. I created a user segment to do it. You may want to create a post on this topic and link it to this post since they go hand-in-hand .

  4. arishvol May 17, 2012 Reply

    Very nice facts, When a user clicks a link in any kind of non-browser client, from Outlook to a desktop AIR app to the countless mobile and tablet apps, no referrer information is passed for that visit and your analytics software basically throws up its hands and puts the visit in the Direct Traffic bucket.

    http://www.inspacetech.com/

  5. Amanda Thogmartin Helber June 12, 2012 Reply

    Wonderful article. I hope to fix my bounce rate with this info!

    Wondering if you could tell me why I am seeing traffic sources from sites that I have never heard of that I do not advertise with? How are they being referred to my site if there is no link from my site to theirs?

    http://designbrandprint.com

  6. Manish Sharma December 20, 2012 Reply

    i am Running Paid campaign in facebook and posting in facebook page… I am little bit confuse in referral Traffic in GA for facebook … the traffic coming from Organic or from paid ads … How i can analyze this

  7. David January 3, 2013 Reply

    Nice article. I run a golf themed ecommerce website, and have clearly not made enough use of the comparison view in analytics. I appreciate the way this article was written, i.e. very easy to follow for the technically non-trained person to understand. I signed up as a member based on my good experience here.

    David
    http://www.BeaverGolf.com

  8. Alex Kravchenko May 22, 2013 Reply

    "Google Analytics is a free service that uses cookies — which we explain in "Cookies Make Shoppers Feel Welcome" — to monitor how visitors are interacting with a particular site." – that’s incorrect. Google Analytics uses cookies to identify a visit. Page Tags and master JS file then monitor who a visitor interacts with a site.

  9. Alex Kravchenko May 22, 2013 Reply

    "or (3) clicking on a link in an email, SMS, or chat message." – wrong. That’s not direct medium. That’s a custom medium you create for this type of a campaign.

  10. Alex Kravchenko May 22, 2013 Reply

    "Search engine traffic usually indicates that you have good or at least reasonably good content." – there are many definitions of "good". Often times, traffic that is good for search engines is not that good for people who read the page. Yes, SE are doing their best to give top spots to pages with quality content, but many times all you need to get a top spot is write a piece with a few good keywords in it, and build a couple of decent links (or buy them). You sure will have traffic from search engines. But that does not serve as the indicator that your content is good. You created that traffic artificially.

  11. Alex Kravchenko May 22, 2013 Reply

    "The bounce rate measures the percentage of site traffic that resulted in a single page visit. A visitor landed on the site and left without clicking to any other page. Comparing a source’s bounce rate to other sources and the site average can be a good indicator of a source’s compatibility, and it will help with some marketing campaigns." – standard bounce rate, the one provided by GA is not good enough. A person comes to a page on your site, stays there a couple of minutes reading through that page, and then leaves. That person could have found what he was looking for. And the page is not that long, so it might not need more than 2 minutes to read through it. That should not be considered as bad user experience, or landing page not matching user query. Not at all.

  12. Alex Kravchenko May 22, 2013 Reply

    "So what does this mean? "Bounce rate" can be thought of as a measure of engagement. If visitors are moving around your site, they are engaged." – or they found what they were looking for on that specific page, and it makes no more sense clicking around.

  13. Oscar May 5, 2015 Reply

    Thanks for your explanation ! Very useful.

  14. Rachael May 18, 2015 Reply

    Thank you so much for this article! I am so new to all of this, and this help me understand so much more.

    Rachael!
    nocturnalbee.com

  15. ady May 25, 2015 Reply

    Hi,

    It was very informative. thanks a lot.

  16. Caitlin December 21, 2016 Reply

    Thank you so much for this! I appreciate you taking the time to write this, it really helped!

  17. Mila Kunis April 29, 2017 Reply

    This is very informative article. After reading this i have clear many concepts for increase my traffic and i have applied it is working. So Thank you so much for this ultimate article.

  18. Derek Everage September 3, 2017 Reply

    This info was very helpful, but please remember that this Tech info is very difficult for us newbies to understand so please keep it as simple as possible, otherwise ( Good Job !!)

    Thank You.