Referring Links: An Untapped Treasure Trove of Visitor Intent Data

editorial-linksWhen we begin the analysis of a site, we are always looking to segment visitors by their intent. This helps us better analyze visitor behaviors and identify ways to improve the visitor journey.

Yet recognizing the visitor’s intent is not always easy. Site analysts often look towards internal and external search phrases, as well as clicks on display banners, which sometimes allow the visitor to literally say what they are trying to do. For the majority of visitors that do not declare their need via a search phrase, a web analyst will need to get a little more creative in determining the visitors final objective.

For many traffic channels, a web site owner is actively attracting visitors by publishing content out on the web via paid search listings, display ads, or possibly email campaigns. In these cases, the site owners are often pushing content that is unique to a specific offering on the website (i.e.: an industry-specific campaign). In most cases, if a visitor clicks on the external content, they are giving the site owners a hint as to what their interests are. Site owners will use this data to drive visitors to specific landing pages, segment the audience for individual analysis, or to drive onsite personalization. This works well in paid traffic acquisition. But there is one popular organic traffic acquisition channel that is often overlooked when it comes to individualized analysis and personalization.

If you are looking to analyze an audience based on the task they are trying to complete, visitors from organic referral links can be one of the best audiences to analyze based on the types of links they are clicking on to get to a site.

In my personal analysis of over 100 sites across a variety of industries, I have found that site traffic from organic referring links can account for 25 to 50 percent of all traffic. Depending on how well the site is designed and implemented, referring traffic often has lower bounce rates and higher levels of engagement (i.e.: pageviews per session, time on site, scrolling) than other traffic groups such as non-branded search. Looking at the source of the referring link for a visitor can often give a hint (sometimes a loud hint) at what the visitor is trying to achieve in their journey across sites.

Check out these different types of referring links and the possible intent exposed about the visitors that click on them:

  • Forums / Q&A Sites (i.e. Quora): Forums are great sources of non-conventional wisdom. Visitors to forum sites have often arrived there in an effort to ask or answer complex questions, typically when trying to solve a problem. Forum users post answers and sometimes links to other sites. Visitors from these types of links can be viewed as visitors with problems looking to quickly gain expertise. Looking back to the content surrounding the backlinks can provide context on the visitor’s question they are looking to answer. 
  • Partner Sites: Many B2B and B2C organizations rely on partners to deliver and support their product offerings. Partners will often link pages of their sites to each other to demonstrate the priority of the partnership. Based on the type of partner (i.e. technology partner, services partner) traffic from the partner site can be identified as visitors looking to piece together a solution during a sales cycle.
  • Distributor/VARs: Similar to traffic from partner sites, visitors from the sites of distributors (i.e.: CDW) or value added resellers are demonstrating an advanced need to research a purchase decision. 
  • Maps: Mapping sites such as Google Maps, Bing Maps, Yahoo Maps, and Mapquest are some of the most highly trafficked sites on the web. Visitors clicking on referring links from map sites to your site are obviously looking for a location. Depending on what your site provides, the intent could be anything from trying to visit your store, to finding a local partner, to seeing what a prospective work commute might look like. 
  • Chat: Visitors from chat links in many cases are coming to your site under very positive conditions. One can assume that these visitors are getting friendly referrals for your business and sharing links to specific pages. These visitors may be approaching the site with a much more open and trusting disposition. 
  • News/Media: A well-promoted company will get coverage on news and media sites. While many visitors will navigate from news articles to search engines for branded search, some news authors will link to corporate sites in the articles. These visitors are likely at your site out of curiosity and are interested in viewing organizational-type information, broad product categories or recently launched products. 
  • Email Links (Non Campaigns): If your visitors are using a web based email platform such as Gmail or Hotmail, they will often show up as visitors from referrers rather than the email channel. Similar to chat, these visitors may be clicking through from a personal email, originating from a friend or co-worker, and perhaps coming to your site with a positive context. 
  • Job Listings: An easy segment to analyze in the referring traffic is job listings sites. These task-oriented visitors are typically very focused in their click-path. 
  • International Domains: It’s always interesting to see how many visitors are coming from international domains of translated sites (i.e.: .de, .cn, .it) to sites without translation (i.e.: .com). These visitors often have very unique content consumption patterns. 
  • Social Sites: Sites like LinkedIn and Twitter are great for analyzing segment behavior and often show up as referring traffic (if you haven’t categorized them as social channel traffic). These segments often carry unique behaviors for each social site. 
  • Financial/Investor Sites: Traffic from sites such as Hoovers or Yahoo Finance is also likely to be very targeted in its intent. Visitors may be looking to validate the size or stability of the organization during a sales cycle. 
  • Intranets: It’s funny how often we can see intranet URLs in referring links. These both come from the organization that owns the site as well as external organizations. This is a great way for filtering out internal employees working remotely as well as identifying partners. 

This is a sample listing of the types of links we typically see in referring reports. While web analysts spend a significant amount time analyzing the differences in SEO and PPC segments, the audiences from referring links are often an untapped treasure trove of user information.

As we create segments to glean important behaviors, segments based on referring links often show consistency in behaviors that enable web analysts to make small updates to navigation and content which help visitors more easily accomplish their goals.

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