What does Referral Mean?
Referral – A medium denoted in Google Analytics that represents a website visit that came from another website (as opposed to coming from a Google search, for example). When users click on a link to another, external webpage, they are said to have been “referred” there.
What Referral Reports Measure
To view referrals, go to Acquisition > All Traffic > Referrals. Once here, you’ll see a list of the sites that referred traffic to your site, sorted by Session volume. You can see metrics for the volume of traffic, engagement, and conversion performance.
In evaluating referrals, you’ll want to look at not only how much total traffic (Sessions and New Users) other sites are driving but also how effectively that traffic is adding to engagement on-site. Evaluate Pages/Session and Avg. Session Duration to see how long users are spending on the site and how much content they’re viewing.
The conversion data to measure how well these sites are contributing to your business goals.
What You Can Learn from Referral Reports
Referral reports can provide a wealth of information about how your online strategies are driving traffic to your site. You can also identify problem areas in how you’re tracking data.
Measuring Social Media Traffic
Google Analytics Social reports offer the best way to aggregate metrics from social media platforms, social traffic should also show up in the Referral report. Here, you can easily compare the performance of social sites with that of other sites.
For example, you’ll be able to tell if a local directory listing you obtained once is sending more actual traffic than a Twitter account that requires hours of attention every day (this may also be a commentary on your social media engagement strategy, but that’s for another post).
You can also see that traffic from the same platform may show up multiple times with slightly different URLs. For instance, in the example we showed, both facebook.com and l.facebook.com appear. The l.facebook.com URL indicates traffic via a link shim, a redirect that involves checking the destination URL’s security. You may also see m.facebook.com, indicating traffic from the mobile version of Facebook’s site. In short, be aware that facebook.com referrals alone don’t show the whole picture of traffic from Facebook.
Evaluating Your Business Listing Sites
Referral reports can show you how well listings from local directories or business partnerships are contributing to site traffic and conversions.
This data can help evaluate which business partnerships are the most useful in terms of sending truly interested visitors. Conversely, it can also show where paid listings are not providing ROI or are sending unqualified traffic.
Identifying Spam Traffic
Despite Google Analytics’ usefulness, spam referrals have become a rampant problem, delivering hundreds of fake Sessions and skewing data across reports. The referral report can help you flag these invalid visits to your site, so you can improve your data and ensure you’re viewing the most accurate information possible.
Pinpointing Organic Search Traffic in Referral Reports
While you’ll see most of the organic search traffic in the Source/Medium report as google/organic, some organic traffic will end up falling into the referral report. For instance, see bing.com in our example report. With Bing’s move to search encryption, a portion of Bing search traffic ends up as a bing.com referral vs. a Bing/organic visit. You’ll also see some lower-volume search engines like DuckDuckGo show up here.
You may also see google.com in your referral reports at times. While you may think this represents Google’s organic traffic, it generally indicates traffic from other properties on Google outside of search. For instance, links in forum posts in Google Groups will result in traffic from the google.com domain.
This can help you get a more complete picture of your organic search presence beyond Google. It is also useful if you’ve been expending energy interacting in Google’s forums or other sites. Traffic from other Google sites will not show up as organic search traffic, but rather in the referral reports under the domain google.com.
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