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How To Use Referrers To Track Link Building Efforts

Last month, I wrote about how to use your site’s bounce rate for link building purposes. Someone emailed me privately to ask if there were any other (perhaps not so standard) metrics that I used outside of toolbar PageRank, keyword rankings, and traffic. In an effort to see if I could find something I’ve never used before, I took a close look at the Google Analytics for a few sites that I work with, and I quickly realized that I could easily get completely bogged down in the data.

Some of the metrics that I looked at showed inconsistencies, which could be due to my lack of knowledge about what each figure represents. Googling about this, it seems that I’m not the only one with issues, however. After a bit of time spent digging, I realized that there was one fantastic KPI staring me right in the face: referring sites.

Referring sites is exactly what it seems: sites that sent someone to your own site through a link. In Google Analytics, when you’re looking at your Referring Sites you can also see Visits, Pages/Visit, Avg Time on Site, % New Visits, and Bounce Rate. You can see these figures for the entire site as well as for each referring URL. What can these tell you? Let me add that I like to look at these numbers for trending purposes mainly, not to get exact figures.


Visits records the number of unique sessions initiated by visitors to a site. I wouldn’t say that the referrers with the highest number of visits are always your most important ones, of course, since the quality of that traffic (and the results of it) are much more critical. That’s where setting and tracking goals becomes very useful.


This is the average number of pages viewed per visit. Depending upon which pages these referrers target, you can expect to see higher or lower averages. For example, if a referrer is sending a visitor to your contact page and that was the goal of the visitor, your Pages/Visit numbers might be much lower than if the referrer sent the visitors to your home page and they were forced to dig for the contact information.

Avg Time on Site

This is the average amount of time that visitors spend on your site. The same issue of landing pages comes into play here, as the average time spent on a site can vary depending upon what the visitors want, and how they came in.

% New Visits

Out of your total visits, this represents the percentage of people who have come to your site for the very first time. Out of all of these metrics, this one is the most important to me, because it is telling me how many new people have visited the site through an existing link. Ideally, you want all your links to be performing continually!

So how can you use trending with these metrics in order to identify issues?

With Visits, you of course must have an idea of why the referrer is sending traffic to begin with. If it’s a site where you’re publishing a monthly article, then you wouldn’t want to think too much about spikes that occur every month, as if you weren’t cognizant of the traffic pattern associated with that link, you might look at it from week to week and think that there were issues. Thus, it’s crucial to identify your typical traffic pattern first. However, if you tend to get a flow of referrers all month and it drops completely, it’s time to investigate.

With Pages/Visit, again you’ll need to be knowledgeable about the typical numbers for each referral. If the average drops drastically for a referrer, you’ll want to check it out. If it increases drastically, do the same, as you never know if that also indicates a problem and perhaps something has changed that is causing visitors to have to search harder for their desired information.

With Avg Time on Site, as with the Pages/Visit (or any average really) drastic changes can indicate a problem. Adding new content to your site might keep a visitor on the site longer, but so might deleted content if a visitor is searching for information that you’ve decided is no longer relevant.

With % of New Visits, as I said earlier, I do place more importance on this one than the others. If you’re usually getting 50 new visitors a month from a referrer and you get 3, it could indicate a variety of problems with the referrer. Perhaps the link has just been removed, the site has been penalized, etc.

You can also drill down into each Referring Site and see the Referral Path. The graphical representation here is very nice but you do need to keep in mind that various things could affect this. For example, my referrals from Search Engine Land jump each month when my article is published, then they taper off. That’s the norm for that referral. For other types of referrals, you’d want to see a more stable graph.

And once you’re drilling you may as well get into setting some goals. You can set this up for URL Destination, Time on Site, and/or Pages/Visit. Google Analytics has a wealth of help links about how to do this, so I won’t get into it here other than to say that as long as you’re in the mood to analyze your referrals, you might as well utilize the Goals functionality.

Things To Keep in Mind

1. Use the numbers for trending rather than for exact data. Due to the various ways in which different packages can be configured and sessions timed, unless you truly understand exactly what each number means, you’re better off not getting too hung up on exact numbers.

2. Know your normal. it’s difficult to find true issues when you have no idea of what your usual is.

3. If you think something’s up with a referrer, go and check it out. Maybe you have a problem on your site, or maybe they do.

4. Use your valuable referrers as a way to interact through social media sites. If you continue to have great traffic from a referring site or two, you should take care to monitor those links and ensure that they remain active. It might be a good idea to build a relationship with the webmaster who is responsible, if you haven’t already. Interact on Twitter or, if the site has a blog or forum, participate and comment.

5. If you’re continuing to build links for traffic and your referring sites numbers aren’t increasing, you might want to take a closer look at what’s going on with those sites. Theoretically, whenever you open up new avenues of traffic through quality links, you should actually be able to see a traffic increase.

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily Search Engine Land. Staff authors are listed here.

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