You should never rely on any source of traffic which you don’t absolutely control. Search engines and other sites can stop sending you traffic anytime they want—as many webmasters have discovered quite shockingly. But certain sources of traffic are more dependable than others.
Referral Traffic: It’s Not Who, But Why
Google Analytics defines referral traffic quite broadly as anyone who sends you traffic. They can categorize some sources of traffic—such as search engine traffic—but what they mainly tell you is who is sending you traffic.
However, what you really want to know is why sites are sending you traffic.
Search engines are sending you traffic because that’s how they make money—they connect searchers to sources of information which satisfy their queries. If you have an affiliate program, you know your affiliates are making money for referrals—and the same is true if you attract visitors through advertising.
But what about natural referrals? Why are these people sending you traffic?
It some cases, they may not realize they’re doing you a favor. In other cases, they may be sending traffic as a thank you for helping them out. But in most cases, they’re just linking to you because you have the information they think their visitors want—so they’re linking to you rather than leaving their visitors unsatisfied.
The problem with any of the reasons described in the paragraph above is that they’re not reliable. Smart webmasters rarely provide free links to other sites, so once the sites which link to you wise up, they’ll probably begin withdrawing your links.
The people who don’t realize they’re doing you a favor will withdraw their links on a whim. The people who do realize they’re doing you a favor may decide to do someone else a favor—or increase their own income. And the people who link to you rather than leave their visitors unsatisfied may develop their own content.
The good news—for some people—is that everyone linking to you won’t wise up all at once. The bad news—also for some people—is that you could be overexposed to referral traffic. What you need to determine is your exposure risk. You can do this with a bit of math.
Take a look at your referral statistics; filter out search engine and Google traffic, advertisements, affiliates, and anyone else who has a profit motive to link to your site. Now look at your remaining monthly unique referred visitors. Let’s say it’s 1,000 visits.
Sort your referrers by the number of unique visitors they send to your site each month. Let’s say the list looks something like this:
- BigSite.com (250)
- MediumSite.com (150)
- SmallSite.com (50)
- NicheSite.com (40)
- ForumSite.com (10)
Count up how many referrers it takes to reach 50% of your total referral traffic. In the example above, 50% of 1,000 is 500—which comes from just six referrers. In this case, six is your 50% exposure score. If the wrong six referrers leave you, you lose 50% of your incoming referral traffic.
The more traffic your site receives from referrals, the more worrisome a low 50% exposure score is. Some sites I know have a 50% exposure score of one—and they live in fear that their only big referrer will begin referring someone else.
There are two solutions to a low 50% exposure score:
- Give the referrers a good reason to stay with you. For example, offer them a Pay Per Click (PPC) income for sending you referrals. Since they’re already sending you referrals for free, you can probably offer them a very low PPC rate. This is also a great way to encourage them to send you even more traffic—and you already know their audience is a good fit for your site.
- Find more referrers. For example, offer more guest posts, post on more forums, offer free consulting to popular websites, and try other classic online marketing techniques. Be careful how you link though as Google penalties are being handed out left right and center.
Search Engine Traffic: Are You Helping Them Or Not?
A huge amount has been written about Search Engine Optimization, but only 1 article or book out of 100 that I read ever recommends that you think about SEO from the search engine’s perspective. Why does Google send traffic to your site? Because if they don’t recommend the best possible match to their searchers, people will use other search engines—just like we all abandoned other search engines years ago to use Google because it offered the best possible match.
Sure, you can use certain SEO techniques to temporarily trick search engines into thinking your site is the best match for their searchers, but when the search engine algorithm discovers your fraud, they’ll stop referring people to you.
The best way to assure yourself of search engine referrals is to provide a service (such as content) or product (physical or electronic) that people actually want to use or buy. Then use SEO to describe to the search engine exactly who will use or buy that service or product.
If you help the search engine do its job well, the search engine will make more money, and they’ll reward you by continuing to refer people to your site. It’s a win-win for both you and the search engine.
Although neither third-party referrals nor search engines can be entirely relied upon, you can take a few easy steps to significantly increase their reliability and protect yourself from changes in policy which would otherwise deprive you of high-quality traffic.