Groupon decided to de-index its site from Google for six hours one day “for the sake of SEO science,” wrote Gene McKenna, Groupon’s director of product management. The results indicate that nearly 60 percent of direct traffic is actually organic traffic from search.
When a site is de-indexed, it disappears from search results. In doing this, Groupon sought to shed light on the reliability of referrers, which report where visitors are coming from when they visit a website.
Browsers do not always report on the origins of visitors who land on a particular site; in many cases, such traffic is considered “direct traffic,” meaning the user is assumed to have arrived by typing in the URL or using a bookmark. Whether traffic is considered direct can depend on a number of factors, such as the user’s browser or operating system. It can also depend on how a user searches—via Google directly, or through a browser’s search box.
According to McKenna, “Getting a referrer is unreliable, which means organic traffic measurements are unreliable.”
During the six-hour period in which Groupon was de-indexed from search, the company analyzed organic search and direct traffic by hour and by browser to pages with long URLs, such as www.groupon.com/local/san-francisco/restaurants.
Groupon found that organic-search traffic fell to almost zero during this time. At the same time, however, the company noticed that direct traffic dropped by a noteworthy 60 percent.
In addition, Groupon found that some browsers were better than others at reporting traffic sources accurately; for example, desktop browsers were generally better than mobile browsers at reporting organic-search referrals. Among desktop browsers, Internet Explorer (IE) was the worst: 75 percent of the traffic that IE reports as direct is actually organic.
In light of the Groupon experiment, web presence management company Conductor recast a report on overall web traffic, giving organic-search traffic an even greater share. The updated study suggests organic traffic accounts for about 64 percent of website traffic, up from 47 percent reported in the original 2013 study.
The fact that organic-search traffic is underreported is significant for SEO content marketers, who need to know where traffic is coming from in order to evaluate their efforts and strategy. “In fact, there is arguably no single more important piece of information a search practitioner or marketing executive can have in budgeting, headcount, or strategy decisions,” said Nathan Safran, director of research at Conductor.
The Groupon experiment implies that the value of SEO marketing may be understated.
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