Referral source

A term used in digital analytics and more widely to indicate the source of visits to a website. This may reference the digital marketing channel (medium in Google Analytics) or individual website (source in Google Analytics). The main referral sources available in analytics and Digital marketplace mapping and ad Insights tools are:

  • Direct: In general, indicates visits where users navigated directly to the URL or the source of the visit is unknown. Determined by a source of direct and medium of (not set) or (none). This source of traffic may include visits prompted by offline media where the URL is typed in or ‘dark social media’ where people click through from a social network update on a mobile app which doesn’t have campaign tracking added.
  • Organic Search: Indicates visits from organic (unpaid) search results. Determined by medium of organic.
  • Social: Indicates visits from social networks (Facebook, Twitter, etc.).
  • Email: Indicates traffic from links clicked in email messages, whether mass email marketing or individual messages. Determined by medium of email.
  • Referral: Indicates traffic where users clicked a link from another site, excluding major search engines. Determined by medium of referral.
  • Paid Search: Indicates traffic from PPC campaigns run in search results. Determined by medium of ‘cpc’ in Google.

Also known as ‘traffic source’ or ‘referrer’ for short.


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Dr Dave Chaffey is co-founder and Content Director of digital marketing advice site Smart Insights. We’re a publisher and learning platform that helps our 150,000 active members in over 100 countries plan, manage and optimize their digital marketing activities by applying the actionable advice in our planning templates, guides and interactive e-learning tools.

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