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If Social Marketing is So Big, Where Are All the New Visitors?

by Tim Leighton-Boyce

Traffic attribution pie chart with question markYou’re almost certainly getting a better return on your social marketing that you think. It’s just not showing up where you’re looking for it.

Updated: March 2015 – Link to import a GA segment template for ‘sessions attributed to ‘Direct’ which start on a page other than the home page’
October 2012 – another interesting resource and discussion.
July 2012 – more new resources.
May 2012 Google announce dramatic new extension of social reporting beyond your site

The announcement of Google +1 turned the volume of excitement over social marketing all the way up to 11. But for some time now the people who count numbers will have been looking at the figures for visits to their web sites from social networks and scratching their heads.

“If social is so ‘big’ why can’t I see those visits in my site’s analytics?”

There is a big elephant in the web-analytics room. We are less likely to accurately track visits referred from social networks than we are visits from more traditional sources. ‘Less’ likely because the rise of those sources of traffic has coincided with (or helped cause) the rise in use of mobile apps or desktop clients at the expense of traditional web browsers.

So the visits you see as being reported as referred from one of the social networks are only the tip of the iceberg.

If your calculations of the return on your efforts in social marketing are based on those referred visits, plus the visits from campaigns which you started and tagged yourself, you’re only seeing a small part of the story.

How small?

Thomas Baekdal posted some interesting estimates of the effect of incorrect social referrers on his data a year ago. The situation will probably have become more extreme since then as mobile continues to surge ahead.

[Update: There’s also a superb detailed discussion of the subject here: from one — who offer a solution for tracking the social activity which you started for yourself. ]

I recently had a chance to see this effect for myself. One of the advantages is having some very low-profile personal web sites is that you can sometimes observe things which might be lost in the general noise of a busy commercial site.

A few weeks ago Avinash Kaushik was kind enough to Tweet about one of my blog posts. The effect of having an industry leader like that post a link is instant and dramatic. I also know the exact source of the spike in visits.

Here’s the spike:

Google Analytics All Traffic Sources report showing traffic spike

And this is where Google Analytics thinks they came from (date range changed to show just the day of the Tweet):

Google Analytics pie chart showing breakdown of Tweet traffic as mostly from direct, not referral

To break that down (who knows whether you can see the images wherever you’re reading this).

  • The Tweet caused a clear spike of c170 visits (I really do believe we can agree that ’caused’ is ok here)
  • 30% were counted as referrals by GA
  • 60% were counted as direct by GA

Within the referrers (in v5 the Overview reports are now good for this kind of thing) we can see Twitter in top spot with 39 visits, followed by Hootsuite with 10 visits. sent 1 visit, by the way.

Avinash’s followers are tech savvy and the spike began as soon as he tweeted. The chances are the majority of those people were using some kind of app on their desktop or, more likely, a mobile device. Google Analytics had no referrer information and no campaign tag to tell it what to do, so it dumped the visits in the great bucket which should be called “unattributed” or “I haven’t a clue” but is know for historical reasons as ‘direct’. This does not just apply to Google Analytics, it will be true of any system which is using the referral data from the web browser to track the source of the visit. The ‘direct’ bucket is one of the standard features of web analytics.

To make matters worse, this kind of visit is the most critical aspect of social marketing.

Blasting out nicely tagged-up campaign Tweets or Facebook links back to your site is only really a slight variation on the traditional outbound direct promotion. The real strength of the social web is when your customers refer you to their friends and the word spreads from person to person simply on the basis of the quality of your products or services. That amplification of the reward for providing good service, products and value is the power of the social web. And it’s the part which is least likely to show up in your numbers.

[Update: At the risk of repetition, much of the discussion on this subject is revolving around the inability to track the return from social campaigns which companies have initiated themselves. There are solutions for that aspect already. But that kind of social marketing is very close to traditional on and off line promotion.

The aspect of on-line social activity which I think may be more significant is the ability for these new channels to amplify unsolicited mentions and praise of your products or service. Since you didn’t begin those conversations, you can’t tag them and you can’t easily see the benefit in your site’s data. We just don’t know.]

The announcement of the new social reports in Google Analytics is extremely welcome. These will provide a great way for getting insight into how well people are reacting to what your are offering them. That’s hugely valuable. It seems a much better measure than calculations of engagement based on page views, time on site or viewing specific micro-conversions, because it is based on a specific indication of liking something or wanting to share it. There’s an element of intent involved in such an action.

But that data is still about what’s happening on your site. The great promise of the social web is that it will be a means for new people to learn about your products or services through the amplification of referrals. Unless I’ve got this wrong, we’re still largely in the dark about the scale of customer acquisition through social marketing.

Common sense says social marketing matters. I’ll go with that for now. But I’d like my numbers too. Any ideas where I can find them?

Updates on Tracking Social Media in Google Analytics

  • March 2015: One way of getting a rough idea of the scale of the problem is to use a GA Segment to look at sessions which are attributed to ‘Direct’ but land on a page other than the home page. The assumption is that very few people would actually type in a deep link and so such sessions are unlikely really to have started that way. This link will import a starter GA segment which you can tweak to suit your own site: This segment is for an ecommerce site and also excludes visits landing in part of the checkout on the basis that those are unlikely to be ‘dark social’. To repeat: treat this as a starting point and edit to suit your site.
  • October 2012: Jim Gianoglio has posted another good article on this subject on the Lunametrics blog. Once again, the discussion thread is very interesting and points, for example, inconsistencies between clicking on a shortened URL on the Twitter site itself vs elsewhere and also the effect of RSS feeds to email. [Opens in new tab]
  • July 2012: Josh Davis has written a very detailed study of how Pinterest traffic from mobile devices may be seriously under-reported in GA, complete with a very useful suggestion about how to spot the effect in GA by using browser and operating system and mobile data to focus on likely visits. [Opens in new tab]

    Jim Gianoglio has posted an interesting article on this subject which includes some useful examples of how this effect can really skew your interpretation of the return from your promotional activity. The discussion thread is well worth reading. [Opens in new tab]

    For a very thorough discussion of the impact of multi-device use, but also the rise of social and apps which has taken place at the same time, see Thomas Baekdal again: [Opens in new tab]

  • April 2012: Christopher Penn has written a really good introduction to using the new GA Social reports here: [Opens in new tab]
  • March 2012: Google have announced more dramatic extensions to the social reporting functions in Google Analytics.

    I call these changes ‘dramatic’ because they bring information about how people are interacting with your brand on third-party sites right back into GA. This external information is presented in the context of what is happening on your site. In the case of Google+ and a select group of other social sites, the new reports even show the actual comments that are being posted elsewhere about your site.

    Up until this point the data in GA was mostly confined to what people did on the site plus data on where they came from and, perhaps, the search terms they used to get there.

    The Webmaster Tools integration started to add more information about how your site fitted into the wider world outside the site itself.

    GA seems to be on the cusp of a change into a tool which offers a broad mix of information about how your site sits within your market in general. All in one place.

    The official announcement is here: [Opens in new tab]

  • August 2011: Twitter are rolling out use of their URL shortener, which has the effect that more Twitter traffic will appear as referrals from their domain.

  • December 2011: In November I got another opportunity to see if the situation had changed.

    Once again, someone prominent Tweeted about something on this site and caused a spike in traffic which was very marked and coming from a ‘known’ source.
    Screenshot of Google Analytics visits report showing a sudden increase in visits

    But there was a difference in the attribution this time. 68% of the traffic was now correctly identified as being ‘referral.’
    Screenshot from Google Analytics showing as prominent source of visits
    The clue can be see in the form of that top referrer: is credited with nearly 80% of the referred visits.

    As explained in the August update above, during the period between the original spike described in the main post and this new one, Twitter had imposed a policy of redirecting links through their own shortening system. These links are now being reported as referred from

    This means that GA reports like the traffic sources reports and multi-channel reports are now giving you a much more accurate idea of the level of visits from Twitter. is already set up as part of the default ‘Social’ channel is multi-channel, for example.

    But the situation is still far from perfect. Those ‘direct’ visits are still suspiciously high. But this is a huge improvement in the space of a couple of months. There’s a lot of work going in to this and things are moving fast now.

  • July 2011: There is yet another excellent discussion here [Opens in new tab]
  • Watch the skies! (yes, still — this stuff keeps changing)

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim Leighton-Boyce August 3, 2011 at 2:15 pm

In the article above I try to make it clear that I’m not talking about the kind of social activity which we instigate ourselves by posting material on social sites or by providing social buttons on our sites.

I should make it clear that it also extremely important to track that kind of activity. There are systems for doing that, as discussed in the blog post.

There’s also great advice on the subject, such as in this article from Peter O’Neill:

But don’t be misled by the figures for social visits from this tagged activity. It’s only the tip of the iceberg. And the other social visits may well be even more valuable to you.

Tim Leighton-Boyce August 22, 2011 at 9:53 am

It looks as if Twitter have now started to address this issue and that we may now get a clearer picture:

Brian Clifton December 7, 2011 at 3:13 pm

Nice post Tim

One tip I have for GA users is to rename the referral medium of visits from social sources. So instead of being buried in the “Referral” category that often has thousands of entries, such visits get grouped under their own dedicated “social” medium using a rewrite filter.

More info on the rewrite filter is here:

As you can see its an old post, but the technique is still very useful and its pretty much a standard implementation for me…

Best regards, Brian

Tony May 21, 2012 at 10:26 pm

hi tim, just waNt to say thank about all the tips u shared. I found ur site through YouTube video where you teach about feedback from customer. In all case one of my feed back is that please put a live link in your YouTube video. This way user does not need to search for ur site cxfocus on google. They can simply click the link on YouTube to directly come to ur site.


Tim Leighton-Boyce May 22, 2012 at 1:19 pm

Thanks, Tony. Good point. I will try to add a link.

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