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?
And, according to Wordstream, most webmasters would love to see more referral traffic from organic search than from any other channel:
In this guide, I’ll walk you through the basics of generating referral traffic, including many 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.
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 SEO 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:
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:
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:
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?
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
(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:
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, particularly with our link building and quality content writing services. 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.