12 Ways to Analyze Your Referral Sources in Google Analytics

Author's avatar Analytics UPDATED Nov 7, 2023 PUBLISHED Oct 28, 2020 16 minutes read

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    Peter Caputa

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    Traffic to your site can come from various sources including social media, other sites linking to you, and your email marketing campaign. But how can you tell which source is sending traffic your way? With Google Analytics referral tracking.

    Google Analytics or GA, for short, can tell you which site or source is sending traffic your way including the link that’s directing people to your site. The good news is that knowing all this information can help your marketing strategy significantly, and even help you decide your marketing budget.

    Not sure how you can drive home all these benefits from Google Analytics referral tracking? Let’s show you how in the following sections:


    How to Track Referral Sources in Google Analytics

    Simply select Traffic under Acquisition. Next, click on Referrals to get a bird’s eye of your referral sources or sites that send referral traffic your way.

    how to track referral sources in google analytics

    Tracking your referral sources can help you understand how sweet of a fruit your marketing efforts are reaping.

    Started a new guest posting campaign? See how much traffic each guest posting site is sending to your pages with referral tracking in Google Analytics. Not sure whether the majority of your traffic is paid or organic? Again, check your referral traffic. Our experts say the majority of their referral traffic is organic. What about your traffic?

    is your referral traffic organic or paid?

    What are Referral Paths?

    Referral paths in Google Analytics show the specific paths from selected referral domains showing where people found your links and clicked to visit your site.

    You can find these referral domains in the following manner:

    1. In Google Analytics, select Acquisition on the left column
    2. Select All Traffic and Referrals to find out your referring domains/source
    3. Click on any referring site to get its referral path

    12 Things You Can Learn from Referral Paths in Google Analytics

    Now that you’ve figured out where you can find your referral paths, use these 12 expert ways to leverage the info to your marketing benefit:

    1. Setting goals for analyzing referral sources
    2. Learn what interests your audience
    3. Learn who to collaborate with
    4. Tweak your SEO strategy based on referral tracking
    5. Understand your digital PR
    6. Calculate the ROI of your marketing
    7. Understand how valuable your referral partners are
    8. Use Google Analytics referral tracking to plan incentive programs
    9. Get insights on your traffic
    11. Decide your marketing budget
    12. Understand where to focus your efforts

    1. Setting goals for analyzing referral sources

    “Write down your top three desired outcomes,” comments Skyler Reeves of Ardent Growth. “Have other important stakeholders do the same, then compare your choices and finalize your desired outcome in writing.”

    Reeves continues, “based on your desired outcomes, determine how you will measure your progress toward achieving them. This includes determining what data will need to be collected, what tools will be needed to collect it, and what formulas or algorithms (if any) will be needed to process it into a measurable data point.”

    2. Learn what interests your audience

    A couple of our expert respondents share that they use Google Analytics referral tracking to figure out what engages their audience. Want to do the same? Learn from their experience.

    Zorbies’ Anna Williams notes, “We’ve found it really helpful to observe the demographic of our website visitors. It provides such valuable information as to who our main customers are and who is actually buying our product. This influences our messaging and content because as we discovered, even though we sell a product directed at males, we also get a large portion of website traffic from females. So we can deduce a few things from these stats and cater our messaging accordingly.”

    Jonathan Newar of CaptainExperiences has the same experience too. Newar shares, “What I have learned about Google Analytics is it has helped me recognize not only who my audience is but what has been successful in engaging them.

    For me, I have found a lot of success in comedic social media videos. Our ‘how-tos’ with a bit of comedy are the most popular and are shared rapidly and widely. This motivates me to expand on this concept and go in this direction. Most of our traffic comes from social media first, then email marketing, then organic backlinks.”

    Mostly Blogging’s Janice Wald also works the same way with Google Analytics. Wald notes, “I should create content that appeals to people who like social media (media), technology, video, business, marketing, SEO, and SEM. I do create content for people with these interests.” However, “Google Analytics confirmed these topics are appealing to my readers’ interests, so I continue to create content in those content areas.”

    3. Learn who to collaborate with

    “Beyond the typical insights from Google Analytics, I love to look at the referring sites to discover new marketing opportunities and partnerships,” shares Vrify’s Kasey Bayne.

    “If a new company or analyst is sending traffic our way, it’s a great chance to reach out to them to develop more content together or develop partnerships or integrations. It also opens up new areas and channels – new geography, industry, or area that we hadn’t targeted previously: sometimes we’ll see these new sites pop up in GA, and it’s a great way to expand our offering and campaigns into new markets in a more informed way,” Bayne explains.

    Ryan Wright of Do Hard Money is of the same view: “We found some websites in the similar industry generated referral traffic to our site. We started to build relationship actively and seek backlinks from those sites in a similar industry.”

    At Ever Increasing Circles, Alistair Dodds highlights, “We like to measure the viral impact of our content. Once a piece of content becomes syndicated it’s important to track which other sites pick up and publish the content and how impactful those organic referrals become.

    If we see a particular source deliver consistent and good quality traffic over a period of time, then we’ll make a point of reaching out to the publisher to develop a direct relationship for future content publishing and syndication opportunities.”

    At Code Galaxy too, James Boatwright notes, “For us, the one meaningful insight that we have learned from analyzing our referral sources is that we can see an increase in traffic on links from local directories, schools and business partnerships since the onset of the pandemic. As a result, we have made a concerted effort to upgrade and extend our ties with schools and business partnerships in every marketable way.”

    Stephen Luke of Hudson Integrated agrees, ”While any improvement in user engagement from a referrer is beneficial, the most important metric to track is your conversions. Once a referral source shows promise, efforts should be made to increase exposure by furthering paid and organic partnerships with the referral source and their audience.”

    4. Tweak your SEO strategy based on referral tracking

    Google Analytics referral traffic can help you inform your SEO strategy. For instance, Jake Hill of DebtHammer says, “One thing I think people overlook is bounce rate by source. This can tell you if one of your traffic sources is weaker than others. If you have a source with a very high bounce rate, the traffic coming from there isn’t well-targeted to your site. If you’re spending money on this source, you’re not spending it well.”

    DevSkiller’s Tom Winter has been able to tweak their content strategy to include getting links and mentions from HARO that they learned generated lots of organic referral traffic.

    Winter elaborates, “Although we never considered paying for links, we certainly do invest a great deal in SEO and guest posting. However, given the success of using quotable content over platforms such as HARO and QWOTED, we’ve decided to shift our SEO strategy going forward accordingly.”

    Uteach’s Vera Mirzoyan, on the other hand, has tweaked their SEO strategy in the following way: “What I learned from analyzing referral traffic is to focus on statistics such as pages per visit and also the time spent to determine which sources send the best traffic to my website. Accordingly, I manage to create a better strategy where I emphasize efficient sources, leaving the others out.”

    Related: How to Guest Post and Actually Get Links & Traffic to Your Website

    5. Understand your digital PR

    Michelle Tresemer of TGroup Marketing Method suggests, “Dig in! Look beyond the Default Channel Groupings and look at the source for your traffic. Look for any partner websites or press/news organizations that might be linking to you. Which ones are converting? Which ones are a waste? Have you provided guest blogs lately?

    Look for traffic from those efforts as well. We call this ‘digital PR’ and using referral tracking is a great way to see if all of that time and energy is driving any traffic and conversions to a website.

    If you’re even more savvy, this can easily be pulled into a Google Data Studio dashboard for a quick look at digital PR efforts (happy to share the template I created).

    This kind of analysis absolutely influences our day to day efforts. If we know what’s working we can do more of it. It’s really that simple. But almost more important is figuring out what does NOT work so we can stop wasting precious resources on nurturing digital channels that aren’t bringing in leads.”

    6. Calculate the ROI of your marketing

    “Analyzing our referral sources has provided us with valuable information about ROI on marketing spend,” shares Kimberly Smith from Clarify Capital. “We initially anticipated email marketing would be the leading source of traffic, but after reviewing data from Google Analytics, it became increasingly clear that that wasn’t the case. Our team was surprised to see Organic as the leading traffic source, exceeding all other channels.”

    Similarly, VeteransAutoInsurance.com’s Melanie Musson opens up: “We learned which social media referrals drove the most traffic to our site. We then work on building our relationship with the person who referred to us. The more in tune we are with our supportive social media influencers, the more likely they are to post another referral.”

    Moreover, at Nu-X, the team learned about the ROI of their influencer marketing. Their team’s Tory Paul elaborates, “Google Analytics provided a way for us to measure the ROI of our influencer marketing campaigns, using assigned UTM codes. This helped us track and identify influencers on our payroll who were generating weak visitors. The referrals were tracked to clickbait and unrelated content.”

    Related: 12 Tips for Tracking and Measuring Your Influencer Marketing Campaigns

    Summing up, Bruce Hogan from SoftwarePundit says, “Google Analytics’ attribution models allow you to understand the conversions and value of traffic coming from each of your referral sources. You can use these attribution models to calculate the ROI of the campaigns that generated your referral traffic.”

    Related: Here’s How to Increase Your Referral Traffic (Tips from 42 Marketers)

    7. Understand how valuable your referral partners are

    Property Solvers’s Ruban Selvanayagam notes: “The importance of working with referral partners with good SEO metrics (for related keywords for our own). The ones that don’t, unfortunately, do not bring many leads and it’s often not worth the time building these relationships.”

    8. Use Google Analytics referral tracking to plan incentive programs

    For example, Dsimitry Suponau from Number For Live Person says, “In my early stages of business growth we have been using referral traffic without many insights until we realized some sources tend to compare our services with others on affiliate websites.

    This has helped us to craft incentives programs for affiliate bloggers. Some of them have edited the post in a way to change our position from let’s 10 to nr1 in their comparison list. In our results, our referral traffic not only has gone up significantly but the visitors were also converting really well.

    This would not happen without Google analytics. So simple and free of charge.”

    9. Get insights on your traffic

    With referral traffic in Google Analytics, you can tell where your traffic is coming – which directories and list sites, for example, are sending visitors your way.

    Our experts say that organic backlinks are their top source of your referral traffic, followed by traffic coming from social media and guest posting sites. See the survey for yourself:

    referral traffic sources

    Brita Hammer of Emergent Software points out, “We see fairly high traffic numbers from various directory or list sites that we’re featured on. By implementing a complex UTM strategy and standardizing the way in which we list our website URL on these sites, we’ve been able to better understand what lists our traffic is coming from and also segment out users who are irrelevant to us. We can also track changes made to our profiles on these directory websites and see if certain changes affect the amount of users we receive.”

    B-SeenOnTop’s Donna Duncan adds, “Google Analytics Referral Source reports help me decide whether to recommend renewing specialty directory listings for local SEO.

    In some industries, it is important to have your business listed in recognized industry-specific business directories because it helps Google (and searchers) trust your business. Unfortunately, some of these listings can be very expensive, especially if you are a new or struggling small business.

    I review the Referral report in Google Analytics to see if a directory listing is sending qualified leads before recommending directory listing renewal. If the listing is the source of a decent amount of traffic, and that traffic is engaged and/or converts, I recommend renewal. Otherwise, I may not.”

    10. Learn about your media coverage

    “If you are a guest blogger or a contributor, then Google Analytics will help you find out which ones are doing good or bad,” suggests Inbound Marketing Agency’s Adam Rowles.

    “In short, if you are marketing your business/services through content contribution, Google Analytics will give you an idea as to which ones are worth contributing or fetching the maximum traffic. It certainly saves a lot of time and effort.

    In the same vein, Ashley Glenn from SSPR shares, “Since we’re a PR firm, we analyze referral traffic to determine if we’re getting our clients coverage in publications their target customers are reading. Getting media coverage is great, but if it’s not resulting in an increase in website traffic, it may be time to rethink what publications we’re seeking out.

    For most media placements that include a backlink, you can see how many people visited a website directly from the article. From there, you can see whether those clicks were from new users who have never been to your website or returning visitors that have heard of your business before.

    Additionally, you can see if those visits resulted in any conversions. This entire picture shows us which publications result in the best ROI for our clients.”

    11. Decide your marketing budget

    Beekeeper’s Alexandra Zamolo talks about understanding their referral traffic to settle on a marketing budget – what’s worth spending on and where they can cut their costs.

    Zamolo explains, “We like to see how many referrals we are getting from paid versus organic traffic. By understanding this insight, we can better make decisions when it comes to our marketing budget. Additionally, we want to ensure that our paid campaigns are there to complement our traffic, do not overshadow our organic referrals.”

    12. Understand where to focus your efforts

    When you know where your traffic comes from, you’re in a better position to invest in that source.

    Joe Akers from Pyrpaw Marketing talks about this: “Because Facebook is the behemoth, you’re going to get a lot of traffic from the channel if you’re promoting and connecting in a meaningful way there. But that’s not always the case depending upon your industry so it’s important to understand where your traffic is being referred from.

    A commercial real estate agent may see a heavy amount of referral traffic from LinkedIn if they’re promoting their expertise and commercial listings to business owners interested in expanding their business or upgrading their location.

    For my business, I’m currently seeing the most referral traffic from Facebook so it’s in my best interest to test the type of content those viewers respond to most and look for ways to provide more of it.”

    DepreneurDigest’s Chuks Chukwuemeka goes on to add, “Referral source is one of the ways of driving traffic to my site. Analyzing it on Google Analytics has helped me identify some of my URLs on other websites that are driving traffic to my site. This has made me intensify my strategy of publishing guest posts and building links with authority websites.”

    Adam Connell from Blogging Wizard works in a similar fashion: “Together with goal tracking set up in Google Analytics, I can easily identify which referral sources convert best for us.”

    Related: Google Analytics Goals: 75 Marketers On How to Set & Use Goals in ‘GA’

    Lastly, at Online Optimism, Google Analytics referral tracking helps in the same way. Lauren Walter shares, “Analyzing our referral sources is a critical part of understanding the referral traffic we receive from social media, review sites, directory listings, databases, and features in blogs or articles. It gives us insight into which of these sources lead to website visits and conversions, allowing us to focus more efforts on the types of sources that are producing the best results.”


    Wrap Up

    Now you know Google Analytics referral tracking comes with a ton of benefits. And, if used smartly, you can double these benefits with all these tips. So are you ready to up your marketing game with referral tracking?

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    Masooma Memon

    Masooma is a freelance writer for SaaS and a lover to-do lists. When she's not writing, she usually has her head buried in a business book or fantasy novel.

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