Bow House Blog

Understanding traffic sources in Google Analytics 

by Beth Ellin

Do you find it tricky to wrap your head around the different traffic sources in Google Analytics?

In this post, we’re going to break each source down for you and help you understand what your figures are actually showing you. If you’ve got all your campaigns and tracking set up correctly on your website, there are 7 common traffics sources in Google Analytics that you can expect to see. 

Organic search 

Organic search shows you that all your hard work with your search engine optimisation is paying off. It lets you know how many users have come through to your website after seeing you listed on a search engine results page (SERP).

If you click on your organic traffic, you’ll be given a bit more detail to break it down further. You might be able to see they key terms the user has typed in to see your website, and you’ll be able to see which search engines are bringing you traffic. For example, you might see that Google / organic brings you the most traffic, and things like Yahoo / organic or Bing /organic bring you in a few more.

mobile phone showing Google Analytics on a search results page

Paid search  

This traffic source shows you where your paid advertising is being spent, and if it’s bringing you the volume of traffic you’d like it to. It will also show you which of your targeted keywords are attracting clicks and which need a bit of a re-think. 

Direct 

Direct traffic can sometimes be a bit misleading. Don’t fall in to the trap of thinking you’ve just got lots of people typing in your exact URL or bookmarking your pages, though that does account for some of your direct traffic. 

Direct could also occur if one of your regular referrers has migrated their site to a more secure HTTPS address. Your HTTP link on their HTTPS site won't be tracked correctly and the traffic will appear as direct. 

Want to make your site secure with HTTPS? Get in touch.

You might also have forgotten to use a Google Analytics tracking code on one of your new landing pages. If that’s the case and a user moves from an untracked page through to a tracked page, that can also be listed as direct traffic.

You could also be getting direct traffic through what’s been named “dark social” which sounds a lot more dramatic than it is. Lots of link sharing is done using social media as we all know, but you might not have realised that most of it happens privately through instant messaging, email or text. Links shared and clicked in this way will appear as a direct user. You can partially combat this by making sure you’ve got social sharing buttons on all your pages so a user doesn’t have to copy your URL to send on to their friends and family.  

Email 

Whenever you send our an email to your GDPR compliant mailing list, you want to know how many people came through to your website as a result. You’ll find that traffic data on your Google Analytics under email. 

If you correctly track each mailer you send out, you can get really specific data about the success of individual emails. But don’t worry if you forget, you can dive a little deeper and see what pages people from the email traffic source have clicked on and match that to the content of your emails.

Referral 

This is where you’ll see the results of all the back links through to your site. If you’ve got your business listed on online directories or other websites, Google Analytics will show you which referral sites are working well for you, and which might be links you don’t really want.

Vector image depicting a traffic report from Google Analytics

Social 

The social traffic source in Google Analytics lets you know how many potential customers are clicking through to your website via your social media profiles. You’ll be able to see how popular your content has been on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest… the list goes on and on.

Remember, if you’re paying to promote a piece of content on social media, give it a clear tracking code so you’ll be able to separate the traffic you’re paying for and the ones that are coming through to your site organically. Having clear campaigns makes analysing your traffic much easier. 

Other 

Google Analytics can display traffic as other when it doesn’t entirely know where it came from. You’ll never be able to get rid of this field entirely, but you can minimise the amount of unknown traffic by keeping a close watch on your campaigns. 

By clicking on Other in your sources breakdown, you should be given additional information about where the traffic actually is coming from. It could be a mislabelled social media campaign or email that just needs correcting.

To sum up 

There are lots of different traffic sources in Google Analytics that you can expect to see fairly regularly on your dashboard. Analytics is incredibly helpful to gain a detailed understanding of your users and how they interact with your business online. 

Making sure you organise your marketing campaigns correctly can help you keep on track of all your traffic and give you a great understanding of the types of marketing that are really good for your business, and which need a little more work to achieve success. 


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