How referral traffic improves your rankings in Google

Linking is key. That statement, in the world of SEO, is like saying you need oxygen to breathe, its obvious – however, there have been many different arguments towards the benefit of linking in terms of referral traffic to help influence rankings within Google. I conducted a test some time ago and wanted to share the results within this blog entry. This data will hopefully highlight the benefits of obtaining links that provide a high volume of referrals and that this click through data influences rankings within Google.

Referral Traffic

Based upon traffic figures from the previous month, the website was averaging around 55k referral traffic per month – with the majority of this traffic hitting the homepage (the website isn’t based upon article creation). For testing purposes, we obtained an extra 30k traffic over the course of two days from a reputable website, with an extremely high authority (click the image for a clearer picture):

Traffic figures for September 2010 traffic test

This traffic from this source had:

  • a lower bounce rate than the website average (so pretty low)
  • users spending longer on the website than the average (over twenty minutes)
  • users click more pages than on average (over ten pages)

The results

The following chart highlights the position improvement for a number of keyword terms (highly competitive terms as well) over a two day period, following the influx of referral traffic:

Ranking improvement in Google

Conclusion & Findings

The purpose of this blog is not to state the obvious. “Getting an extra 30k referral traffic is good for your website” is not something that is very helpful. You get these blogs and web videos that give you ‘advice’ like “just keep building great content”, which of course is as useful as an inflatable dartboard. Its quite clear that adding over 30k referrals to your web traffic is extremely difficult to achieve, however these results highlight the importance of concentrating on obtaining links from webpages that can convert traffic (rather than looking at the outdated metric of PageRank for example).

Yes, anchor text is still key and also the placement of the link on the page. This link was positioned second out of five external links and just had the homepage URL within the anchor tags. Also, the link was setup using a ‘rel=nofollow’, highlighting the importance of traffic to the actual homepage, independent of other metrics. This position improvement was also reflected by another website (the one that featured above our domain) over the same period of time. This pattern has not be replicated within this industry since the time period tracked.

So what is your take on this? Does referral traffic, from ‘nofollow’ links, help influence keyword rankings within Google? If the website continued to obtain 30k extra referral traffic, would the positions have been maintained?

  • Sam

    Excellent post Andy.

    This type of analysis points directly to the benefits of having rich content on your site. Then getting that content “out there” in the form of links – ALL LINKS. Be it social media, RSS feeds, blogs etc.

    If Google favours the heavy traffic links then that is a good thing in my mind as this is less easy to manipulate by the spammers.

    However, there seems to be more 3-way linking than ever before, with Page Rank still a major factor in many linkers acquisitions and single page blogs set-up specifically for linking. – When this ends the better.

  • Chris

    It will be interesting to see if these search engine positions gradually move up to a consistent page one position as a result of this huge, albeit temporary, referral traffic increase. If the same experiment could be done with 30k extra referral traffic, but from follow links, then it would be interesting to see this side by side.

    Good blog Andy.

  • Daniel

    This is interesting data and suggests that Google SERPs are factoring in data that it could only get from sites with Google Analytics installed. So, based on this – links from sites with Google Analytics installed are potentially worth more than those without. Could it be true?

  • John Cole

    Highly insightful thank you, I do think your followers may perhaps want a lot more posts of this nature maintain the excellent work.

  • Jason H

    So Andy does this work for Wikipedia?

  • Bill

    Interesting. I always wondered if referrals had anything to do with traffic increases in Google (better SERP). I have no data to prove this, but it seems like it does play some sort of role. For instance, if you have a large StumbleUpon traffic spike, it isn’t too unusual to see an increase in Google traffic afterwards, even if small.