In this economy, there is growing interest in understanding, measuring, and increasing, the amount of traffic coming to a website from non-paid sources. A year ago, much of the reporting and analysis I did was about analyzing the performance of banner ads, paid search, direct mail vanity URL's, and other marketing initiatives. Now, what people want to know is how much traffic is coming to their website without their having to pay for it. Not surprising, as marketing budgets are being cut across the board. But Web Analytic solutions have not kept up to speed in terms of measuring free traffic accurately, or actionably.
When one thinks about free traffic, one naturally thinks about Organic Search. Surely enough, this is usually an out-of-the-box reporting element in most analytical solutions. But it doesn't tell the whole story. Basically, a "search engine referral" in most web analytics solutions means that a visitor has typed in a keyword on a search engine, and the tag on your website recognizes that a search has taken place. It thus parses the referring URL to populate keyword and search engine reports.
But Yahoo, MSN, and even Google now have many "free traffic" venues that would not be picked up in standard Organic Search Engine reports: blogs, posts, chat, news, and emails coming from search engines might well not have a keyword query string in the incoming referring URL, and may not be counted as Search Engine (free) traffic. To give an example, one recent analysis I did showed that while the analytics solution reported 25% "Search Engine Referrals", in actuality 38% of traffic was coming from a Search Engine site (like Yahoo Mail, or Yahoo chat). This is also why referring domain reports, when parsed manually to look for search engines, usually come up higher when compared to a Search Engine report in a solution like Omniture SiteCatalyst.
Email traffic is part of a kind of referral usually called “viral”, and this kind of referral is usually free. A visitor has seen an offer on a site, or an interesting news story, and emails their friends with the link to the site. Unfortunately, unless these friends are using a web-based email solution (like Yahoo Mail), the referral is un-measurable and appears as a “direct load”. To my knowledge, there is no systematic study that might provide a proxy for how much email traffic is coming to a site that can be related to "measurable" email sources. Such a study would look for measurable referrals, and establish a coefficient which would estimate to the total email referrals based on the sample that is measurable.
The other type of “viral” referrals which has also not received as much attention in web analytics solutions as they should is blogs, posts, chats, personal websites, or other sites with user-generated content. These are picked up as referrers, but unlike search engines, there is no “Blog” report that would identify certain referring domains as blog sources. This can be done manually, but is a tedious exercise. Some sites I’ve looked at receive between 7-12% of their total traffic from these kinds of sources. While it may be difficult to maintain a list of all such sites, certainly the big players in this space like facebook, blogspot, fatwallet, slickdeals, missycoupons, or mommy$avesbig could be flagged by a web analytics tool and categorized.
How can one increase or influence viral traffic? Some sites put up distinct links for “tell a friend about this offer”, or they will put up direct links from their site to other post or share sites. Other managers monitor the larger post or blog sites using their web analytic solution, and will physically go into them to promote a particular product. In any event, as marketing budgets are being cut, one question that naturally comes up is “how much will this cut affect my overall traffic?” Measuring “free” traffic is a necessary step to answering this question.