A few weeks ago, word-of-mouth, paid and natural search were neck-and-neck as leading referrers to the HitTail site. But then, John Battelle’s Search Blog pulled ahead of both our AdSense ads and all Google natural search hits as the top referrer, and the key insight was how much of a direct traffic-mover single hits from high profile sites can be. While the coverage remains on the main homepage, word of mouth (PR) can eclipse the natural search traffic. It establishes sort of a traffic surge that annoyingly trails off as it disappears from the homepage, and the effect diminishes.
The goal is with enough subsequent “big hits”, you can get a rising plateau pattern, each time pulling your average traffic level up to new heights. The pattern of traffic peeking, diminishing and new averages shows the relationship between an effective online outreach campaign and overall website traffic.
But over the past month, social networking sites entered the mix in a big way! Stumbled Upon has now displaced John Battelle in the top-3 referring sources. So now, the breakdown goes:
1. Google natural search
2. Google paid search (calibrated to be neck-and-neck with natural)
3. Stumble Upon (about 1/3 the traffic-level of natural)
4. John Battelle’s Search Blog (about 1/4 traffic-level of natural)
Another surprising and noteworthy referrer is the Site Build It! forums, a by-invitation-only forum for users of their product. I can’t even register there to see the discussion, but it appears that it is a product (and a process) to help people build effective sites and traffic who don’t know much about the Web or development. Forums are a sort of old-school social networking. Seems like a perfect match for HitTail. It’s coming in with about half the unique’s that Battelle is generating these days. In a way, it shows the overlap of what I may call a social networking referrer and a word-of-mouth or PR referrer. In the end, everything that’s non-paid falls under the public relations umbrella–whether it’s through mainstream media, search results, blogs, forums, social networking, bookmarks or social tagging systems. It’s all public relations.
When you take that into account, most of the referring sources actually fall into this category. And that’s the long tail of my referring sources.
What’s the take-away?
When you look at only the top-referring sources, you have a horse race. Lump all Google natural search hits together: that’s one horse. Lump all paid search hits together: that’s another horse. And look at your next biggest single-site traffic driver: that’s the third horse. It appears to be a neck-and-neck race (you can always calibrate your paid-hits to be close to natural if you’re willing to spend enough), and the gap between that and your next largest referrer is your PR outreach deficit.
But add up everything beyond your top referrers (the long tail) and you quickly realize that most everything is of the un-paid public relations category (consisting of everything but paid campaigns). Unless you’re made of money, an online public relations campaign may be the most effective way to go.