Understanding Traffic Sources in Google Analytics

What are traffic sources in Google Analytics, and why do they matter for your site?

Users don’t just magically show up on your website. Every visitor arrives from somewhere, whether that’s clicking a link on Facebook or typing your address directly into their browser. Figuring out where users are finding you helps you learn about your audience and market your site more effectively.

In Google Analytics, the breakdown of where users found your site is known as “traffic sources”. According to Google, every referral to a website has an origin, or “source”, and there are many possible sources.

When you’re determining how to move forward with marketing efforts for your company or brand, it’s important to determine how customers and potential leads are landing on your site:

  • Which channels are most successful at driving leads?
  • Are your social media campaigns successful at drawing customers to your site?

The origins of your users can tell you a lot about the success of your marketing campaigns and can guide you to make strategic changes.

What Are Traffic Sources?

Simply put, traffic sources indicate where people found your site.

Here are some examples of traffic sources that could show up in Google Analytics:

  • “google” (the name of a search engine)
  • “facebook.com” (the name of a referring site)
  • “spring_newsletter” (the name of one of your newsletters)
  • “direct” (users that typed your URL directly into their browser, or who had bookmarked your site)

Understand where your traffic comes from with Quietly Insights.


Traffic sources come in one of seven default groups:

Direct: A user directly types in your website URL or clicks on a link from an email, PDF, or saved bookmark. Any traffic that Google doesn’t have the source information on is also considered direct. This is why secure-to-unsecure traffic is classified as direct.

Display: A user clicks on a paid advertisement, such as a banner ad, that leads back to your site.

Email: You send out an email campaign to your customers and they click on a link in the email.

Organic Search: A user comes to your site directly from a search engine such as Google, Yahoo, or Bing. If you pay to advertise on search engines, those visitors will count as Paid Search instead.

Paid Search: A user clicks on a paid advertisement in a search engine (most commonly via Google AdWords) that leads back to your site.

Referral: A user clicks a link to your site from a page on another website.

Social: A user clicks on a link to your site from any major social channel, such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, or Instagram.

Why Do Traffic Sources Matter?  

Traffic sources allow you to understand where success on your site is coming from.

This information allows you to assess:

  • Which channels are bringing traffic to your site (specifically which channels are bringing valuable traffic to your site).
  • Which channels bring in traffic most effectively, signalling where you should focus your marketing efforts.
    • For example, if you use both Facebook and Quora to promote content from your site, you can see which channel brings in more traffic, or which channel draws more converting users. You may find that the number of followers on social channels doesn’t always correlate with traffic volume to your site.
  • How specific types of content perform on different channels.
    • For example, you might find that short-form content and infographics perform well on Twitter, but not as well on LinkedIn. This will help guide where to promote your content.
  • How your content is performing based on effort.
    • For example, if you are spending 80% of your social media effort on Facebook and only 20% on Twitter, is Facebook bringing in 4x the visitors/conversions? Alternatively, if you spend $10 on search ads and $100 on social ads, are social ads driving 10x the amount of traffic? This will help determine the ROI on your efforts and whether you are bringing in the expected number of leads.

The Bottom Line

Knowing where people find your content or your site helps you decide where to focus your efforts and investments, as well as track marketing campaigns.

To understand your users, take a look at your engagement across traffic sources and change up your distribution accordingly. If some channels are performing better than others, those may be a smarter place to focus your efforts.

If you’re not sure how users are discovering and engaging with your site, take a look at traffic sources in Google Analytics. If you could use a little more help making sense of the breakdown, or want to know what to do next, give us a call at Quietly.

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