How to Identify Website Traffic Sources using Google Analytics

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Have you ever wondered where your website visitors come from?

If you’re like many website owners, the thought of digging into your website analytics tool might feel overwhelming. Perhaps you just keep an eye on the overall traffic numbers week to week. But wouldn’t it be great to know how those visitors found your website?

This is where monitoring your website traffic sources can help you. Understanding where your website visitors are coming from is an important first step in understanding your website’s visibility and how your current digital marketing efforts are working. Once you understand your website traffic sources, you can start to think about which digital marketing channels you might be able to leverage to help your website deliver more results for your business or organization.

Using Google Analytics to monitor website traffic sources

In this article, we’ll assume you have Google Analytics’ free website tracking code installed on your website. Most website builders allow you to add Google Analytics tracking code in your website settings, so check your support documentation if you need help with the setup:

If you’re using WordPress, you have more options. This article from WPBeginner is a great place to start with using a plugin to add the Google Analytics tracking code.

Note: Google Analytics recently released a new version of their tracking code, called GA4. At this time, GA4 has not yet been widely adopted and the previous “Universal Analytics” version remains available and is widely used. As GA4 becomes more popular in the future, we’ll update this guide with more information.

To get started looking at website traffic sources in Google Analytics, click on the “Acquisition” link in the Reports menu (on the left side of the dashboard) and then click on “Overview.” You’ll probably see a report that looks something like this:

Use the Acquisition > Overview report to review website traffic sources by channel in Google Analytics
Use the Acquisition > Overview report to review website traffic sources by channel in Google Analytics

Your Acquisition > Overview report may look slightly different, depending on the configuration of your website. Don’t worry — the basic channel groups are what we’re paying attention to here. The “Top Channels” pie chart at the top of the report shows the percentages of Users that visited your website from each channel during the time period you currently have selected.

How Google Analytics groups website traffic into channels

When you install Google Analytics tracking code without any additional customization, website traffic is grouped into one of several predefined “channels.” This provides a helpful way to get a high-level view of where your website visitors are coming from. This is the information presented in the Acquisition > Overview report above.

As always, there is a LOT more detailed information to dig into with Google Analytics, but for now we’ll keep it simple!

Let’s dig into the channel definitions, what kind of visitor gets included, and what you can infer about those visitors!

  • What did the visitor do? They clicked on a link to your website that appeared on a search engine results page.
  • What does this tell us about these visitors? There’s a good chance they were looking for something specific that your website offers. This could be information, a product you sell, or a service that you offer.
  • What did the visitor do? They clicked on a link to your website that appeared as a paid ad on a search engine results page. You’ll only see this channel if you are paying to run search advertising for your website.
  • What does this tell us about these visitors? Similar to organic search results, they are probably searching for something specific that your website offers. You can find out more by clicking into the Acquisition > Campaigns > Paid Keywords report to see which keywords triggered these paid advertising visits.

Email

  • What did the visitor do? They clicked on a link to your website in an email campaign that you sent.
  • What does this tell us about these visitors? They are already subscribed to your email list, so they are return visitors to your website. These visitors were the result of you sending an email campaign with engaging enough content that the reader clicked one of the links to return to your website. Nice job!

Important note: traffic from email campaigns will only get tracked in the “Email” channel if you actively integrate Google Analytics with the platform you use to send email marketing campaigns, OR if you use a URL builder tool to generate trackable links for your email campaign. If you have questions about this, get in touch and we’ll help you set this up! If you don’t configure link tracking for your email campaigns, these visitor clicks will end up in the “Direct” channel (see below).

Social

  • What did the visitor do? They clicked a link to your website from a social network website or app such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter. 
  • What does this tell us about these visitors? They were probably scrolling through their feed on a social media platform and came across a link to your website, either from a post you created, or from a post that another user created that links to your website. These visitors are more likely to be casual browsers on your website, as opposed to visitors from organic search who arrived because they were actively looking for something you offer.

Traffic in the social channel is actually just referral traffic (see the next channel) from a specific set of websites (social media platforms). Google Analytics knows we all spend enough time on social media that it’s worth pulling this data out into a separate channel.

Referral

  • What did the visitor do? They clicked on a link to your website from another website.
  • What does this tell us about these visitors? This depends on the context. It’s worth looking at the list of other websites that are referring visitors to your site. Referral traffic can become really valuable if you can encourage other high-quality websites to link to your website.

Direct

  • What did the visitor do? In theory, the “direct” channel captures visits from users that typed the URL for your website directly into their browser and landed directly on your website without visiting another website first. In reality, the “direct” channel also serves as a bucket for all the visitors Google Analytics can’t accurately put into another channel. See the section on limitations below to understand how this happens, and what steps you can take to fix it.
  • What does this tell us about these visitors? True “direct” traffic — visitors that typed your website URL directly into their browser — is a great sign. It means these visitors remembered your website URL and actively chose to navigate directly to your website. They are probably motivated to learn more about what you offer, or perhaps to make a purchase. However, be cautious about drawing this conclusion about all visitors in the direct channel. See the section below on limitations!

Other default channels

Google Analytics defines three other default channels, which you’re less likely to see unless you are already running a more complex marketing strategy!

  • Affiliates: this channel is used to capture visitors from special customized affiliate tracking links used by partners that you are paying to drive traffic to your website.
  • Display: this channel captures traffic from paid advertising using banner ads (as opposed to paying for ad placement in search results)
  • Other Advertising: this channel is Google Analytics’ best attempt to capture visitors arriving at your website from other paid advertising campaigns that are not captured in the “Paid Search” or “Display” channels.

If you are investing in paid advertising, it is important to develop a strategy for tracking the impact of your advertising spend in Google Analytics. This will likely involve learning more about setting up custom URLs to use in your advertising campaigns that will ensure Google Analytics can correctly attribute paid traffic to the correct channels. If you need help in this area, contact us to learn more about how we can support you!

Limitations of Google Analytics default channels for tracking website traffic

When looking at Google Analytics data, it’s important to remember that there are some technical limitations to bear in mind. Even with a carefully customized Google Analytics configuration, the data will not be a perfect representation of every single user and session on your website.

We advise our clients to work on adjusting their marketing efforts and their Google Analytics configuration to generate the most accurate data as possible, and then to remember that it’s best treated as an overview of what’s happening on your website rather than a detailed accounting of every single website session.

Here are a few key limitations to bear in mind:

  • Your Google Analytics data may include your own visits to your website, or visits from others on your team. Those visits are called “internal traffic.” There are ways you can exclude traffic from known, heavy internal users of the website, particularly if they are always working on the site from the same location.
  • Your website will likely receive traffic from bots and other not-real-people sources. There are some settings you can adopt – some simple and some more complex.
  • Your website may also attract “referral spam” — this will show up as traffic in the referral channel from spam websites that, unlike actual referral links, are not delivering high-quality visitors to your site. Similar to bot traffic, you may want to devote some resources to filtering referral spam out of your regular Google Analytics reporting.
  • The ability of Google Analytics to accurately categorize traffic is often dependent on your use (or your marketing team’s use) of trackable URLs that can be “read” by Google Analytics. This is particularly important for email marketing campaigns and paid advertising campaigns. Without a careful approach to URL tracking, clicks to your website from email marketing campaigns can often end up in the “Direct” channel, and clicks from paid advertising on social media platforms can end up mixed in with other non-paid “Social” channel traffic.

Need more help understanding your website traffic sources?

We regularly help clients set up and understand their Google Analytics tracking data. If you’re interested in a one-time coaching session to better understand your data or would like to explore some custom consulting time to get more value out of your web analytics data, get in touch and we’ll explore what we can do to help.

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