How Referral Traffic Works: the Forgotten Income Stream

on under Search Engine Optimization.

There's a forgotten traffic source sitting right in your Google Analytics Dashboard. It's right there under Traffic Sources, wedged between Direct and Search. It's called referral traffic. Those are the people who came to your site because they actually clicked on a link. And I happen to believe that this should be the most important section of Google Analytics to anybody who cares about inbound marketing or SEO.

The Day Google Cut off the Traffic Fire Hose

Picture this. Ten years from today, Google releases the Knowledge Graph Pro app. It's the culmination of their effort to win the web and mobile. It's the image search redesign for content marketers. It scrapes the entire web, and combines pattern recognition with a Siri-like interface to remove the pesky problem of actually visiting websites to get answers.

From this point forward, if you want a question answered, you don't bother with the search results. You just ask Knowledge Graph Pro through your Google Glass interface. And SEO dies (again).

Scary right? It may not happen, but it's plausible enough to expect a change like this, or something of comparable magnitude, within the next decade. I assume everybody here wants to be in business a decade from now. And that means everybody here ought to have a contingency plan in place.

Fine-Tuning the Referral Traffic Process

Referral traffic should to be at the front of your mind, not just because of nightmare scenarios like the one discussed above. Even supposing you never face a Google penalty, and the trends in search engine behavior never change, an inbound marketing strategy that chases referral traffic first is a strategy designed to succeed even if everything else goes wrong.

Ask most digital marketers how to grow their referral traffic and it quickly becomes obvious that they haven't given the matter much thought. The search results on the subject are sparse, and most of them will tell you "I don't know, use Facebook and Reddit and forums and do some guest posts."

But chasing referral traffic doesn't come down to a single tactic or website. It's a process, and you need to approach it with a certain mindset if you want the hours you put in to pay off. These concepts should be on your mind at all times, starting now:

1. You Want Cumulative Traffic Growth

I'm not going to stand here and tell you that traffic from Facebook or Reddit is useless. If those visitors keep coming back, if they subscribe to your newsletter, if they continue to expand your reach by recommending you to their followers, if they become your customers, then yes, traffic from these sources can be amazing.

If not, traffic from Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn or Reddit is useless. It's useless because these users are obsessed with freshness. It's useless because a single day after your story makes the front page of Reddit, becomes a trending topic on Twitter, and becomes a flood of likes on Facebook, you're back to zero. And you'll stay their until the next time you stumble upon an idea worthy of achieving virality.

You don't get cumulative traffic growth from that hot new social network or the latest hipster hangout for info junkies. You get it from references. A link from a page that gets used and used and used is a link that will keep sending traffic until the web's dying days. That is how you achieve cumulative traffic. That is how your traffic count grows.

2. You Want Clicks

Screw keyword anchor text.

Would you build this link if it were no-follow? If not, forget it. If so, how would you word it? What would you say before the link and within the anchor text to get the user to click on it? How would you orchestrate this if you were trying to get a conversion on your own website with a link?

What gets clicked on? You need to test it. That's priority number one. Which links are getting the best conversion rate on your own site? Which AdWords and Facebook ads are pulling users the most? Those are the links you want to build and learn from.

We've been doing guest posts for quite some time, and we've learned something. It's amazing just how little click-through traffic you can get from a powerhouse of a site if there's no call to action and nothing to entice a click. It's downright shameful how rare the serendipitous click really is. Getting clicks takes work. Respect the PPC artists and the conversion rate optimizers. Learn from them.

3. Domain Diversity is Overrated

Under no circumstances should you put all of your eggs in one basket, but neither should you scatter them so thin that you don't even know where they are anymore.

Referral traffic doesn't reside in the long tail, it congeals in the fat head. A fraction of a percent of the sites on the web will stand the test of time and remain successful for the long haul. There's a good chance that there aren't much more than ten or twenty sites in your niche that will send noteworthy referral traffic.

You need to focus on those sites, and build as many links as you can from them, in order to flood your site with cumulative referral traffic.

Domain diversity only matters when all you care about is SEO, and even then it's not especially helpful unless the links are natural. The formula for natural links is simple. Traffic + Quality = Links. Grow that referral traffic and you will start to see those much needed natural links.

The top sites in your niche aren't the only ones that matter, of course. But I'm of the opinion that you shouldn't bother with links unless they're the top sites in some niche.

Why am I arguing against too much emphasis on domain diversity? Simple numbers. You can double your referral traffic by building another ten links from the top ten sites in your industry, or you can double it by building another hundred links from another hundred sites. The only other option is to build a link from a popular site in a different niche.

It really is that simple.

So what are your thoughts on this? Is referral traffic underrated? How do you approach it?

Image credit: MPD01605

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