Google Analytics: direct vs. search engine vs. referral traffic

Google Analytics allows you to track where your customers are coming from. In your account, click on the ‘Traffic Sources’ bar on the left hand side (1.), and it will show you an ‘Overview’ of traffic coming to your site. Information on the different sources is displayed prominently on the screen (2.).

GA directreferorg

Google shows that there are three different ways customers ended up on your site, but what exactly do these mean? We’ll use a coffee shop example to explain.


You’re new in town, and don’t know the local hangouts yet. However, you know your favorite latte is at Starbucks. So, you’re able to go straight there to find what you want.

This is a good example of direct traffic, which is something we’d all like to see. A product is a household name and has such a great reputation that customers don’t even need to research it before they go (and buy!). Online, this equates to typing the URL into the address bar and – voila! – the correct site appears.

Search Engine

You’re new in town. There’s no Starbucks, but that doesn’t stop you from wanting that latte! You browse the phone book and come across “Latte Café” (sounds promising!). Sure enough, they serve exactly the drink you’re looking for.

This scenario stands in for most online search engine traffic. A customer who ultimately ends up on might start by searching Google for “photocopiers”. They KNOW what they’re looking for, but don’t know who provides it. When they type their query into a search engine, they are presented with two possible ways to find the information: organic search or paid (PPC) search.

GA organic ppc

How to tell the two apart:

GA paid nonpaidOrganic search

This source is called “organic,” because it’s natural; it hasn’t been paid for, so the results are not biased towards brands with a higher ad budget. Certainly, marketers have ways to influence it – this is the entire concept of SEO! (Feel free to learn some of our SEO tips.)

Paid Search

PPC campaigns also fall under Search Engine traffic, even though marketers pay for them. Their ads are placed in distinct sections around the ‘organic’ results.

While the interpretation of these two search engine categories can have very real and yet very different effects on your marketing campaigns, you don’t have to rely on estimation to figure out which traffic comes from which. Clicking on the previously referenced “Search Engines” link in the Traffic Sources overview screen of Google Analytics will lead you to a further breakdown of this source, and there you can select whether you want to view traffic results from non-paid (organic), paid (ppc & other sponsored ads), or total (all) sources. It’s that simple!


You’re new in town, and are craving a latte, but haven’t seen any local Starbucks. Phone directories are a thing of the past, so you ask a friend for help. Turns out, there’s one close by, just one street over from your normal commute. You stop by and enjoy that latte on your way home.

Google’s final category, “Referring Sites,” refers to traffic that came from another website. These “other websites” could be: partner sites, blogs, emails, posts on social media sites and more.

Clicking on the “Referring Sites” link in your traffic sources overview will show you every site that’s sent a visitor in your selected timeframe. Use referring sites to track your social media progress. You might also use these ‘Referring Sites’ to see if there are any blogs or websites out there that you’d like to partner with…after all, they’re already doing half of the work of directing traffic to your site!

  • Which traffic is better? Direct or referrials

  • Hey there! Neither traffic source is necessarily better. Direct traffic means that customers are familiar with your brand and typing your website URL directly into a browser. This might mean your offline marketing and branding is successful. Referral traffic means other people are talking about you and sharing your content. Both of these are awesome sources of traffic in our book!

  • Annie

    Great post! I really liked metaphor you used.

  • D24

    Good post

  • Thanks !

  • ESM

    when I click “referrals” in analytics is one fo the referrers. Why isn’t this under organic or “paid search”?

    • can show up as a referral if you are getting traffic
      through Google Groups posts, or static pages on related Google sites. Does that help?

  • Sarika Nigam

    thank you good article. which refferal method works best for new websites with low budget

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  • By far the best explanation ever! I’ve struggled to explain this before to someone who isn’t too familiar with Google Analytics. You guys have done an amazing job!

    • We’re so glad you found it helpful! We try to write an analytics tip each month, so stay tuned.

  • I am super new to the whole website, google adsense and analytics thing, so I have gotten as far as installing the jetpack on my wordpress to show me where people are coming from, usually it’s facebook, but for the first time, today… something new popped up and it said referral was from Google and I am just trying to figure out what led them to my website, like what word did they search for?

    • Hi @disqus_hX2kBr9Em1:disqus! Generally, referral traffic from Google is usually from Google Group posts. However, you can also get referral traffic from Google if you have something tagged incorrectly on your site.

      • RA

        Hi! Can you elaborate further on how you get traffic from Google if “something is tagged incorrectly” on a site? Is it possible for you to give an example? Thanks in advance!

  • Divisha

    which traffic is considered to be more important and better?
    Direct or organic ?