July 13, 2011

How to analyze social traffic in Google Analytics

Guest post by Rand Fishkin
Founder & CEO, SEOmoz

If you use Google Analytics, you’ve undoubtedly seen a report like the one above. The problem is, there’s no breakdown of “social media” in this view of traffic sources, and with the dramatic rise of social media marketing, marketers need an easy way to segment and “see” this traffic separately from the rest of their referrers. We know it’s mixed in with “referring sites” and “direct traffic” but luckily, there’s a way to extract that data in just a few simple steps.

Create a custom segment

1Custom segments are the way to go for separating traffic into filter-able buckets for deeper analysis.

Google Analytics makes this fairly painless:

Google Analytics Step 1

From any of the “Traffic Sources” sections, just click the “Advanced Segments” in the upper-right hand corner and then the link to “Create a new advanced segment.”

Add social sources

2This is the most crucial part, and requires that you have a full list of the sites/words to include. I don’t recommend using just the domain names or URLs of the most popular social sites, but instead, some clever “catch-all” words using the “source” condition, as shown below:


Make sure to continue adding “OR” statements, not “and” statements. The latter will require that both conditions are met vs. any one of the “ORs.” Here’s the list of words I used, though you can certainly feel free to add to it:

  • twitter
  • tweet
  • facebook
  • linkedin
  • youtube
  • reddit
  • digg
  • delicious
  • stumbleupon
  • ycombinator
  • flickr
  • myspace
  • hootsuite
  • popurls
  • wikipedia

Depending on your niche, it might be valuable to run through your top 2 to 500 referring domains looking for any obvious matches. You could also refer to Wikipedia’s list of popular social sites.

Test and name your segment

3To create a fully functional segment, you’ll want to test the logic you’ve created to be sure results are returning. Before you do that, though, Google Analytics requires naming your segment (I used “social media”):

Once it’s complete and working properly, click “save segment.” You’ll be returned to the prior screen with the segment ready to rumble.

Filter traffic by ‘social media’

4Your new segment is ready to be applied. You can now filter social media exclusively or see it in comparison to other traffic sources on any report in GA. Just use the advanced segments drop-down and choose “social media” under the custom segments list like so:

Of course, just having data is useless unless there’s some action you can take from it. Segmenting social traffic is useful for reporting, particularly to gauge value (if you have action tracking on commercial activities set up in GA, for example) and see growth/impact over time. But, there’s more you can learn than just raw traffic and conversions numbers.

Here’s some examples of reports I ran, along with the value/intelligence extracted from the data:


It can be tough to “see” the social sites between other referring domains, but once they’re broken out, combing through and finding the sites where your efforts are working is vastly more simple. If you then compare this against traffic “opportunity” from these sites (using a combination of traffic data and gut check), you’ll be able to find which sites have the greatest chance to improve. For SEOmoz, Facebook, LinkedIn, Reddit and Wikipedia stand out to me as places where we likely have more opportunity than we’re currently capturing.

This next chart compares search vs. social traffic over time:

If I’m looking to evaluate progress and make comparisons, this view is fairly useful. I can tell if my share of social media is growing or shrinking and how it compares to overall traffic and search individually. I’m only looking at a short timeframe here, but over the course of weeks or months, I can quickly gauge whether my efforts in social are paying off with traffic and whether they’re improving my performance in search engines (through new links, citations, etc). When someone asks if social helps search, showing these two segments over time can be persuasive.

Next, I’m reviewing the level of engagement of social media visitors:

At first, I can compare this against other segments (like “search” or “direct”) as a measure of comparative value. But I also want to compare this over time, particularly if I’m making tweaks to my site to encourage greater engagement and click-through to see if those efforts are successful.

Just because I’m curious, I’ll check out some browser stats:

Admittedly, this isn’t especially actionable, but it is fascinating to see the browser “savvy” of social users. Dominated by Firefox and Chrome with very little Internet Explorer use. If I’m trying to see what the cutting edge users are shifting toward, this is where to look. I suspect Rockmelt will soon be joining the list.

Finally, let’s peek at the pages social visitors see:

These are all potential opportunities to create more customized landing experiences based on the referrer path, and the report can also give me insight about what content I need to continue producing if I want to draw in more social traffic.

If social media marketing is a focus of your organization, segmenting that traffic in reporting is critical to determining the value of your efforts and improving. So get into Google Analytics, segment and start seeing your traffic for what it really is.

Rand Fishkin is the CEO & co-founder of SEOmoz. This post originally appeared at SEOmoz and is repub­lished with per­mis­sion. SEO­moz is not affil­i­ated with Socialmedia.biz and has not reviewed this trans­la­tion. SEO­moz pro­vides the Web’s best SEO tools and resources.

Segmenting Important Data through Advanced Segments (YOUmoz)

Social media marketing: Facebook & Twitter aren’t enough (Socialmedia.biz)

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11 thoughts on “How to analyze social traffic in Google Analytics

  1. Sorry for the coding glitch at the end of this article earlier today, fixed now. Another great guest post by Rand!

  2. Segments won't give you the whole truth. People using desktop apps or mobile will show up as “Direct source”.
    You need to use trackable URLs to have an accurate view of your Social Media trafic.

  3. This post offers a lot of great information. It’s extremely important to monitor your social media marketing strategies for two reasons. #1 – you need to know if your objectives are being met, your objectives being why you are using social media to market your business. #2 – you need to know whether or not you’re wasting valuable resources such as time and money. Using Google Analytics is an efficient way of doing this.

  4. This Information is very useful to who want so to know about their website tracking which type of results he getting from different strategies with organic or social media traffic .

    • This is not just important – this is a must-to-do if you want your site to be visited more often. This is where you track and gather analytical information. And I am thankful to google it gives google analytics for free!

  5. Very good writeup!

    You're forgetting to mention one important little thing: You can only track about 24% of twitter traffic by looking at referrer, the rest is counted as Direct traffic (as you mention in the beginning of the article).

    So if you use Twitter, it is very VERY important that you campaign tag any links that you post!

  6. Good tips; it's important for being able to track your social traffic as this is the future of the net, so best start focusing on it now.

  7. Hi there, thanks a lot for the juicy info in regards to google analytics social data analysis.

    I have a question for you guys.

    I have noticed that analytics provide features to check social data by default, under – Traffic Sources – Social and then under Social Visitor flow i can use other variables to check O/S's , browsers etc…

    Does this action you discuss in this post offers something extra?

    Many Thanks for your time