Website Traffic Sources: 5 Ways to Increase Website Traffic

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Andy Crestodina
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Where there’s traffic, there’s hope.

Every visit is a chance for something good to happen, which is why traffic is the first goal of digital marketing. It’s also the website translation of traditional marketing’s “brand awareness” goal.

Generating traffic is a big part of the job, so let’s unpack it and take a look at where the visitors are coming from.

Traffic flows into websites from many sources: websites and apps, search engines and social networks, links and buttons, ad campaigns and word of mouth. We typically categorize these visitors into six big groups:

  • Search: visitors who discovered us through a search engine
  • Social: visitors who clicked on a link in social media
  • Paid: visitors to came from online ads
  • Email: visitors who clicked on a link in a newsletter
  • Referral: visitors who came from other websites
  • Direct: visitors who typed our web address directly into the browser

While some of these might be more important to you than others, it’s important to have diversity in your traffic sources, just like diversity in a financial portfolio. There are hidden risks in your marketing if a huge percentage of traffic comes from one source, or if you have no traffic at all coming from email marketing.

Note: Email is a key traffic source because it’s a direct connection with your audience. There isn’t a company, such as Google or Facebook, in between you and your potential visitors. You don’t own your social followers or search rankings, but you do own your email list.

Here’s how the traffic sources break down in Google Analytics. Assuming that marketing campaigns, such as advertising and email newsletters, are tracked separately, this is what the Acquisitions > All Traffic > Channels report should look like. To see the percentage view click on the pie chart.

If you switch to the data view, this report shows you the behavior metrics (pages per visit, average length of a visit) and the conversion metrics (the percentage of visitors who took action) for each source of traffic, providing powerful clues about each type of visitor.

Do they already know us? Are they looking for something specific? Are they likely to convert?

Here is a general idea about what traffic sources indicate about the context of the visitor:

But this is a very high-level view. Later, we’ll find it far more useful to look deeper into traffic from specific campaigns or to specific pages. Also, this report is a bit misleading and in some ways, inaccurate.

For example, you might think of search traffic as new people who found you out of the blue. But some of that traffic is from people who searched for your business name, so it includes visitors who are really what you’d think of as direct traffic.

Direct traffic is supposedly from visitors who typed your address into their browser, but it actually includes a lot of other things. Visitors who came from apps such as email programs and traffic from improperly tracked email campaigns.

Really, any visit that isn’t from a search engine, social network or referring website is lumped into direct traffic.

There are ways to minimize these issues, but Google Analytics will never be 100% accurate. And that’s ok. We only need it to be accurate enough to help us make good marketing decisions.

Oars, Sails and Motors

Let’s set aside direct and referral traffic for now and focus on the traffic sources that we directly impact through marketing activities: search, social, email and paid advertising. Here’s a fun little metaphor to help us understand their differences.

Imagine your website weighing anchor and pushing off from the dock, headed out to sea for a fishing trip. The farther you go, the more fish you’ll catch. So you want to go far, you want to go fast and you want to go without breaking your back or your bank account in the process.

You’ve got a few options: sail, row or fire up the motor.

 

1. Paid Advertising (The Motor)

Anyone can buy traffic. Social ads, pay per click and display ads are certainly one way to get the boat moving. Pick your platform, set a budget, create your ads, and you’ll start getting traffic the day after tomorrow.

It’s measurable and fast, but it’s expensive. You’ve got to buy gas, or the motor doesn’t run. And it’s temporary. Turn it off, and it stops as quickly as it started.

Advertising is fast and temporary. Content marketing is slow but durable.

I’ve heard many tales of captains running huge, expensive motors at full speed and not catching a single fish.

We’re focused on attracting visitors, rather than buying them. So let’s set aside paid advertising and put the motor away.

2. Search Engine Optimization (Sailing)

Search optimizers are somewhat subject to the whim of Google, just like sailors rely on the weather. But a little skill can take you a long way very efficiently. Here’s why: every page can catch traffic like a sail catches the wind.

Every great piece of content, if relevant to a popular topic and properly aligned with a keyphrase, can attract visitors for months or years. Unlike a boat, which has a physical limit to how many sails you can add, there’s no limit to the number of pages you can publish.

When effective, SEO becomes a durable, almost passive source of traffic. You’ll continue getting traffic with much less continued effort. You could stop marketing and continue to get tons of traffic!

But it can difficult to predict, and it’s often slow uncertain work. If this is your maiden voyage (new website, young domain) be patient. This might take a while.

3. Social Media and Email Marketing (Rowing)

Stroke! Stroke! Stroke!

Social media and email marketing are the activity-based drivers of traffic. They’re great because you have some direct control. Every time you pull those oars, you move ahead. But if you stop, you won’t coast for long. Soon you’ll be dead in the water.

But even with a consistent stroke, rowing isn’t always predictable. Sometimes you are going into the wind, and sometimes you row with it. It’s the same with email and social. They have different levels of consistency in terms of traffic generation.

Social is unpredictable…

Email is spikey but consistent over time…

Regardless of predictability, there are ways to get steady results, much like a rower gets results through practice and repetition. The Olympian-level social media and email marketers are consistent. They don’t send out one email blast a year or log onto Twitter a few times a month.

They’re also coordinated and organized. Publishing calendars and scheduling tools drive the process, showing what will be promoted and when. These strategies have to work in sync with your content schedule and your traditional marketing plans (not to mention standard business events like sales or product launches).

Email and social both require hard work and commitment, but they get easier. Eventually, you build your followings, subscribers and brand (and maybe some upper body strength).

4. Branding (Riding the Current)

There’s another way to move the ship forward: branding. Direct traffic comes from people typing your address right into the address bar. Searches for your brand don’t show up as direct traffic in Analytics, but it’s basically the same thing.

Any action that builds awareness will drive traffic and move you forward, like a current under the boat. You can help keep that current flowing by doing things offline: networking, advertising, speaking, guerilla marketing and putting your web address on your product and everything else you can think of.

5. Clickthrough Rate (The Click!)

Appearing in a social stream, inbox or a search results page is great, but it means nothing unless someone clicks!

The need for a good click-through rate (CTR) is common to all channels. It’s the skill that unites all content marketers. It’s how you start the conversation. It’s how you reel in potential client, customers and partners.

This is where the fishing metaphor breaks down. Very few fish want to just jump into a boat. But your clients want to use your services. They have a need, and you have a product or service that will fulfill it. They want to be caught.

So unlike a fishing boat, which is searching for schools of bluefin, you’re not looking for fish: you’re helping the fish find you. That’s what traffic generation is all about: connecting your solutions to people with problems.

When they find you, and they click, you’ve started the process. There are a lot of design, content and UX best practices to keep them moving forward, but they’re on the boat. And if you do your traffic generation correctly, well…

Well, that’s it, Matey.

Time to cast off and start driving traffic! But first, if you have any boating tips that would help your fellow sailors, let us know with a comment below.

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Comments (14)
  • Absolutely loving the sailing metaphor, it makes a lot of sense that way. Saved in my bookmarks for my current campaign!

  • Thanks, Andy. You always help me find clarity in explaining entangled topics.

  • Gold in it’s simplicity. Thank you Andy.

  • I don’t think I have ever seen or heard this explained in a more easy to read and understand format. If more bloggers or website owners understood this (and believed it because it’s the truth) a lot more would have success in the online space. Most people have their own preconceived ideas and are pretty tough to move off of them and then wonder why they never find real success online.

    • This means a lot to me coming from you, Mitch. I’m glad if you found this one useful!

  • This is a great breakdown of traffic sources and I love the sailing metaphor, but I’d like to see a deeper dive into dark traffic and how to better track it—that’s where I struggle!

  • Thanks, Andy. This is great! Exactly what I needed to read today to get the wind back in my own sails!

  • Now, if you would have rearranged the list, you could have said that traffic arrives in SPERDS!

    • Brilliant post by the way! Very easy to follow and illustrative metaphor.

      • SPERDS! I love it. Maybe we can make that a thing. We just need a few friends to help us spread the SPERDS word…

        🙂

  • LOVE that visual – and will be incorporating it into presentations and workshops (with a well-deserved plug for “Content Chemistry” of course)! I really appreciate the visual and accompanying explanation, which is a sterling example of the notion that it’s simple to make things hard, but hard to make things simple!

  • Thank you Andy. You make the job of explaining the complexities of content marketing today so much easier when talking to my sales & exec team!

  • Awesome post! Thanks for sharing… Loved the sailing metaphore.

  • thank you for the information.
    i think semrush is the best tools to analysis website.
    am i right?

 
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