Is Search Traffic the Same as Referral Traffic?

Christy Walters


April 21, 2023 (Updated: May 4, 2023)

hand holding a cell phone with the google browser window open to represent search traffic and referral traffic

How your audience gets to your website can tell you a lot about who they are, what they’re looking for, and where they spend time online. The more you know about their browsing and searching habits, the better you can target them with your content and marketing campaigns. But to learn more, you have to understand the web analysis terminology that appears in your analytics results. Today, we’re looking at a common question you might have about web visits: is search traffic referral traffic?

What Is Referral Traffic?

Referral traffic makes up the visits to your domain that come from an outside, third-party site. It comes from backlinks on other websites and channels that lead to your site or content—like sharing links on social media. Some companies also use Urchin Tracking Modules (UTMs) to track exactly where your referral traffic comes from for specific ads and marketing campaigns. And these UTM parameters make it easier to see which social profiles, sites, and digital channels are driving the most traffic to your site.

Referral traffic is also helpful for SEO. When visitors get to your site from another platform or channel, it’s because they’ve clicked a link to get to your page or content. Google and other search engine algorithms view these clicks as proof of your site’s quality and relevance. This, in turn, can boost your domain rating and authority and can help you increase search engine positioning for your entire site or for specific pages and posts.

Related: Referral Links: Definition and Generation Tips

What Is Search Traffic?

hand holding a cell phone with the google browser window open to represent search traffic and referral traffic

Image via Unsplash by @solenfeyissa

Search traffic is any website visit to your domain that comes from a search engine query. There are two main types of search traffic:

  • Organic search traffic: This type of traffic comes from clicks on unpaid links recommended by the search engine for any keyword or query.
  • Paid search traffic: This type of traffic comes from clicks on paid advertisements on search engines for specific keywords or phrases.

Most search traffic comes from popular search engines like Google or Bing. Some may also come from lesser-used search engines like Yahoo or DuckDuckGo.

Related: Bing vs. Google SEO: What’s the Difference?

Are Referral Traffic and Search Traffic the Same Things?

Although both referral traffic and search traffic point visitors to your domain from third-party sources, analytics programs don’t track them the same way. When exploring your web traffic analytics reports, specifically from Google Analytics, you’ll see categories for referral, search, and direct traffic. Why do analytics programs break web traffic down this way? Each section covers one main type of search traffic that could have subcategories underneath it.

Referral traffic is any traffic that comes from a third-party source, such as another website. But for Google Analytics, this also counts for social and email traffic, too. These are all channels that are off of your domain. Google doesn’t put itself or other search engines in the same category as referrals. When a search engine recommends websites, pages, and content to its users, it’s not endorsing that content. It’s simply trying to provide the most helpful and factually accurate information for the search query. This is why there’s a separate category for search traffic.

Both of these categories differ from direct traffic, which doesn’t require any referral or placement at all. Direct visitors navigate to your site on their own without any help from search engines or third-party services.

Which Type of Traffic Should You Target for Your Website?

Driving traffic to your website doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. It’s best to target all types of traffic to your site from different channels to reach the largest audience of qualified leads possible. A strong web traffic generation plan takes advantage of all types to help you boost your reach and get referral traffic from all areas. Plus, targeting referral traffic can actually help you increase your search traffic.

Targeting both referral traffic and backlinks also help increase your domain authority (DA). Though DA isn’t a direct Google ranking factor, it does influence the likelihood that Google or other search engines showcase your content to searchers looking for specific queries. So, the more referral traffic you get, the better chance you have of raising your search engine positioning. And when you improve your positioning, your pages and content appear higher on the search engine results page (SERP) for your target keywords.

Pages on the first SERP for any keyword are the most likely to get clicks, which means you could get more search traffic from targeting your referral traffic. Having an integrated plan like this can help you do less work on your SEO while still increasing traffic across all channels.

Best Practices for Generating Referral Traffic

Referral traffic brings in visitors who are highly engaged and more likely to buy from your company than ones who land there from organic search. That’s why brands love targeting referral visitors. By focusing on referrals you can bring in new audience members actively looking for a solution to their problems. But there’s more to generating healthy referral traffic than just sharing links to your content. As with any successful strategy, targeting referral traffic takes planning, testing, and continuous improvement. Here are some best practices to follow as you get started:

Promote on Social Media

Social media is one of the most common places businesses start when targeting referral traffic. These channels can be key to increasing reach and brand awareness. Outreach through social media can also help you build beneficial partnerships that lead to results for your brand. And you have plenty of options here, too. Social offers a large pool of opportunities to drive additional referral traffic to your site or a specific landing page. Some of the most common options include paid social ads and content promotion through your company’s network.

Create an Outreach Strategy

Organic outreach is a valuable approach to expanding your partnerships and generating more referral traffic. Do you feature guest writers? Do you pitch content to other reputable platforms? Both tactics can be influential in driving referral traffic to your site. For instance, you might feature user-generated content from industry experts. They then promote the content on their social channels, getting more eyes on your brand.

Pitching guest posts to reputable sites that feature similar content to yours also gets results. Doing this lets you link back to your domain within the content. By sharing guest content on high-authority platforms you can further boost your reach and credibility. Doing so generates even more referral traffic for your brand.

Improve Your Backlink Profile

Your backlink profile is one factor Google and other search engines look at as part of your site’s authority and relevance. A large number of quality backlinks tells search engines that your business is an authority or expert on the topic users are searching for. On the other hand, a backlink profile full of low-quality, spammy sources can hurt your authority and rankings. Low-quality links tell search engines your site is associated with less authoritative platforms.

Before creating a whole new backlink strategy, though, it’s important to assess your current situation. Use your site audit tools—like Ahrefs, Semrush, or even the CopyPress content analysis tool—to review your best pages and the health of your backlink profile. Then, you can plan for link-building and content promotion strategies that increase your authority and referral traffic to your site.

Are you looking for additional strategies to build authority that go beyond just link-building? If you haven’t had the chance yet, make sure you catch the replay of our most recent webinar, Discover the Top 3 Ways To Build Authority by Going Beyond Just Link Building. Get expert insights from Director of Content Analysis, Jeremy Rivera, and VP of Partner Development, Sabrina Hipps, in this latest resource. They dive into exactly how brands can gain authority, build relationships, and thrive—even as AI tools take the marketing world by storm.

Then, be sure to download your copy of our free eBook Growing and Sculpting Your Link Portfolio. In it, you’ll get the info you need to review your current backlink profile and grow this valuable SEO asset for your brand.

Author Image - Christy Walters
Christy Walters

CopyPress writer

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