You need traffic to be successful in any online business, but not all types of traffic are created equal. Search engine optimization (SEO) experts often focus on organic traffic—the type of traffic that visits your site after finding it in search engines, while paid advertising experts obviously focus on paid traffic.
But one of the most important—and most cost-efficient sources of traffic gets left out of the conversation: referral traffic.
Referral traffic (a term from Google Analytics) is any traffic that comes to your site from a link outside of search engines and social media. If an online visitor of an external site clicks on a link that leads them to your site, that visitor is counted among your referral traffic, and the external site is known as the “referrer.”
So why is referral traffic so powerful, yet so underrated? And what strategies can you use to increase it?
In this guide, I’ll walk you through the basics of generating referral traffic, including several reliable strategies you can use to build a referral traffic stream from scratch.
First, let’s go over why referral traffic is so valuable for your campaign in the first place.
- Complementary traffic. First, referral traffic serves as a complementary source of traffic; you can optimize your strategy to focus on referral traffic, but it’s also supported by multiple independent strategies. For example, you’ll need to build links in pursuit of SEO and organic traffic, so you’ll earn referral traffic incidentally there. You’ll also need to run press releases and network with influencers to build your brand reputation, which can also help you earn referral traffic.
- Funneling potential. If you’re building links manually for your referral traffic, you can use your content and link targeting to funnel the traffic that ultimately makes it to your site. Using titles that are only relevant to your target niche, you can practically guarantee that each visitor who follows your link could be a potential customer. Furthermore, as you gather more data about the type of traffic you’re getting and how that traffic behaves on your site, you can adjust this funneling stage of your strategy to attract more valuable users.
- Context and interest. The type of link you build, along with its placement, has great potential to influence your referral traffic’s behavior. For example, if you’re a local handyperson, and you write an article about “What to do if your sink won’t stop leaking,” you can use the content of the article to steer users toward calling in a professional. Once they’re convinced of the importance of this step, you can use a well-placed link to lead them to your site. This greatly increases the chance that a website visitor will be interested in your services.
- User behavior data. Finally, thanks to Google Analytics, you can dig deep into your referral traffic metrics and learn exactly how that traffic is behaving. You can segment your traffic to look only at referral-based visitors, and even look at individual sources to see which ones are most valuable to your brand. From there, you can evaluate onsite user behavior (along with purchasing activity), and make more educated choices on how to optimize your strategy in the future.
Now, we’re going to take a look at strategies you can use to build streams of referral traffic to your website. Ultimately, these strategies can be grouped into two main categories: attracting traffic as naturally as possible, and building links manually to attract that traffic more deliberately. In both strategies, your end goal is accumulating more high-quality links that pass traffic through to your site, but as you’ll see, each is distinct in the philosophy behind its approach.
With link attraction, your goal is to earn links as “naturally” as possible; Google may devalue or penalize links that appear “unnatural” in any way, so it’s definitely a safer strategy (though as you’ll see, it’s not hard to build natural links on your own). The trouble is, you won’t have as much direct control over the location, frequency, context, or overall power of the links you build.
Still, when used in conjunction with a manual link building strategy, these tactics can be powerful in shaping your streams of referral content.
The most cost-efficient way to attract links naturally is to create valuable content on your site, which other readers and content producers will be able to read. If they find it interesting, unique, or valuable, they’ll build a link pointing to your site in their own work.
The strategy is especially valuable because you’ll be able to reap the value of that content in your other strategies, harnessing its power for SEO and conversion optimization alike. But if you want it to earn links on your behalf, you’ll need to make sure it has the top-tier qualities that your citing sources will want to see:
- Originality. If you’re the only person saying this, there won’t be any other sources to cite. Making original claims or new arguments is one way to make your content stand out, but be careful here; if you make unfounded claims, or if your work is original only because of its audacity, you won’t be treated as an authority. Strive to stand out without alienating your core readership (or other members of your discourse community).
- Statistics. People love to get their hands on numbers and statistics, but it’s expensive to procure them on your own. Conducting your own studies, including surveys of your customer base, is a cost-efficient way to present those numbers to the world; once they’re out there, your contemporaries will want to cite them so they can use them for their own work.
- Images and video. Including visual content, like images or video, is another good way to earn links, since visual content is highly shareable and much harder to produce than written content—in fact, a single infographic can cost thousands of dollars to produce. If you’re willing to put in the time and/or money, it could be a valuable way to earn a few extra links and citations.
- Depth and comprehensiveness. In general, longer, more detailed articles tend to attract more links than their shorter counterparts. That doesn’t mean you can stuff your content full of fluff, however; the secret is to achieve depth while remaining concise, which means your content dives deep into a single issue, rather than speaking generally about a number of interrelated issues. The more comprehensive your content is, the better.
- Controversy or compelling viewpoints. If you want to stand out further, you can take a controversial stance or introduce some compelling new viewpoint in your industry. This is a bit of a gamble, since you might push some of your target demographic away, but you’ll stand apart from your competitors and will make yourself a valuable resource to cite when someone in your industry inevitably comes along to cover the topic in more depth.
If you already have an audience and your content is good enough, it might be able to attract links on its own—but realistically, that’s unlikely. Even the best content needs some line of support, to generate an initial audience and build momentum. After all, what good is your groundbreaking content if nobody knows it exists?
The best way to support your content is through a cycle of promotion and syndication. With promotion, you’ll use social media marketing and similarly inexpensive channels to raise awareness of your content’s existence. You might also share it in a company newsletter, pay for advertising, submit a press release about it, or share it to a community forum. Ideally, this will get hundreds to thousands of initial eyes on your work, and those readers can share your content even further.
As an added measure of support, you can redistribute your content periodically, every few weeks, to capture the attention of any readers or followers you missed the first time around. Granted, this strategy works much better if you already have a social media following in place, but any steps you take to improve your content’s visibility will be valuable.
Another way to earn links as naturally as possible is to work with other influencers within your industry. Influencer marketing is a topic that warrants its own article, but the basic premise is easily digestible; you’ll target a handful of people in your industry who already have a significant following and lots of respect, expose them to your work, and somehow persuade them to share it with their followers.
Depending on how you use the strategy, this could aid you in almost any online marketing campaign, but since we’re focusing on referral traffic, your goal should be to get yourself cited as a resource in your target influencer’s ongoing blog work. Accordingly, you’ll need to present each influencer with a link to or a copy of your most valuable content, and explain why you think it’s going to be beneficial for them. It could be a list of statistics, a new research essay, or some critical counterargument to a topic they’re passionate about. If they take notice, and rely on your work to fuel theirs, you could easily find yourself cited in their next landmark piece.
You may also be able to earn links by participating in various community events, or volunteering for charitable causes. For example, if you donate your space, or food and drinks to a local charitable event, they may thank you on their donor page with a link to your website. Or if your company seizes the opportunity to become a speaker at a local event for entrepreneurs, you might be listed as a featured brand on the event page.
The advantage here is that you won’t have to do much work to get featured, and you may earn a reputation boost simply by being affiliated with the organization or community. The disadvantage is you won’t be able to guarantee any context for the people encountering your link.
Natural link attraction can only get you so far. If you want to see consistent, measurable effects from your link building strategy, you’ll need to build at least some links manually. So long as you build links in a natural way, you won’t have to worry about getting penalized by Google, and you’ll have much more control over where your links are posted, how often they’re built, and what kind of traffic is exposed to them.
Though guest posts on external publishers are the all-around best way to earn referral traffic, there are several strategies you can use under this umbrella.
No matter what specific strategy you use to build links, you’ll need to pay careful attention to the quality of those links, both so you can escape the threat of a Google penalty and ensure that your links yield referral traffic as reliably and as valuably as possible.
These are the essential qualities you’ll need to keep in mind:
- Permanence. One of the advantages of a referring link is that it keeps sending traffic to your site indefinitely—so long as it remains active. There’s no way to guarantee the permanence of your link, but there are some strategies you can use to maximize your potential here. For example, you can choose publishers that are well-known and unlikely to go under in the next several years, and you can only choose to publish links that are highly relevant for the target audience of a given publisher.
- Relevance. Speaking of relevance, you’ll need to make sure all your referral links are as relevant as possible—to the article, to your publisher, and to your readership. This can be a stretch for some publications and some topics, so don’t be afraid to forgo an opportunity if it means building an irrelevant link. Relevant links attract better traffic because that traffic is genuinely interested in your brand—plus relevant links are less likely to be removed.
- Exposure. The more exposure a link has, the more traffic it’s going to yield, which is why it’s better to procure a link on a highly authoritative source with lots of regular traffic. When you’re first starting out, getting featured on high-authority publications is difficult, bordering on impossible, but as you gain more experience, you’ll be able to get links on bigger, more powerful sources.
- Urgency and appeal. Your end goal in building links for referral traffic is getting a click—but users will forgo clicking a link if there’s no apparent immediate benefit. You need to construct links that have some kind of direct appeal to your readers, such as promising to give them a practical tip, new knowledge, or further information on a touched-on topic. The more urgency you’re able to instill in your anchor text, the more likely it will be that your readers will follow the link. This is a subjective art, so it’s hard to master.
- Nofollow potential. Remember, since you’re going after referral traffic primarily, you can take advantage of nofollow links. Nofollow links are links with the “nofollow” HTML tag and are, for the most part, ignored by search engine crawlers. This means you won’t have to worry about being penalized by Google for the nature of a nofollow link, since Google is essentially blind to it – but human readers won’t be!
- Incidental bonuses. Finally, you’ll need to think about any incidental bonuses you’ll get from a referral link. For example, if you don’t have a nofollow tag, the link may help you increase your domain or page authority for SEO. If your anchor text directly calls out your brand name, it may help you build your brand’s recognition, reputation, and influence.
Types of Citations
The best way to build a link off-site is to “cite” something. In other words, you’ll be using your link to validate, point out, or reference something that’s already on your site. This will ensure that your link is relevant, since it will be giving a reader context or important information to understand the full scope of the article. It’s also a standard practice for writing articles, regardless of any promotional intentions you have, so it will be easier for your links to blend in.
There are several sub-types of citations to consider:
- Using your business as an example or feature. You could list your business as an example within the body of your content, or even highlight it as the main focus of the feature. For example, you could write an article in the style of a press release (or even an actual press release), and explain something newsworthy that your business accomplished; the problem here is you might have trouble getting accepted by publishers. You could also list your company as an example in a long list of possible options; for example, your productivity app could be listed as one of several productivity apps in a list about how to get more work done during the day.
- Referencing specific data or research. This is one of the best modes of citation, since nobody can dispute its importance. When you mention a specific fact, statistic, or data point, you need to credit the original source by linking to it. If that source happens to be a page on your website, you’ll reap the benefits of the traffic that chooses to follow that link. The only trouble here is that not all readers make it a point to follow up on the numbers; they might take your data at face value.
- Lending a quote. You can also cite a page of your website if you’re borrowing a specific quote from it, or link to your homepage if you’re quoting someone within your business specifically for the piece. Again, these types of links have strong permanence and relevance, since they need to be included for citation purposes, but you might see a lower rate of click-through traffic as a result. It’s a tradeoff all referral traffic marketers have to live with.
- Referencing a page with more information. One of my personal favorite methods is to link to a page with the specific intention of using it to provide readers with more information or elaboration on a key point. For example, let’s say I’m writing an article about how to make a home look more attractive for prospective buyers, and one of my points is about painting your rooms the right color. I could then encourage readers to read my own blog post on color theory, which would elaborate on the main point of the article. This provides readers with valuable information without detracting from the core subject of the piece, so it has a low likelihood of being removed, but at the same time, it encourages them to click through.
- Fleshing out your author byline or profile. Most off-site publishers will ask you to write a byline for your author profile, or create one for you. This is usually your chance to link to a homepage, a social media profile page, or a specific internal page of your site. You might not get a spike of traffic initially when the link is first posted, but as long as you continue to contribute regularly, this link will be a source of consistent returns for you. This link is also straightforwardly described, so the only visitors you get from it will be people actively interested in your brand.
- Acknowledging a partnership or affiliation. You can also earn a link with potential for referral traffic if you’re being acknowledged as a partner or affiliate. For example, if you donate or volunteer services to a charitable organization, they might thank you on a “sponsors” page, or if you’ve created an app that manages company security, you might be included as a kind of trust badge. These links can be valuable, but in terms of referral traffic, they’re usually a secondary priority.
As you’ll see in the next few subsections, there are many possibilities for building links capable of sending referral traffic your way, but the most valuable is building citation links in the body of an article you’ve written for an external publisher.
Why is this so powerful?
- Consistency. Building links through other methods can be hit or miss—you might get a link removed by the hosting website, or incur a penalty if your work isn’t relevant. You also have to be more opportunistic about when to strike. Publishing with external authorities allows you to create a steady stream of content, yielding much more consistent returns.
- Contextual control. Because you’ll be in charge of writing the content surrounding your referral link, you’ll have more contextual control. You can use your choice of topics to funnel your audience down to more relevant readers, and create lead-in and anchor text that gives you the highest potential rate of click-throughs.
- Scalability. With guest posting, you can scale your strategy as far as you want. The more you work to build your authority, the greater your reputation will become, and the more publishers you’ll gain access to.
The major downside of writing articles for other publishers is that your returns will be based on the level of effort you put in; this isn’t a fast strategy, and it’s one that demands intensive, consistent effort for the best possible returns.
That said, the process is learnable.
Establishing Your Reputation
Your first goal should be establishing a reputation. This is going to help you in two important ways.
First, you’ll need a reputation if you’re going to be accepted by external publishers—and the bigger, the better. Publishers want to make sure they’re only accepting content from verifiably authoritative authors, so you’ll have to prove that by building your reputation to their level. The better you’re perceived, the easier it will be to get a guest slot, and the more high-level publishers you’ll be able to access.
Second, you’ll need somewhere to reap the benefits of your incoming traffic. Referral traffic is only as valuable as the actions they take when they’ve reached their destination—so you’ll need a strong archive of content ripe for conversions if you want to be successful.
You’ll need four main things to build that reputation:
- A niche. Publishers look for experts—they don’t want anyone with an internet connection to start writing for them. And while it’s possible to build expertise in a general area (like “marketing”), it’s better to pick a specific niche for yourself to start, and expand from there (like “search engine marketing for small businesses”). The more specific, the faster you’ll be able to build your reputation—and the more you’ll distinguish yourself from your competitors. Do your market research before you come to a decision, and start looking at prospective publishers within that niche.
- A blog. Next, you’ll need to have a blog in place. This is going to be the first place your prospective publishers look when they’re evaluating your expertise and determining your writing abilities. It’s also going to give you space to create content that you can eventually link to. Accordingly, you’ll want to have a few dozen posts in your archive before you start trying to get featured. If you’re starting from scratch, make sure to backdate them so your blog appears older than it actually is.
- A personal brand. I also advise you to have a personal brand in place. Too many companies make the mistake of writing blogs and building a reputation around their corporate brand, but this is limiting; personal brands are easier for developing a readership, and are more trusted by both readers and publishers. If you’re new to the world of personal branding, don’t fret; this is just a way for you to advertise your individual personality as an author, rather than your alignment with a brand, specifically. It’s also possible to have multiple personal brands under the umbrella of your corporate brand, which is especially advantageous for large-scale initiatives.
- Social media channels. Finally, you’ll want to develop your presence on social media, claiming specific profiles for your personal brands and syndicating your best content regularly. Here, you can start engaging with followers who might be interested in your work, and integrating yourself into the communities that will eventually be reading your publications. Talk with your followers regularly if you want them to stay interested. And while more followers isn’t necessarily better, a higher follower count may look more impressive to a publisher evaluating your current reputation.
Getting Your First Feature
Once you have a solid reputation and a foundation of content in place, you can start working on the next major milestone: getting your first guest post. In some ways, this is the hardest step of the process, since you won’t have much external work to reference when applying for the gig.
Still, you can maximize your chances for success with attention to the following:
- The publisher. Don’t email dozens of publishers in the hopes that one of them will bite. Instead, narrow your focus to a handful of publishers who have the highest chance of accepting your publication. Usually, that means picking a publisher somewhat low on the totem pole—they should have a reputation, but nothing so significant that you don’t stand a chance of getting accepted. If they have an open submission policy, even better. Finally, make sure the publisher is as close to your niche as possible; if you can’t find a publisher with your niche exactly, find one with subject matter that is niche-adjacent.
- The pitch. Once you’ve decided on a publisher, it’s time to make a pitch. You’ll need to look over the website to find contact information for the editor or webmaster in charge of operations. If the information isn’t publicly available, consider using online search tactics to find it. Once you have the editor’s information, address them personally and directly; make it clear that you understand the intentions of the publication, and indicate your desire to be a part of it. Then, pitch two or three ideas for content, falling in line with the publication’s target audience and typical content. Include a couple of title options for each, as well as a one- or two-sentence description of what the article would be about. You’ll also want to include links to your blog and social profiles, as a kind of resume.
- The editorial process. Assuming your pitch is accepted, you’ll begin the editorial process. This process will vary wildly from publisher to publisher, but there are a handful of similarities that nearly all publishers share. You may be given a deadline, or have free reign for submission. Either way, you’ll need to review any editorial standards or guidelines they have before you begin your draft. When you’re done, you’ll submit the first draft to the editor, and they’ll usually come back with suggested edits and tweaks—try not to argue at this point. It’s better to get your foot in the door, even if it means making significant compromises. If they remove your referral link, ask yourself why, but continue forging the relationship; you’ll have more opportunities for referral links in the future.
At this point, your goals are twofold: maintain your working relationship with your original publisher, and expand to new territory.
It’s important to maintain relationships with any editor or publisher you’ve had a positive relationship with in the past. This is partially to stay on good terms, so you can all but guarantee that your existing referral links will remain active and relevant. It’s also so you can have the opportunity to post more content in the future, should you decide to do it. If you stay on good terms with the editor and the community as a whole, you might also earn the chance to get referrals for other opportunities with other publishers.
Working Up the Ladder
In addition to maintaining your existing relationships, you’ll want to start “working up the ladder” of domain authority. Higher-authority publishers, with higher volumes of traffic and (typically) more attentive readers, will earn you more traffic for every link you build. They’ll also serve as more valuable stepping stones to whatever your next publishing opportunity is.
Each new publisher you contact should show an improvement in at least one of the following areas:
- Traffic. Some sites openly publish their traffic volumes, but for other sites, you’ll have to get creative. The higher and more consistent a site’s traffic stream, the more referral traffic your links are going to receive.
- Relevance. Early in your referral traffic campaign, you’ll want to focus on publishers related to your core niche, or at least publishers that appeal to your target demographics. But once you establish a bigger authority, you may want to expand your reach to more general publishers; you might have to get creative when working niche links into generalized content, but the end results will be a bigger reputation and far more incoming traffic.
- Authority. You’ll also want to keep a site’s domain authority in mind; while authority and traffic are highly correlated thanks to search rankings, you may find that some high-authority sites have lower volumes of traffic. This is because some sites are more concerned with quality, authority, and esteem than generating traffic. Use this information to your advantage; if your goal is referral traffic, don’t be afraid to turn down a high-authority opportunity in favor of a publisher with more traffic overall.
The process will be slow at first, but once you reach a high level of authority, and build a reputation with thousands of followers, you’ll have access to virtually any publisher you want.
Maintaining a Consistent Approach
For optimal results, it’s a good idea to keep a consistent process. That doesn’t mean publishing the same types of content to the same publishers over and over (on the contrary, fresh content ideas are far better), but it does mean remaining consistent in the following areas:
- Goals. You need an overarching vision for your campaign. For example, are you striving to reach a certain milestone of traffic volume? Or are you more concerned with getting high-converting traffic to your site? All your efforts should be focused on achieving this goal, however it manifests.
- Relationship maintenance. Consider setting up an editorial calendar, so you can continue making submissions to most (if not all) of the old publishers you’ve worked with in the past. Keeping them on a regular rotation, even if it’s only one post per month, can help you keep your traffic streams fresh and your relationships active.
- Progression. You should also prioritize consistency in your progression up the chain of authoritative publishers. Don’t remain complacent with your current lineup of publishers for too long; advancing into new territory, with publishers of higher authority and access to higher traffic, is the only way to reach new audiences and maintain your growth. As with most inbound marketing strategies, the more you invest, and the longer you pursue this strategy, the higher your returns are going to be.
These three areas of consistency will ensure you keep receiving a steady stream of inbound traffic, with enough momentum to sustain whatever type of growth you’re pursuing.
Consistency is also important because it allows you to more efficiently evaluate your progress; when you have a long history of documented traffic patterns and solid expectations for the results of your work, you can tell when a certain publisher isn’t working out, when one article significantly outperforms your others, or when your efforts are cumulatively yielding a higher or lower return. I’ll dig more into the ROI of your campaign in the final section of this article, but to reap the full benefits of that analysis, you’ll need to be consistent in your approach.
Outsourcing Your Work
You’re going to encounter a couple of key problems as you attempt these efforts:
- Pace. Generating referral traffic isn’t going to net you an immediate return; your first few publishers won’t give you much traffic, and it’s going to take months to build your reputation enough to see something substantial. Accordingly, you may become frustrated with your pace of development.
- Time investment. As you start adding more publishers, you’ll find that maintaining relationships with all of them can be ridiculously time-intensive. You’ll need to generate dozens of articles per months, and at higher levels of development, per week. Maintaining a level of quality and thought leadership in those conditions can be a challenge for even the most effective, experienced writers.
- Trial and error. If this is your first time attempting the strategy, you’ll face a steep learning curve. You’ll struggle to come up with topic ideas consistently, you might experience difficulty finding relevant publishers, and you’ll certainly face significant rejection from editors. This trial-and-error process can significantly interfere with your return on investment (ROI), and frustrate you to the point where you don’t want to continue—even if better results are just a few tweaks away.
The solution to all these problems is outsourcing your referral traffic strategy. Some content marketing firms, like SEO.co, specialize in creating off-site content for the purposes of link building.
Because they already have an extended network of publishing profiles, connections to editors, and a fleet of talented writers, they can place content and generate referral traffic far more efficiently than any newcomer. Even high-budget plans should cost you far less than the equivalent time required to build a campaign on your own.
Another option for building links capable of generating referral traffic is to place links on Q&A sites (like Quora) and special forums (related to your industry).
The overall goal here is to use a personal branding profile to answer other users’ questions, including a link to back up your statements or elaborate on a specific point.
There are three main steps to take:
- Establish yourself within the community. First, work on establishing yourself within the community. Create and flesh out a profile for your personal brand, and start engaging with posts and other individuals. Avoid building links right away; it’s better if you have a few answers, comments, and interactions under your belt before you start trying to self-promote. Over time, you’ll establish your expertise within your target niche.
- Start slow, and avoid excessive promotion. Be careful how you include your first few referral links. If it looks like you’re answering questions for the sole purpose of generating referral traffic, people aren’t going to value your response, and you might get your link removed—or your account banned entirely. You can make your links stronger and more relevant by including links to other resources, by ensuring your link is genuinely valuable to the thread, and by including a diversity of links across your responses (and sometimes, not including a link at all).
- Create synergy with your other strategies. Posting links on these channels allows you to build synergy with your other strategies; by building a reputation for yourself on Quora and forums specific to your niche, you’ll be able to attract more social media followers—giving you two more good reasons a publisher would want to accept your work. As you gain more upvotes and notoriety, make sure you reference your profile when pitching to new editors.
Because many threads and questions will only get limited exposure, there isn’t as much room for growth in this method of referral traffic generation. However, it’s a great way to build a foundation for your strategy.
In a similar approach, you can use your personal brand to leave blog comments on other authors’ blog posts, with links pointing back to your site. This can be a risky strategy, since blog comments are typically heavily monitored for spam and self-promotion; accordingly, these links will need to be highly relevant if they’re going to survive.
Make sure you choose blogs with heavy traffic and active comment sections, and link your social media profiles if you can. If you’re active enough on a blog related to your industry, you can build your visibility and reputation, and hopefully make it easier to get your content featured on that channel in the future.
Google’s link policy forbids you from paying for links for the purposes of boosting your reputation and search rankings, but there’s a significant exception: affiliate links. Affiliate links are paid promotional links, which typically compensate the link’s host for any meaningful traffic they send the affiliate’s way.
Because Google considers this a form of advertising, rather than rank manipulation, it’s an acceptable form of promotion—so long as you use the nofollow tag and don’t attempt to disguise the fact that it’s a paid link. But because it’s a link, it operates in a gray area between paid traffic and referral traffic.
Paid links aren’t nearly as inexpensive or efficient as other link building strategies, but if you’re struggling to generate early momentum for your campaign, this can be a way to kick-start your inbound traffic—and maybe start building a relationship with another publisher.
How can you tell if your efforts are working? You’ll feel good when you get your first few articles published, but how are you going to gauge whether you’re getting enough traffic to justify your efforts? In other words, are you seeing a higher rate of return than your rate of investment?
The only way to know for sure is to commit to regular sessions of measurement and analysis. By using tools like Google Analytics, you can delve into the exact makeup of your referral traffic, and monitor how it develops over time.
Ultimately, the best measurement you have for the success of your campaign is your return on investment (ROI), which will tell you how much value you’re getting compared to what you’re investing into the campaign.
This is a simple formula, but a complex metric to track.
Let’s start with the “investment” side of the equation. You’ll start by tallying up all the costs you’ve expended for a given period—let’s say a month. Include any money you’ve spent on outsourcing, as well as a cash equivalent of whatever time you’ve spent on creating content and placing links. Time tracking software like Toggl can help you keep track of your time expenditure if you’re confused on how much time you’re spending.
Let’s say you’ve come to a total of $2,000 for the month.
The “return” side of the equation is a little more complicated to track. You’ll need to know two things:
- The average value of a visitor.
- The number of referral visitors you receive.
To calculate the average value of a visitor, first calculate the value of a conversion. If you sell a product, you can get to this figure by finding the average value of an order. If you collect form submissions as leads, you’ll need to calculate the lifetime value of a customer and multiply that by your average close rate. You’ll need to rely on internal tracking methods to figure out these metrics.
Once you know the value of a conversion, things get much easier. By setting up Goals in Google Analytics, you can track the number of conversions you get in a given month (or any other time period you choose), as well as a percentage-based conversion rate.
(Image Source: Google)
If you need help setting up Goals, Google has an excellent guide on the subject.
Once you know your conversion rate and the average value of a conversion, you can multiply them together to get the average value of a visitor. For example, if your average conversion value is $50, and your conversion rate is 5 percent, your average visitor value will be $2.50—and that’s the first metric you need to know.
Next, you need to know the number of referral visitors you receive. You can access these data by heading to the Acquisition submenu, then the All Traffic submenu, and then clicking on Referrals.
Once there, you’ll be able to view all your referrals for given period. Use the upper-right parameters to select a specific date range, and for now, pay attention to the total number of referral visitors for the month.
Now let’s say you’ve gotten 1,000 referral visitors for the month.
Here’s what we know:
- You’ve spent $2,000.
- You’ve gotten 1,000 referral visitors.
- Each referral visitor is worth an average of $2.50.
Multiply the average value of a referral visitor by the number of referral visitors to get your total return—$2,500—then compare that figure to your investment–$2,000. In this case, you had an ROI of $500, which means you’re making more money than you’re spending.
Do note that since referral traffic is a strategy that takes a long time to develop, your ROI for the first month or two will likely be low, or even negative. Only after a few months of consistent effort will you see your ROI start to grow.
That said, if you’re doing everything correctly, you should see your ROI growing consistently, reaching significant positive territory at the peak of your campaign. If your ROI stagnates or never becomes positive, it’s a sign there’s something wrong, and you’ll need to make an adjustment.
Your overall ROI is an important snapshot to evaluate how your campaign is going overall, but if you want to make intelligent changes to your campaign, you’ll need to dig a bit deeper. To start, you can look at the quality of each of your sources, based on the following criteria:
- Visitors per referring link (or per article). In the Referral traffic section I mentioned in the previous subsection, you can find a list of all the traffic you’ve gotten from each of your referring sources. This should sort your sources in terms of most to least traffic by default; accordingly, your most valuable sources will be listed at the top. Look at how many links you’ve built or how many articles you’ve posted, and divide your traffic by that figure—this will tell you how much traffic you stand to gain from each new article or link, which should allow you to gauge the relative worth of each source.
- Article popularity and traffic potential. It’s also a good idea to check the publishing site directly for metrics related to your work; most publishers will make statistics like pageviews and time spent on page available to their guest authors. The more popular your articles are on a publishing site, the more valuable that site likely is for your brand. You may also want to look at the traffic potential of a given site by looking at some of their top overall articles. If there’s a major discrepancy between the top articles on the referring site and your articles, it’s a sign your content isn’t as relevant or appropriate for the site as it could be. Keep this in mind when evaluating the worth of each source.
- Number of opportunities and ease of publishing. It’s also worth considering the degree of effort you must put into publishing on a given site; if the editors are picky and it takes you three times as long to write the articles you publish, it might not be worth the extra effort if it only results in a marginal increase in referral traffic. Conversely, a site that makes it easy to publish may be worth the minimal investment even if it only yields a small amount of traffic.
- Audience quality. Quantity doesn’t always mean quality, even in the world of referral traffic. Make sure you also evaluate the qualitative aspects of the traffic you get from each referral source. There are several things you can look at here, including user behavior (which I’ll dig into in the next subsection), but for now, take a look at the Behavior and Conversion metrics you’ll see on the Referrals page of Analytics. If a source has a particularly low bounce rate, a high session duration, and a high number of pages per session, it’s a sign that this referral source is especially valuable to you. The same goes for if a source’s traffic has a higher conversion rate than another’s. Keep this in mind when comparing sources.
- Domain authority. Finally, consider checking the domain authority of each referral source; this can tell you how much secondary SEO value you can get from your links, and give you an indication of the relative strength of each publisher. Moz’s Open Site Explorer is a great tool for calculating this metric—just enter the URL and view Authority on the left.
(Image Source: Moz)
If you use the ROI calculation above while filtering traffic based on individual sources, you can loosely calculate the ROI of your individual sources. This is more information than most early-stage campaigns will need, but it can be a valuable tool if you’re on the fence about a particular referrer’s value.
If one source appears to have a problematically low ROI or overall value, don’t be afraid to cut it from your regular lineup—especially if you have lots of other sources to make up the difference. And if a source appears especially valuable, see if you can step up your quantity of posts there.
Let’s take a deeper dive into user behavior, since it can tell you about a referral source’s traffic makeup, as well as how effective your site is at handling incoming referral traffic. This is more of a qualitative evaluation than a quantitative one, so don’t expect any absolute conclusions to come from it. Instead, use it to:
- Break ties between similarly-valued sources. If two referral sources appear similar, gauge user behavior to determine which one is “better” for your brand.
- Learn how topics relate to onsite behavior. Pay attention to the user behavior associated with referral traffic from different articles and links. You can use this information to select more powerful content topics and link archetypes in the future.
- Adjust your site layout. Optimizing for user behavior and conversions is a topic that warrants its own guide, but it’s important to acknowledge; even if you’re getting lots of referral traffic, if your site isn’t optimized for conversions, you may still see a low ROI. Examining user behavior can clue you into weaknesses and point you in the direction of useful optimizations.
The Behavior tab in Google Analytics will give you access to tons of metrics, including pageviews, time spent on page, bounce rates, exit rates, and how users are navigating throughout your site.
Up top, you’ll have the ability to filter traffic by referral source by adding different “Segments.”
It’s also worth measuring other benefits you get from your referral traffic strategy that aren’t specifically referral traffic. For example, your link building endeavors will likely boost your domain authority and search rankings, and therefore improve your organic traffic figures as well. Being more active with offsite publishers, blogs, and forums will also have a measurable impact on your brand awareness, which is difficult to calculate, but is significant nonetheless.
If you’re pursuing other marketing strategies, give them a comparative analysis; you may find the need to tweak your budget toward or away from referral traffic once you learn how its ROI and overall effectiveness compare to those of the other tactics in your wheelhouse.
Referral traffic has enough power and potential to serve as a standalone strategy to support your brand, but because it has so many ties to other valuable marketing strategies, it’s best used as another thread of traffic generation in a comprehensive campaign. It may take you a few months to a few years to gain the experience and build the authority necessary to reap the fullest potential of a referral traffic-centric strategy, but it’s worth the effort.
Alternatively, you can enlist the help of a content marketing firm that specializes in generating referral traffic for its customers. At SEO.co, that’s precisely our specialty. Contact us today to learn more about how we can amp up referral traffic to your site—with some of the best content in the industry.
He is a recurring speaker at the Search Marketing Expo conference series and a TEDx Talker. Today he works directly with high-end clients across all verticals to maximize on and off-site SEO ROI through content marketing and link building.